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For women, war has meant only hardship

Baghdad, April 29 (Reuters): The US-led war in Afghanistan was hailed as a triumph for the rights of women, but in Iraq women say liberation American-style has brought them little but hardship.

The fall of the hardline Islamic rule of the Taliban in 2001 meant big changes for Afghan women, allowing them to throw off the head-to-toe burqa, return to school or work and walk freely in the streets.

In Iraq, war has brought a different story. Women say US occupation has offered them few dividends in a secular society which already afforded women education and employment rights denied to millions of others across the Arab world.

“What kind of liberation is this'” asked Iman Abdul Jabar, a 23-year-old administrator at Baghdad University. “Saddam Hussein has gone, but now what' Now no one pays our salaries and it’s not safe to walk in the streets at night.”

Iraqi women went virtually unseen during the three-week war. Most were hunkered down indoors with their families, their main concern keeping their children out of the firing line.

In many Iraqi cities, the war was followed by looting and mayhem, water and electricity supplies were cut and food markets closed. “During the war I left this place with my children. There were many Iraqi soldiers around here and we knew there would be fighting,” said Suhad Ali Hassan, a 29-year-old mother of two small girls.

She was right. Suhad’s two-storey brick house close to Baghdad’s main airport on the edge of the capital was hit by a US tank shell. The top floor is now a pile of rubble. “No one has come to say they will help us. Now we are living in one room and we are scared because we think the house could fall down,” the primary school teacher said.

The house has no water and no electricity. Suhad’s husband is a tailor but says the security situation is still too bad for him to return to work.

Suhad’s school is closed and she is getting used to a harsh new routine — collecting water from the well, cooking outside on a brick stove and worrying about what she will do when her food stocks run out.

“All I want is a new government and some peace,” she said. “We are human like everyone else, we need a normal life like anyone would expect in any country.”

Under the secular administration of Saddam’s Baath Party, women worked as doctors, engineers, teachers and lawyers. Some held senior positions in government. In the cities, education standards were high.

But misrule and more than 12 years of UN sanctions took their toll. By the time war broke out, 60 per cent of Iraqis were dependent on food distribution under the UN oil-for-food programme. For Iraq’s poorest women, the rations were their only lifeline.

Their most pressing concern is when distributions will resume.

“We have no security and nothing in our houses,” said Haifa Rahim, a 53-year-old cleaner, wrapped in a black abaya robe.

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