Iraq: 10 years on

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20 March marks 10 years since the Iraqi conflict began. Stylist hears the stories of the women who have endured the chaos of the past decade.

Case Studies: Dina Mousawi and Victoria Brittain, Photos: Rex Features

Ten years ago, the world was poised for a war it didn’t believe in. On 15 February 2003, millions around the globe protested against the invasion of Iraq. It made little difference. On 20 March the US Army, an initial force of an estimated 100,000 amassed in Kuwait and invaded Iraq.

But while we read of the attacks on Iraq’s cities and followed the chase for Saddam, we rarely heard stories of the citizens who had been trapped in their home towns, by both invading forces and rebel insurgents. And as the conflict progressed, we were still unclear if life had improved for Iraqi women, just as the advocates of the war Bush and Blair had promised us.

Because while the country fell to the US Army in just days, what emerged out of the power vacuum was more detrimental to its people than anyone could predict. The Sunni minority – to which Saddam belonged – was suddenly left without protection from Iraq’s Shia majority (around 60% of the population). The Kurds, who make up around 17% of Iraqi society and had been persecuted under Saddam, pushed for greater recognition as Iraq rebuilt.

Religious militias rose, forcing their conservative views on Iraqis, dictating how women dressed, how they behaved and curtailing freedom so greatly that women no longer dared to leave the house to buy food.

Then came the fear of the occupying forces – around 165,000 US and 46,000 British soldiers at their peak; stood in strange uniforms with eyes behind helmet visors and strapped with guns, issuing orders in foreign accents and ready to return violence in seconds. Horror stories of the systematic rape of detained women, along with beatings, burnings and other torture methods began to emerge in 2004. Trying to survive in such hostility is hard to imagine; exactly why the UN estimates 2.2million Iraqis have fled since 2003.

ABOVE: Iraqi women head to polling stations in Baghdad under armed guard in 2005

In 2011, Middle East deputy director Joe Stork from Human Rights Watch, an organisation dedicated to protecting human rights, summed it up thus: “Women and girls have borne the biggest brunt of this conflict and resulting insecurity […] for Iraqi women, who enjoyed some of the highest levels of rights protection and social participation in the region before 1991, this has been an enormously bitter pill to swallow.”

Because there was a time when Iraqi women were some of the most educated in the Gulf (the literacy rate for young women was 80% versus 85% for men) and prior to the 1991 Gulf War, UNESCO claimed Iraq had one of the highest education standards in the world. It was liberal compared to its neighbours – the Ba’athist government in which Saddam was part, but not yet leader, legislated away from Sharia law freeing women from old, tribal rules. Women were granted equal rights in matters of inheritance and divorce and women became engineers, accountants, and doctors. Opportunities did diminish as Saddam became more tyrannical, but while there was intimidation and fear, there was also safety, if you played by the rules.

In 2011, a Zogby opinion poll found 42% of Iraqis felt they were “worse off” as a result of the invasion. Remember too, this war was based on the belief held by the US and UK governments that Iraq was harbouring weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which we now know, thanks to a 2005 CIA report, was simply not true. Hans Blix, the lead weapons inspector who publicly protested the timing of the invasion, accused both governments of dramaticising the threat to make the case for war more robust. Vocal remonstrance from the French, German, New Zealand and Canadian governments and the largest civilian anti-war protest the world has ever seen did little to halt the process that, according to the Iraq Body Count project, has claimed the lives of over 120,000 people.

The US forces finally left Iraq on 18 December 2011 under huge pressure from both the American and Iraqi people, but that didn’t mean the country was left in peace. Iraq is now under Shia rule but the nation is still divided under Sunni, Shia and Kurdish lines. There is fear the Kurds want independence and the expectation that the Sunnis will never settle under a Shia government, giving rise to the uneasy forecasts of a fractured state. Not only that, the Iraqi people have been left with the fallout of 10 years of war. Homes have been ravaged, families have been torn apart through exile, kidnapping and death, and for most Iraqi women, any semblance of a normal life was put on hold for an entire decade, destroying even simple dreams such as a career and a family.

Even so, it’s hard to imagine living with war and occupation. So Stylist spoke to Iraqi women who bore witness to the last 10 years.

