I'm sitting by the Tigris River in Baghdad on a hot July evening. The air is still, the dust has settled, and the call for prayers is echoing over the river as it reflects lights from relatively new restaurants. I visited my mother's grave yesterday and learned that her tombstone was destroyed by a missile two years ago in one of the clashes between the militias and the US troops. "Not even the dead are spared from the bombings in Iraq," I thought to myself. But at least my mother is not witnessing the pain many Iraqi women are witnessing as they try to find space for themselves in the "new Iraq."
Few of the women of my mother's generation -- a generation of educated women who have worked in all different sectors of the country -- are still holding on. They are few -- many professional women who were doctors, professors and journalists were assassinated in the past seven years as part of what I believe is a larger, strategic approach by extremist militias to "cleanse" Iraqi society of its intellectual and professional elite. Those who have survived the killings and the temptation to leave the country in search of a safer place to live have either retreated within the home or taken advantage of quotas that have opened opportunities for women to become members of the Iraqi parliament.
Today in Iraq, women have no one unified reality. At the same time as many women increase participation in the political sector -- Iraq's Parliament and local councils are required to have 25 percent female representation -- thousands more are experiencing brutal hardship and extreme poverty. There are now more destitute women in Iraq than ever before -- estimates of the number of war widows range from one to three million. These and other socially and economically marginalized women are vulnerable and at high risk of trafficking, organized and forced prostitution, polygamy, domestic violence, and being recruited as suicide bombers, something that the society is still trying to process and understand. In a single day's journey around Baghdad, one can see all these many and conflicting realities of Iraqi women -- that was my day today.
I spent an hour stuck in horrible traffic, a new phenomenon originating in the construction of the highly-secured, international "Green Zone" (which now occupies one quarter of the city) and the imposition of a 5 percent tax by the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) on all imported goods that led to a skyrocketing of imported cars without any inspection. In this useless hour, I read an article about women and girls in prison and how most of them are victims of trafficking advertised as the prospect of arranged marriages in Syria. They leave the country with their parents' blessings, thinking they are sparing their daughters from the violence inside the country. By the time the daughters realize the very husband they married is actually their captor and trafficker, it is too late. They are trapped, with no money, no communication and no papers. When illness or some other ailment incapacitates the victims, the traffickers send them back to Iraq, where they are arrested either for false documents or prostitution. Both punishments lead to at least six years in prison. The traffickers are out free and more women are forced into prostitution, mostly in Gulf countries, in Iraq itself or its prisons.
By the time I arrive at Women for Women International's office, I see a woman in her fifties waiting for me to interview her for a job at Women for Women International. She had been a social worker for 25 years, worked in Sadr City throughout most of her professional career and is passionate and loving about the people in Sadr city, never questioning the fact that she is a "Sunni" woman working in a "Shia" neighborhood. She tells me, "That was the old Iraq. We worked, drove, traveled, went to universities, to parties, no one questioned us. Today, I find it hard to get my spirit back. I saw too many dead bodies and too much suffering. It was worse than the war with Iran, worse than the first Gulf War, worse even than the last Gulf War is our own civil war. That's when I stopped leaving my home. I don't know how to make sense of things anymore," she explains with a sigh.
I left the interview with a heavy heart, and asked my colleague about how she felt about what is happening in the country. "They are trying to shake us," she said, "They are trying to make us lose hope with all the increases in bombings since the public withdrawal of American troops, but we won't let them do that. We will hold on to our hope, Zainab." In her response, I hear her frustration with the various militias who are behind the increase in bombings in the country. I'm inspired by her ability to hold on to hope. But not everyone is holding on to that hope.
Leaving the office, I met a friend for lunch. She is an activist for whom I have deep respect; she has never left Iraq, has survived and persevered through all of the challenges. She continues her activism and her work to sustain and support the voices of women, but today I see she is giving up. "It's not only the bombing." she explains. "It's not only the lack of electricity. All of these things we got used to. It is much more about the corruption you see in the country, the lack of vision, of leadership, of something to hold us to each other, to the country. I am witnessing a country where the corruption is eating it alive and is giving a chance to militias to destroy it even further. I think I have hit my limit." I can hear the defeat in her voice; so few of the older, educated, middle class women are holding on -- I have the deepest respect for the integrity and the dedication of those who do.
My friend's daughters were listening to our conversation at lunch. They are college kids, among the few in their universities who do not wear headscarves -- the current-day popularity of the headscarf among young women is something entirely new to me and my memories growing up in Iraq. They took advantage of a pause in conversation to ask me about the life I had led in the Iraq of 20 years ago.
