Iraq: Rebels kill Iraqi women as 'betrayers' of Islam

The Sunday Times
A growing number of Iraqi women are falling prey to insurgents killing those in prominent positions.
The terrible screams will haunt Najat al-Alloussi every time she remembers her last telephone conversation with her kidnapped daughter. "Mama, mama," cried Hadeel, 24. "They have just executed my husband in front of my eyes. Please help me. They just shot him in the head. Please help me, mama."
A male voice then told Alloussi, a prominent Iraqi gynaecologist: "We have killed him and now we shall kill your daughter as well."

She begged for the young woman's life, promising to hand over gold, cash and a valuable building if her captors would set her free. But the line went dead.

Two bags containing the bodies of her daughter and son-in-law, graduates in medicine who had taken internships at al-Qaem hospital close to Iraq's border with Syria, were dumped near their Baghdad home 48 hours later. Alloussi's daughter had been shot in the heart.

The couple were apparently suspected of having tipped off US forces that insurgents were being treated in their hospital.

Whatever the reason she was targeted, Hadeel was one of a growing number of Iraqi women to have fallen prey to insurgents killing those in prominent positions. Some die because their work brings them into contact with American or Iraqi officials, others because their advocacy of more rights for women offends certain religious fundamentalists.

A few seem to have been singled out for failing to conform to an extreme Islamic code of dress and for abandoning traditional lives at home.

Zeena al-Qushtaini, a divorced mother who owned one of Baghdad's best known pharmacies and had contracts with coalition forces, dressed in western clothes and mingled with women activists.

"Lady Zeena", as she was known, was wearing a diamond necklace and ring when she was shot twice in the head after being abducted. Her body was found dressed in a full-length black abaya that she would never have chosen to wear, the headscarf covered in blood.

Tawheed wal-Jihad, the group run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, released a film of her murder and that of her business partner, Ziad Baho, who was beheaded.

Islamic militants have killed 20 women in the northern city of Mosul and a dozen more in Baghdad. The victims shared a common desire to live freely and a vision of a better role for women in Iraqi society.

Aquila al-Hashimia, a member of the interim Iraqi Governing Council, was killed and her colleague Raja Khuzai received death threats after supporting women's rights. Nisreen Mustafa al-Burawari, the former minister of public works who was the only woman in the cabinet, survived an attack in which two bodyguards were killed.

Last November Amal al-Ma'amalachi, a women's rights activist and government adviser, died from at least 10 bullet wounds on her way to work.

Poor security has also deterred many ordinary women from travelling to school, university or work. A report by Amnesty International warns of a backlash from "conservative social and political forces" that threatens to stifle women's attempts to gain new freedoms.

The growing concerns over safety mean that even women journalists have lived in constant fear of falling into fanatics' hands. Whereas I once travelled the country in western clothes, albeit modestly dressed, I have found myself unable to leave my hotel room in recent months without being cloaked in a voluminous abaya.

Some of the insurgents I have wanted to interview have grudgingly accepted me, but many others have refused to meet a woman. Although a Muslim, I have been lectured repeatedly about my "sins" in failing to conform to their notion of the "Islamic way".

In Latifiya, to the south of Baghdad, radical Sunni insurgents have pasted leaflets on shop walls warning women and girls not to appear without a hijab to cover the head and face and prohibiting the use of make-up. Anyone who failed to adhere to these laws "would be punished by death".

Women soldiers are not even safe from male colleagues. When the first female trainees took up their positions last year, one was punched in the face by a male officer and no action was taken. Some politicians have blamed such abuse on women for taking jobs "contrary to their gender".

Major Huda Angham, who was slapped on the face for returning late from an errand to the ministry where she worked, was suspended after trying to improve the status of the group of women she commanded.

A car bomb at the unit's barracks injured many women soldiers, including a mother of five who lost her right arm and all the fingers of her left hand.

"A woman in my team was kidnapped and we have heard nothing more about her," said Angham. "Another was shot and our leaders have not done anything for us, even though we have paid the same price as our male colleagues through attacks by insurgents."

The prospects for women are expected to become even more difficult following the victory in the January elections of the United Iraqi Alliance list, which is dominated by Shi'ite clerics. Although women are guaranteed more than a quarter of the places in Iraq's national assembly, many worry about how much their country will change if strict Islamic dress codes and social practices are imposed.

Iraq's women are encouraged to vote as they wish but according to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful cleric, they should not shake the hand of a man other than a father, brother or husband. He also forbids women to leave home dressed in any clothes that allow strangers to see parts of their body.

Campaigners for women's rights foresee a bitter battle in the coming year as a constitution is written and the next round of elections is held for Iraq's permanent government.

They fear that if they are not represented in the drafting of the constitution, they will lose important rights &emdash; especially those enshrined in family law covering matters such as divorce, child custody, inheritance and work opportunities.

"The clerics are trying to subdue the voice of women and their role in society," said Songol Chapook, a leading Kurdish politician. "Unless they are given some of the top positions in the new government, Iraqi women will lose much in the future."

If so, there may be no one to protect them from the death squads stalking Iraq's streets.

Originally published in The Sunday Times on March 20, 2005