"I didn’t like Saddam but the Americans are worse than him"

Shahd Orfali is a 23-year-old student who was born and raised in Baghdad until 2005. She is currently studying in Canada

"I was 13 when the war started. I was asleep in my room when my mum woke me up at 5am saying, ‘Shahd I can hear aeroplane sounds so it’s safer if we go downstairs.’ When the sirens started I got the giggles. I was scared and nervous. I couldn’t believe that when you hear sirens, you never know if you’re going to get hit or not.

Eventually our area was evacuated and we went to live at my granddad’s. After three months we started back at school but they had made it into a weaponry headquarters. My school! I found bombs and things broken, like a soldier’s hat on the floor; no-one had even moved them.

In 2004 I began grade 8. By this time my school had become an election station and we heard there had been an explosion at the school; a man came in disguised as a pregnant woman and blew himself up. I went to my class and my desk was by the window, I looked out and saw the skin of someone’s face stuck on the window with blood on. I even saw the hair from his beard sticking out. So I told the teacher, really casually, that they had forgotten to clean the windows. Just like that.

The violence peaked in 2005. You just didn’t feel safe. You never knew whether there could be an explosion; whether someone would just take you in the streets; ‘Maybe I’ll get killed, maybe not’. One of my friends just disappeared. It turned out her brother had been kidnapped by a gang.

One by one all my friends left [Baghdad] and in the end I had a breakdown because I was the only one left. So we went to Jordan. It was only when I got there that I felt safe. There was electricity, water, you could leave when you wanted.

Today, if someone asks me if I liked Saddam, the answer is no, but the Americans are worse. [Living in Iraq] you had no choice but to love Saddam. We didn’t talk about him until after the war. You couldn’t. Before [the conflict], when you picked up the phone, instead of the ring tone you’d get a recorded voice saying, “Congratulations to president Saddam for winning 100%”; like they were brainwashing the people.

I was convinced Iraq would beat America. I wanted us to win. When the US entered Baghdad and the statue fell, I thought Saddam was going to come out from behind the sofa! When they took him to court, I was fed up. He was the president. He ruled Iraq for a long time and shouldn’t have been treated like that. It’s as simple as that. He did a lot of bad things but a lot of good things too. I can’t watch the video of Saddam’s execution. I don’t want to. It’s too early even now."

"Now the Iraqi woman is educated, ambitious and likes to work"

Farah Hassani, 34, lives in Baghdad and works at the non-governmental organisation Iraq Health Aid Organisation (IHAO)

"You’re going to hear different stories. There’ll be some who say they prefer Saddam’s times, but for me, life is better now than it was before the war. Now we get better work opportunities. We have people going to America, Australia, London and Malaysia to do PhDs. [During Saddam’s days] employees only got 3,000 dinars a month [£1.70] which meant you didn’t have enough to pay bus fares or your rent so most women just left school and got married. Now the Iraqi woman is educated, ambitious and likes to work. Before 2008 we had to be in the house by 5pm; 6pm meant risking your life. Now we go out when we want. And we have lots of dating places, like the park and the café whereas before it was difficult if anyone saw a girl and guy together.

In 2002, when people started saying there was going to be a war, we got all our papers, passports, documents and money ready in one bag. Still, I never thought Saddam would go. The mantra was that Saddam was powerful and strong.

At the beginning of the occupation I lived with my aunts in Ghazalia [a neighbourhood in west Baghdad], a mainly Sunni area, which was badly affected. We couldn’t go out to the markets because anyone [militia, your neighbour, mujahideen] could come and kill you. If you saw a civilian who had been shot and took them to hospital in your car the mujahideen [jihadists] would come and kill you too. We had to wear special clothes – a jubba [a floor-length tunic] in either black or blue and a hijab was compulsory at all times. Trousers and skirts were not allowed. Women were not allowed to drive; if mujahideen saw a woman driving they’d beat her until her relatives came out of the house. We all received letters saying any woman who drove had given up her religion. If a young girl on a school bus wasn’t hijabed they’d stop the bus and shout at her. They killed a young hairdresser in his shop because you had to grow your beard. They killed a man who sold tubs of frozen water because they’d say that during the prophet’s time, there wasn’t such a thing as ice! We were afraid to leave the house. Our cooking changed because we only went shopping once a week so we didn’t have the right ingredients.