Eagerly, they peppered me with questions intended to confirm their mother's stories of a less conservative time where women moved freely in the public sphere: "Did you really drive to college? Is it true that most women did not wear a headscarf? Is it true that most girls did not get married until they graduated from college? Is it true that most women were working?"
It broke my heart to hear their questions, for I realized that there is a whole generation of women and men who don't even remember that this era of freedom and stability ever existed. My friend's daughters are part of the privileged class. They are going to university and not questioning their rights to do so. But there are many girls their age from different sectors of society who are not even going to school, and hence are growing up illiterate. Many are getting married as teenagers and dropping out of school, while their mothers didn't get married until they graduated from college. Many don't remember how their mothers traveled, worked, danced, and sang in the 50s, and the 60s and 70s.
I leave my lunch to visit one of the participants in Women for Women International's program, one of the millions of widows in Iraq. Her husband was killed on a Friday afternoon as she was preparing lunch in the kitchen.
He was playing with their sons. They heard an explosion outside. When they ran out to see what happened, a missile landed on him, killing him instantly and injuring all four sons. "My life was changed in a second from a happily married woman to a widow, a poor woman, with no support whatsoever," she explains. I asked her if anybody besides Women for Women International is helping her, and I was surprised by her answer: "Poverty has changed much of our culture," she says. "My in-laws told me they are too poor to help me and my four sons. My own parents told me the exact same thing. So I had no hope but to manage on my own. I taught myself basic nursing techniques to save money on my kids' medical needs after each surgery they had to undergo to correct damage caused by the explosion. I sold all that I had to open a mini store in front of the house where my kids and I work so we can earn some living. With Women for Women's help I now have a job as a candle maker."
When I asked her what she thinks Iraqi widows need, she whispers slowly that she doesn't like it when people refer to her as a widow. "It makes me feel like a victim and I don't want to feel that. I struggle to keep my smile going for my boys every day. I don't want the society to victimize me when I refuse to be victimized. All I need is opportunities to stand on my feet and send my boys to school so they may finish their college. They have seen a lot you know, and they are good boys." I turn to her 11 year-old son and see tears in his eyes. He remembers the day his father was killed, how his life changed, how his mother is struggling to keep them all well. He asked me if I wanted to read one of the poems he wrote for his mother and all the widows of Iraq. Perhaps only in youth do we have such hope for a better future for Iraq, I think to myself.
I finally decide to return home. As with every drive, there are tens of check points where the soldiers are holding a machine to check if the car has a bomb or not. They often ask the driver if he has any arms in the car. I always find this question weird, as I would be surprised if anyone admitted they have weapons that are most likely not registered. Almost every one has weapons nowadays.
You are also not supposed to use your cell phone when passing the check point -- a rule that I forgot and was quickly reminded of by the inspecting soldiers. They asked me to get out of the car and go to the women's check point to be checked. I walked calmly to one room by the side road where there is a woman sitting inside, waiting to body search women sent by the soldiers outside. I try to start a light-hearted conversation: "Why bother to search women; it is the men in this country who are causing all the trouble." I say this with a light tone, only to be surprised and informed of another reality of Iraqi women: "No sister," she tells me with a sad face. "Many women are suicide bombers these days. Just the other day, two women exploded themselves in front of the mosque, on two separate occasions. I saw the dead bodies myself in one of the bombings. I saw flying shoes and slippers of kids who had exploded, body parts and all. I couldn't eat for days and I still don't know what to make out of these women," she says. I don't either. I leave the check point with a teary eye at the pain of the country and what it is witnessing from its men and women.
Many years ago, I was sitting next to my cousin's wife, a woman aggrieved by the loss of her child in the war. A Black Hawk helicopter was flying on top of us as we were sitting in her backyard and sipping some tea. She looked up at the helicopter and said, "Kill me. Kill me and spare me from all the pain I am witnessing." I never forgot that moment of the raw grief of a mourning mother. I find myself remembering it particularly on a day like today, a day in which I have heard not just a mourning mother but the voices of many mourning women, voices that lament hearts broken in pain for themselves, their families, their futures and their country.
Another sandstorm makes its way through the city one more time. I can see it in the distance, taking over the green that once surrounded the city, trees and flowers. Another kind of sandstorm seems to be overtaking the pained hearts of Iraqi women, blocking out the sun over the entire country. I better go inside -- maybe tomorrow will be a better day. Maybe women will once again have the strength to keep themselves, their families and their nation going. They are in need of a new reality. The world must support them. We must stand strong with our Iraqi sisters.