Baghdad Women Shrouded in Fear

Times Staff Writer

Every school day morning five fathers stand guard outside a girls' high school in west Baghdad, making sure their daughters are not kidnapped and raped.

From the opening to the closing tinkles of the school bell, they peer suspiciously into the chaotic street when cars slow down or strangers loiter.

At noon on this day, Mohammed Abdel-Hassan pries his two daughters away from a circle of chatting girls in navy-blue uniforms and takes them home. The next day, five different fathers will have watch duty under the scorching sun, in shifts organized by a newly formed committee of men dedicated to keeping their daughters both safe and in school.

The insecurity that reigns in Iraq is the defining reality of postwar life. But the lawlessness is felt disproportionately by young women and girls who have yet to complete their education.

In one of the most secular capitals in the Arab world, where women were until recently a visible and integrated part of public life, females have all but disappeared. Men are the ones doing the shopping, turning up for what jobs remain and helping plan the future of Iraq with the U.S. reconstruction authority.

"There's so little security, and they are vulnerable as girls," said Abdel-Hassan. "We hear rumors constantly of kidnappings and rape."

In fact, the recorded numbers are small, but in a city with few police on the street and where law and order are at best tenuous, even talk of such crimes is enough to stir worry.

The fear of rape in the city is now so widespread that families are rearranging their daily activities around providing security for their daughters. Dedicated fathers such as Abdel-Hassan take personal steps to ensure their safety at school, but many who are unable or disinclined to take on an additional burden are simply opting to keep their daughters at home.

"We decided to give up on this school year entirely," said Ziad Hussein Ali, who hires out his services as a driver. He said his daughter's schooling is important to him but that his long hours don't allow him to drive her around himself. "Being safe is more important than being a year behind."

In Iraqi society, still shaped by tribal norms that define a family's honor by its women's reputations, there is no greater shame than rape. Rapes are only rarely reported, though, because news of a sexual assault would sully a family's name and doom the victim to either marrying her assailant or a stigmatized life of spinsterhood.

Even the word "rape" is difficult for Iraqis to utter; they generally use "kidnapping" as a euphemism.

With the chaotic conditions in the capital, it's impossible to know the number of rapes that have occurred since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in early April. One housewife said she heard that there have been seven; Abdel-Hassan puts the number at 100.

With nothing to counterbalance the rumor mill -- there is a void of officialdom with the U.S. military still not in full control of the city, and the Iraqi police force collapsed -- Iraqis believe violent crimes are being committed with impunity. Prisons are empty, and the thousands of hardened criminals released by Hussein roam the streets.

U.S. officials here said they were concerned about the overall lack of security in Baghdad but were not taking specific measures to address its effects on women. They said women would feel safer as the overall security situation improves.

In many cities outside Baghdad, the situation is more stable and crime does not appear to be as big a problem. But in Baghdad, there seems to have been little progress in allaying the fears of women in particular.

Iraqi political groups operating in Baghdad receive regular reports from constituents.

"We've heard very disturbing accounts of abductions of women," said Qubad Talabany, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an Iraqi Kurdish group that controls about half of northern Iraq.

With official reports scarce, rumor is enough for most parents, who intend to keep their daughters tucked away from public life until security is fully restored to the city -- a process that could take months.

"We hear gunfire all the time, and we don't know who's shooting or why. This makes people even more worried," said Faiza Mahmoud, a high school English teacher who now commutes to work with other teachers in her neighborhood.

As with most of the troubling facets of postwar life here, Iraqis suspect the hidden hand of the old regime.

"These rumors are all being spread by the Baathists," Mahmoud said. "They want to disrupt everything. They don't want anything to be improved."

For Um Omar, like other mothers who want to keep their girls in class and cannot afford a car, that means spending each afternoon in snarled traffic, in taxis that often run out of gas, picking up each of her three daughters at their schools in disparate parts of the city.

"They say even taxis aren't safe, and I'm scared to use them. Should I be using the public buses? I don't know," she said, eyeing the traffic warily.

The compulsion to guard women's honor can be so overwhelming in traditional families that some girls are being locked up at home even when their schools are nearby.

Nour Hassan, 16, has spent every day since the war confined to a narrow apartment in stifling heat, waiting for the two-hour reprieve when the electricity comes on, so she can turn on the ceiling fan and listen to CDs.

Cut off from friends by the collapse of the telephone network, Nour's daily life has been reduced to a numbing routine: breakfast, house chores, lunch, nap, dinner. Most hours the television doesn't work, since there is no electricity, completing her isolation.

Female students at a college in north Baghdad who successfully battled traditional norms for a measure of social independence now fear it will be years before they can regain the prewar normalcy of their lives.

Such activities as meeting friends for dinner, swimming at the local pool and study dates are now out of the question, and the public places where young people used to meet -- cultural centers or social clubs -- have either been looted or taken over by bands of Iraqis. They provided rare venues for surreptitious dating, an already tricky endeavor that is now impossible for Iraqi young people.

Zeinab, a 24-year-old computer science major who declined to give her last name, would drive her own car to college before the U.S. invasion, but now she's only permitted to leave the house for school with the man she jokingly calls her "driver-bodyguard-chaperon."

The beauty salons she used to frequent for pedicures and conversation are closed, so Zeinab spends much of her long hours at home in front of a mirror, practicing different hairstyles for the day she regains a social life.

"Girls lost most of their freedom here a long time ago, but now we've lost it all," she said angrily. "They want to protect our honor."

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