- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

Muslim fanatics in Iraq have begun threatening and in some cases killing women who work outside the home and refuse to wear the traditional, all-covering black abaya.

Though the strength of the campaign is not clear, some fear it represents an attempt by militants to suppress women’s participation in January’s elections.

“Some are threatened that if they show up again in Western clothes they will be killed or hurt,” said Heather Coyne, the lead representative for the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) in Baghdad.

Ms. Coyne said she also knew of a few cases in which female leaders had been abducted from their homes.

Manal Omar, the Iraq director for the nongovernmental organization Women for Women International, said she personally knew of three cases in which politically active women had been slain or kidnapped.

Ms. Omar spoke of one woman in Diwaniyah in southern Iraq who was shot in front of her house. The woman had no ties to the U.S.-led coalition but had been active in working with women in local communities.

In Baghdad, a female news anchor was killed and another woman who had been active on Baghdad’s local governing council has disappeared.

“Many professional women have stopped working. They are being forced to stay home,” said Ms. Omar, who, after living in Iraq about a year, now makes only quick visits to the country.

Over the past year, dozens of women working for coalition forces, international companies involved in the country’s reconstruction effort, or active in their local communities have been fatally shot.

In one case in southern Iraq over the summer, female workers were shot while in a bus, but the male bus driver was not attacked.

“Women are the benchmark for where the society is going to go,” said Zainab Salbi, head of Women for Women International, which has worked in Iraq since 2003.

“They target women because they want them back home,” said Ms. Salbi, an Iraqi exile who has been to her home country seven times since May 2003.

“Women are getting attacked in a way that is against centuries of tradition of how women are viewed. They traditionally were immune to violence — this is the first time that these rules are broken,” she said.

“I also saw this happen in Afghanistan when the Taliban emerged. Women are the softest entry into the society.”

Ms. Salbi told of various incidents she knew of, including one of a friend who insisted on driving her own car, dressing in Western clothes and running her pharmacy business despite threats.

She recently was found at the side of the road with a bullet through her head, which had been wrapped in a Muslim-style scarf, and the decapitated body of her Christian business partner was next to her, Ms. Salbi said.

Forcing women back into the home also could have a significant impact on Iraq’s upcoming elections, both by affecting voter turnout and by terrorizing women into not running for office. According to election advisers working in Iraq, a third of the candidates must be women.

“[Women] are more than 50 percent of Iraq, and clearly they are not going to go along with a theocratic state,” explained Daniel Serwer, director of peace and stability operations at USIP.

“From the point of view of the insurrection, [women] have become an important target because it will help slow the move toward a democratic Iraq,” Mr. Serwer said.

“You can see that in Afghanistan — when women came out and voted in big numbers — it changes the mood and direction of the country,” he said.

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