Ghazalia was and still is a mainly Sunni area and we are Shia so we had to get out. My sister received a note from the mujahideen saying if they didn’t leave the house in 48 hours they would be killed. My sister left first. I decided to go to Syria, my aunt went to Jordan, and my other aunt went to Yemen. So we were all separated. It was difficult. We left our homes, our things, we left everything.”

"Now there are hundreds of dictators and hundreds of Saddams everywhere"

Awezan Nuri, 31, lives in Kirkuk in northeastern Iraq and is a poet and women’s rights activist

"A group of us started Organisation Of Violence Against Women after the fall [of Iraq], to push for women’s rights and to have a shelter in Kirkuk. Unfortunately in the Middle East and especially in Iraq we don’t have any laws for women’s rights. And there is no system in place for protecting women against domestic violence or masculine ways of thinking. Violence affects everyone in Iraq, especially women and in all contexts – in social, political, economic, media and law there is abuse of women.

It’s particularly rife in Kirkuk because it’s like a small Iraq. It consists of people from all different origins and religions. After the fall, everyone started taking the law into their own hands. During Saddam’s days, yes, there was safety and security, yes there were laws, yes people were afraid of a gunshot and no-one was allowed to have weapons. But with that came the secret police who worked inside the organisations. I’m Kurdish and the Ba’ath regime hurt us a lot. I wasn’t allowed to speak or study in my own language, I couldn’t buy a house in my name because the Kurds didn’t have freedom or rights, but still, the people were much safer than they are now.

Before we had one dictator – Saddam; if someone gets imprisoned we know it’s [because of] Saddam, if someone dies we know its Saddam, if someone gets executed we know it’s Saddam, we always knew where it was coming from. Now there are hundreds of dictators and hundreds of Saddams everywhere. There are now a lot of differences in Iraq – psychological wars, religious wars, sectarian wars, political wars. Everyone thinks of their own kind. So people have got scared when killings or kidnappings happen, because they don’t know where it’s coming from. They don’t know who their enemy is. There are no laws now and everyone has a gun in their house. Nobody can criticise anyone else because they might get killed.

I see the rest of the world and how people are living a simple, happy life and I think, ‘Why aren’t we like that? What have we done to deserve this? Why are we living with death and bombs and killings?’ Everything we think about, talk about, write about is about wars and killing. I sometimes think about my daughter and feel so sorry for her – she has lived her whole life like this, she hasn’t seen a happy life. I think about when she grows up and gets married, what stories will she tell her children? Only about war, like my mother before me."

"Baghdad today is a city of bereaved women"

Haifa Zangana was born in 1950 in Iraq but left in 1975. She lives in London with her husband and works as a novelist and journalist

"Baghdad is a city of bereaved women. Wherever I write, I try to tell people how Iraqi women’s lives have been devastated by the Western wars on my country in 1991 and 2003, and the 13 years of sanctions in between.

It is a long time since I was a young Communist, imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein in 1972. I owe my life, and my release, to my mother. She kept a vigil every day, with my sister outside the prison, and tried every day to get the guards to accept food and clothes for me. The guards said for months no prisoner existed with my name but my mother wore them down, and I came home after six months in Abu Ghraib prison.

The 2003 war could only ever have been a catastrophe. The foreign occupation has given cover to a regime without interest in human rights, women, democracy – all the things that were promised.

Daily life now [for Iraqi women] is dealing with the economic collapse, being intimidated even in the family, being shut out of public life and losing autonomy. Forced prostitution and trafficking for sexual purposes are a product of this economic crisis.

Women can never stop thinking of the arrests and assassinations of other women going on – these are a way of getting to the men in their family. Perhaps worst of all is the epidemic of rape in prisons. Rape by Occupation and Iraqi forces has been a leitmotif of these years, and despite reports by human rights organisations, it has somehow never been understood as the horror it is. Since December [2012], 25 Iraqi cities have been full of demonstrations, people sleeping in the streets and squares, protesting about women prisoners, holding placards saying, ‘Release our women’. The inhuman practices of the old regime are still there.

I live in London now, but I am always on the phone to family and friends in Iraq, and I collect endless terrible stories. For instance, young men are frequently stopped by police or militias, and only released when their parents pay a ransom. Baghdad has 1,400 checkpoints today, and they are used by these violent security forces for corruption, and for the casual humiliation of women."

