Kafia Mohamed and her daughter Berivan

BAGHDAD, Iraq (WOMENSENEWS)–Cheman Abrahim, 32, spends as little time as possible at home in her village near the Iranian border in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq.

The inside of her house in Byara reminds her too much of the two years she endured when the Taliban-like Ansar al-Islam holy warriorscontrolled her village and she was not allowedto leave her house without wearing a large,black abbaya, a gown and headdress, work, socialize, or watch television.

She is one of many women here stepping ever so carefully into the new Iraq–where old hatreds and beliefs often hold sway and new ideas and the desire for peace are struggling to take hold while basic needs are often unmet.

“We can’t expect masses to rise up to fight for women’s rights if they’re hungry,” said Manal Omar, director of Women for Women International in Baghdad. The organization sets up centers in war-torn places, such as Rwanda and Kosovo, for disadvantaged women to teach them about their rights and provide them with a skill with which they can make a living.

Last week, some of the staff of Women for Women International kept a low profile or stayed at home out of concern for their security, said Omar. She is a Palestinian-American, and the only foreigner among the staff. Security is high but the center will remain open.

The organization’s programs–ranging from women’s shelters, to neighborhood councils and training programs–are advancing quickly despite social obstacles, financial constraints and increasing security threats, said Omar. Yet she fears an eventual backlash if the programs are perceived as impositions of Western ideas undermining Iraq’s traditional way of life.

As women gain recognition, confidence and independence they become more threatening, she said. Several attacks and death threats point to a growing wave of violence against women, she added.

Fern Holland, a lawyer from Texas who helped draft part of the interim constitution concerning women, was killed with two other people in Hilla, south of Baghdad, last month. Akila al-Hashimi, a member of the Governing Council, was assassinated in her car in September. Yanar Mohamed, an outspoken supporter of women’s rights and founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, has received numerous death threats earlier this year.

Although there have been no official reports, it is generally believed that these women were targeted because of the nature of their work and their association with the occupying forces.

Cheman Abrahim in the Northern region has begun to spread her wings. A year ago when Kurdish fighters–emboldened by the fall of Saddam Hussein–drove the Ansar al-Islam from the little sliver of northern Iraq they had occupied by force.

Now that Ansar al-Islam is no longer a factor in northern Iraq and talk of democracy is everywhere, Abrahim has for the first time become politically active. She helped educate the women in her village about nutrition and has participated in training programs for women through non-governmental organizations.

In addition to taking care of her five children, she also now is part-time director of electricity in the town of Halabjah. She received her degree from an industrial institute several years ago but was not able to work and look after her children. Now her husband stays at home while she is away.

Exceptional Exercise of Newfound Rights

As she takes advantage of her new rights and opportunities, Abrahim is aware that she is exceptional in a society where law does not necessarily translate into daily practice.

Iraqi law, under Hussein, protected many of the rights of women. Yet, in practice, their rights frequently were trampled. Many were denied their inheritance or child custody rights upon divorce or the death of their husband.

“Many women here are ready to change but they . . . don’t know about their rights,” Abrahim said. “She has a right to go out. She has a right to talk to people. She has a right to have an education.”

It’s a situation that women’s activists here acknowledge and expect to persist as long as many Iraqi families struggle to meet basic needs.

Barefoot and sitting on a brick that serves as a stool wearing a bright purple velvet dress, Kafia Mohamed, 39, is not thinking about her rights. She is most concerned about getting food for her children.

It has been almost five months since Mohamed and her family moved back to oil-rich Kirkuk in northern Iraq. They had fled during a campaign by Hussein to increase the Arab population in the north by forcing Kurds from their homes and turning them over to Arabs from the south. Many Kurds returned after the war and, like Mohamed, found that Arabs still occupied their old homes.

Mohamed’s family now squats in a two-bedroom brick shelter near the city’s soccer stadium. Just behind them, 3,000 people live in a makeshift camp of 300 tents.

As she kneads dough with her 14-year-old daughter, Mohamed describes how her family cannot afford to send the children to school and the boys are often out on the streets doing odd jobs. For Kurds, life is better without Hussein, she said, but she still needs the basics: a home, water, electricity, security, more income and an education for her children. “We want a good life,” Mohamed said. “We don’t want . . . more killings, more war.”

Training Women in Their New Rights

Under Saddam Hussein, most women’s organizations had been managed by the ruling Baath Party. Only women active in the party could participate. Women’s organizations in the north were either part of the Kurdish political parties or independent.

Injeel Hassan

One woman in the Women for Women International program, Shaymaa Fatohee, 25, tells the group that she and her children were kicked out of her in-law’s house after her husband died from a stray bullet in a dispute between neighbors. Toward the end of the session, after encouragement from the women, the young widow shows renewed energy.

“When the government will be settled here and the law will be issued, I will ask for my rights. I won’t be silent,” Fatohee said.

After the women left, the black kohl-lined eyes of the group’s leader, Amal A-Kenany, lose some of their luster as she shares her own story. Since her divorce from an alcoholic and abusive husband 10 years ago, she has not seen or had contact with her three children.

When asked if the future will be better, A-Kenany responds with the typical “Inshallah,” God willing.

“Women could have representatives. (I wish) that they could have equality, social equality, because a lot of their rights are not . . . being implemented,” she said.

Traditions Circumscribe Women

Zainab Hussien Salman, 30, is the women’s program coordinator for the Research Triangle Institute in Baghdad, the main contractor of the Coalition Provisional Authority for local governance projects. The programs are designed to encourage women to take part in the political system, starting with the local neighborhood councils. Her family is concerned for her safety because she is an Iraqi woman working with Americans.

But Hussien Salman stands out for another decision she has made, one that conflicts directly with what is expected of most women in Iraq. She has decided not to get married.

“If I were married I would be responsible for a family. And I don’t want that,” she said.

Having a husband and children would interfere with her ambitions and she feels strongly that women in Iraq must play a central political role. “They were in the shadow in the past, in Saddam’s regime. Nowadays, they have to take a place in this life to defend their rights and to make a full representation for all women in Iraq.”

Cyrille Cartier was a free-lance journalist in Egypt before moving to Washington D.C.

For more information:

Women for Women International:

Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation/Protection, Empowerment and Awareness–
Programme to Empower Women in Post-War-Iraq: