Modern Day Harriet Tubmans Help Iraqi Women Escape Violence

09/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

For the past six years, the daily headlines have been dominated by the war in Iraq and the political and social turmoil and widespread violence among Iraqi sectarian groups. Relatively removed from the reality of the war, Americans' attention has been primarily concerned with the number of deaths and injuries among American troops, and to a lesser extent, the impact on our military families, who carry the burden of sacrifice for the rest of the country.

Far from the headlines, there is another conflict going on in Iraq. Rarely reported in this country is the impact of the chaos on the Iraqi civilian population. Iraqis have lived without regular access to basic services like electricity and drinkable water for over six years. But the impact of the war has been particularly devastating to the women of Iraq.

Since the war began in 2003, according to international humanitarian agency, Oxfam, approximately 740,000 women have become widowed, thousands more have been left without fathers or brothers to protect them.

An unprotected woman in Iraq is extremely vulnerable. Women are being targeted for systematic violence specifically because of their gender. Until the U.S. invasion, rape was relatively rare in Iraq. In 2008, Amnesty International reported that "crimes specifically aimed at women and girls, including rape, have been committed by members of Islamist armed groups, militias, Iraqi government forces, foreign soldiers within the U.S.-led Multinational Force, and staff of foreign private military security contractors."

Most of these crimes against women have been committed with impunity since there are no laws governing rape in Iraq and the government does not keep record of rape cases.

Once a woman has been assaulted, she is subject to further discrimination and violence at the hands of her own family. Unless she runs away and is able to find shelter, often having to be smuggled out of the country, an Iraqi woman faces the prospect of being further victimized by the Iraqi system of "honor killings", in which the family seeks to restore honor by "washing its honor in her blood".

No one knows how many so called "honor killings" have taken place since the war began, but activists in Iraq and abroad believe it's thousands. In 2005 alone, over 2000 girls were raped according to Yanar Muhammed, a partner and director of the Organization For Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), a non-profit group that partners with MADRE, an international human rights organization for women, to provide a network of safe havens for women fleeing violence.

Like Harriet Tubman, a former African American slave who escaped the plantation and later helped create the network of underground routes that helped transport other slaves to freedom, OWLI and MADRE have co-founded two important projects that are helping Iraqi women flee violence. The Safe Houses project and the Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women provide emergency shelter for women in danger of "honor killings", and other forms of domestic violence and sex trafficking.

Diana Duarte, a spokeswoman for MADRE, told me that to date, they have established six shelters located in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Nasariyeh, and Erbil and are hoping to establish three additional shelters in 2009 if funding is available.

In addition to providing safe haven, the shelters offer skill-building workshops, education and leadership training to help equip women become active participants in the political process and support other women.

The Underground Railroad For Iraqi Women

Last spring, freelance reporter and former writer for the Boston Globe, Anna Badkhen, and photojournalist Mimi Chakarova, under protection of darkness and with security escorts, paid a visit to one of the safe houses in Baghdad's underground shelter system. Their report, Baghdad Underground, documents their visit to the shelter and appears in the August 4th issue of Ms. Magazine. Their report, Living In Hiding, also appears on the PBS Frontline /World series, Stories From A Small Planet.

What Badkhen and Chakarova discovered in their visit is chilling. Some facts:

Murder in Iraq is punishable by 15 years in prison.

Honor killing is punishable by 3-6 months in prison. Sometimes the men are let go because Iraqi law does not protect rape victims.

Very few women confront their rapist or file charges because they're either afraid of the stigma or of being raped again by police officers.

Violence against women is not sectarian. It's "everybody against everybody" according to Badkhen. In 2006, women could be pulled out of their cars and executed for driving. In 2007, they could be executed for not covering themselves properly or for walking outside without a male to accompany them.

In the summer of 2008, Oxfam conducted a survey of Iraqi women affected by the conflict in an attempt to determine the challenges they face and the kind of humanitarian assistance they need. 1700 women from various provinces across the country responded to the survey and reported their conditions had worsened since 2007.

Here's what the survey found:

• Nearly 60 per cent of women said that safety and security continued to be their number
one concern despite improvements in overall security in Iraq
• 55 per cent had been a victim of violence since 2003; 22 per cent of women had been
victims of domestic violence; More than 30 per cent had family members who died
• 45 per cent of women said their income was worse in 2008 compared with 2007 and 2006
• 33 per cent had received no humanitarian assistance since 2003
• 76 per cent of widows said they did not receive a pension from the government
• Nearly 25 per cent of women had no daily access to drinking water and half of those who
did said it was not potable; 69 per cent said access to water was worse or the same as it
was in 2006 and 2007
• One-third of respondents had electricity three hours or less per day; two-thirds had six
hours or less;
• Nearly half of women said access to quality healthcare was more difficult in 2008
compared with 2006 and 2007
• 40 per cent of women with children reported that their sons and daughters were not
attending school

These statistics point to a deteriorating situation for women and for the people of Iraq, even as American troops are gradually leaving the country.

Following is a slide show filmed by Mimi Chakarova at the shelter she and Badkhen visited in Baghdad. What you're about to see is not being reported on the nightly news. You might find this story disturbing. It's also very real. The narrator is Chakarova. Please watch:

I contacted Anna Badkhen to ask how people might get involved to support these women. She responded, "MADRE and OWFI are renting low-key apartments to house the shelters. Last month the Iraqi government allowed OWFI to run one "hospitality house," without specifying that it's a shelter for women -- so it basically tacitly allowed the organization to have a shelter without calling it a shelter, and without specifically giving permission."

This is hopeful. And it's a drop in the bucket. So much more is needed. This is where you and I come in. Independently of this report, I've been reflecting on the work of Harriet Tubman and the audacity she showed in no longer being willing to be enslaved. She escaped the plantation because in her mind, she was already free. The rest of her journey was about bringing that mental construct into fruition. The spirit of Harriet Tubman lives on today through organizations like OWFI and MADRE and through people like you.

You can help fund the work being done to support Iraqi women find freedom by sending donations to MADRE . Your donations will help MADRE and OWFI continue their work as modern day Harriet Tubmans.

OWFI's founding statement declares: "There is a huge emancipatory and secular force in this society that aims at achieving freedom and a better life for women . . . Women in Iraq deserve another kind of life; one that is full of freedom, equality and prosperity." May it be so.

My thanks to Anna Badkhen for her stellar reporting and raising awareness on this issue, for her body of work as a foreign correspondent, for her 13 trips to Iraq since the war began and for becoming my newest Facebook friend. You can read her report on Hope For Abused Iraqi Women here or pick up the latest issue of Ms. magazine.

And my thanks to you, dear readers, for being here. I hope you'll continue to come along on this journey to bring to our collective awareness those things that touch the soul and shine a light on the human condition. Sometimes they're are not always pretty or happy, but neither should we turn our backs or look away. For within our collective suffering lies the path to our collective freedom.

May the spirit of Harriet Tubman bring freedom to all who are enslaved.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on this topic. Please also visit my personal blog and website: Rx For The Soul at You can leave personal messages for me there or send me a friend request on Facebook and let me know you're a reader.

Blessings on the path.