"My father was executed by Saddam"

May Wasfi Tahir left Iraq in the mid- Sixties, is widowed and lives in Paris. She has worked as a journalist and a lecturer

"Ten years ago, I was expecting disaster. Of course the Americans and the British never came with any genuine intentions to help our country, whatever their words about bringing democracy. They came to dominate and destroy my country. They had brought Saddam to power, the Ba’ath were shaped by the CIA, they were arming Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war [1980 and 1988]. Saddam Hussein had destroyed our world and its promise long before we got to 2003. Iraqi women used to be the most progressive women. And I never saw sectarianism and division in Iraq until 1989, then I saw what Saddam had done, destroying our personality. He gave us the war with Iran, the Kuwait situation. He was stupid, mad, an idiot, a megalomanic.

We can’t forget how our suffering all started with him. My father was assassinated in the military coup against Abdul Karim Qassim in 1963 that brought Saddam Hussein to power. My mother saw two of her daughters condemned to death by Saddam Hussein, and she dreamed of seeing Saddam Hussein killed. She was never even given our father’s body after his death. When Saddam Hussein was hanged in 2006, my mother had been dead for a year. But when I saw those last days and the manner of his death, it meant only shame. It was a shame for the Iraqi government, and very sad for him – I thought he lost Iraqi dignity.

After 2003 some of my cousins and one of my sisters went back. They are trying to do things for orphans, the many widows, the divorced women, but it is very hard. Everything is a mess. The people in charge now are putting women back 100 years, no, to the Middle Ages. I can’t imagine I could go back there. The government has brought the dominance of religion and that means I would have no freedom as a woman to go about alone. After all these years there is something missing inside me – there are no words."

"People imagine Iraqi women as always in a hijab, uncultured and uneducated"

Sabreen Kathim, 23, was born and lives in Baghdad. She is a poet and reporter for Al Hurra TV

"When I go abroad people are surprised I’m Iraqi. They have this opinion that we are always wearing black, always in a hijab, uncultured, uneducated. The media focuses on poor suffering women but they don’t film a beautiful, elegant woman going out shopping with her husband and children. But there is another side to Iraq. I’m liberal, I’m educated, I want to be free.

Despite this, Iraq is not better since the war. We have lost our communities, our ability to live together. The contentment we had with one another, regardless of which religious group you belonged to, has gone. The nation is going backwards. The lying, destruction and corruption we see in Iraq means there isn’t a good economy, no buildings, no improvement in education.

The moment we heard the Americans were going to enter Iraq in 2003, people started imagining and dreaming that Saddam Hussein would go. But the people didn’t want the Americans to enter. There’s a difference.

I saw a lot of Americans during the occupation. The kids were afraid of them because they were tall and big with weapons, wireless [radio mics] and sunglasses. But they [the US government] tried to portray a good picture of the armies occupying the cities – one of the ways was to give out sweets to the children. Every house had that sweet, that’s how you knew the Americans had been. They liked to learn Iraqi words from us. We have a very colloquial word, Ishtah, which means ‘go, move, get lost’ and you’d hear them in residential areas shouting “Ishtah, ishtah, ishtah.” And they’d dance in the streets with us. But this only happened after the US attacks on civilians, when people had become nervous of them. In fact, I think after that their orders had changed. Before they were rough and strict and kept their distance.

When you go into Baghdad now the city is covered with black flags. You hear religious recordings everywhere. Life is tough here now. When I go to Karada [a poor, religious area] they see me as very different because they are not used to seeing a woman without a hijab. They are not used to a woman who has male friends. They are not used to a woman going to a coffee shop. I went into one full of men and everyone was immediately silenced.

I don’t want to emigrate. I want to stay here but I find it difficult, I’m tired of always fighting. I love Baghdad but it’s a man’s society. They want women to be submissive and if she wants to be independent and enjoy life they call her (in English) a bitch. We still have a tribal society where a woman is not allowed to do anything or ‘interfere’ in daily life. This isn’t equality."

Interviews with Awezan Nuri, Sabreen Kathim, Shahd Orfali and Farah Hassani by Dina Mousawi whose play on the Iraq war, Return, by London company 3Fates is showing at Aat International Festival in Jordan, and in London later this year. Visit for details. Interviews with May Wasfi Tahir and Haifa Zangana by Victoria Brittain, former associate foreign editor of The Guardian, a consultant to the UN on the impact of war on women, and on children, and author of Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women Of The War On Terror (£14.99, Pluto Press)


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