- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

BAGHDAD — Shukria Ahmed Haider lives with her six children in the rundown, local morgue amid a city slum, the price for being a Shi’ite Muslim under Saddam Hussein.

Two years ago, she refused to let her son join Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, despite pressure to do so, and pulled him out of school. That decision cost the 42-year-old mother any chance to move her family out of the ghetto, but she says she has no regrets.

“You have to have values in life. Without values you are nothing,” she says, sitting on a thin carpet stretched across the only room she has, dressed in the traditional black abaya of Shi’ite Muslims.

White paint is peeling off the walls, and the pale brown brick building is barely standing around a bare inner courtyard. Mrs. Haider says she doesn’t mind that an adjacent room is used to prepare bodies for burial. She is simply grateful that the local mosque gave her refuge here.

Her house is just one more dilapidated building in the filthy alleys of a poor but proud Shi’ite neighborhood, where anti-Saddam graffiti is scrawled in red paint across walls.

“Saddam practiced the institutionalized ghettoization of the Shi’ites,” says Manal Omar, the head of the local branch of the nongovernmental organization Women for Women International (WWI).

“It was his way of keeping them down,” she says, while stepping around sewage spattered across a broken alley by the wheels of a horse-drawn wagon pulling drums of heating oil.

Mrs. Haider is one of thousands of women who suffered violent retribution under Saddam. Shi’ites, Kurds and anyone else who dared to defy or even annoy his regime were either killed, tortured or forced into squalor.

Most of the executed dissidents were men. Three wars in 15 years also took its toll, leaving behind a nation of widows.

Many have eight to 10 children to raise and therefore cannot work, or are too scared to work with the country’s largest employer — the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Twenty-two years ago, Somaya Fadil fell in love with a Briton, Tony Nichols, who worked for the mail company SkyPak. They had a daughter, Nelly, but lost contact with each other during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.

“If Saddam Hussein had known I was the child of a British man, he would have killed my whole family. My family hid everything, even my name,” says Nelly Hassan Fahih, whose green eyes and pink complexion cause her to stand out.

Most women interviewed tell of at least one family member killed and tortured by Saddam or his sons. Until now, they could not even mourn their dead for fear of retribution.

Girls were picked up off the street for the pleasure of Saddam’s sons, Qusai and Uday. Some women reportedly had raw meat rubbed on their bodies and were then fed alive to dogs.

“This is the first time they are able to confront what has happened in the past,” says Miss Omar, whose group works with poor women across Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities, teaching them job skills and awareness of human rights.

“A lot of women laugh and say they are schizophrenic, living double lives of what they felt inside and what they showed in public,” she says.

“It was a completely Orwellian society,” says Miss Omar, who lived in Baghdad from 1997 and 1998 before returning just months ago to work here with the WWI group. At the end of that year, she spent months speaking in a whisper, scared that someone would be listening.

Iraqis working with the United States on rebuilding Iraq are being killed by anti-U.S. forces, and countless more have been threatened.

Others lack any formal schooling or usable skills because Saddam let the educational system deteriorate as he maintained ornate palaces around the country.

Women often cannot depend on the traditional family network of help from working men because there are fewer men around and the unemployment rate is believed to be more than 50 percent.

In some areas, prostitution and the practice of selling women, already flourishing under Saddam as he sent millions of people into poverty, has soared.

Basrat Sandi, 46, a Kurd who was forced to relocate to southern Iraq, says that during the years of international sanctions that followed the Gulf war in 1991, parents were selling daughters into marriage for about $50.

“Farmers would marry girls to work on the farm,” she says.

“Men treated their women like cows, like sheep,” her husband, Shaho Kalim, agrees.

In Iraq, many marriages are arranged by the parents, and girls can get married as young as 14. Unmarried girls are chaperoned, and any girl or woman who spends time with a man alone is believed to have brought dishonor on herself and her family.

Poverty and the presence of coalition troops have complicated this tradition.

In one case, soldiers befriended a 14-year-old girl who spoke English and broke with tradition. She offered to fetch them soft drinks and do their laundry. She earned about $10 to $15 in tips — equaling several days’ salary for an average worker.

“When her family found out, her brother came and blew her away with an AK-47,” says one American familiar with the case.

Iraqi accountant Osami Ahmed Ali explains that the girl’s actions would have brought dishonor to the entire family.

Night raids on Iraqi homes, when the women are checked with a flashlight while in their bedclothes, also is seen as defiling the women and degrading the family.

But the arrival of U.S. forces and Saddam’s fall also has allowed women to push for a greater role in the country’s economic and political future.

“We suffered 35 years under Saddam’s regime. Now we can breathe fresh air: I can talk, discuss with men and go anywhere,” says Ahlam Hudayer, a middle-aged woman who acknowledges that she can not even write her own name.

“No one ever asked my opinion before, or showed me how to participate. My husband just told me to stay at home and be quiet,” adds Najiha Abdul Hassan, sitting cross-legged next to Mrs. Hudayer on the carpeted floor of a WWI meeting room. “But step by step we are changing.”

But Saddam’s oppression left some women too afraid, even today, to criticize or make their opinion heard in business and political circles. And street violence is forcing poorer women to once again take refuge inside their homes.

The incidence of rape, for example, usually perpetrated against the youngest girl in the family, went up dramatically after the war in a wave of tribal vengeance.

These girls typically wound up as victims of honor killings, says Miss Omar. Those who managed to escape were outcast from society.

The current fear of kidnapping and trafficking in young girls also has forced a number of families to pull their daughters out of school.

Miss Omar, who has worked around the Middle East as well as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, says as U.S. troops moved in women were full of hope, leading them to talk about the horrors in their past.

But as security, basic services and jobs remain out of grasp and violence rises, that elation has gradually given way to the feeling nothing will ever get better.

Working with the poorest, WWI tries to move women from being victims to survivors to active members of society — a transition that demands not only job skills but an entire psychological transformation.

“We need time. It takes a long time,” Mrs. Hudayer says.

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