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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > Radical Religious Groups Threaten Women in Iraq

Radical Religious Groups Threaten Women in Iraq

A Report by CODEPINK: Women for Peace and Global Exchange

Monday 24 April 2006, by Marjorie P. LASKY

Some radical religious groups are using alleged Shari’a principles to justify assaults on women. Freed from Hussein’s vengeful eye and increasingly in control of local and regional governments and local resources, sev¬eral radical clerics, conservative Shi’a political parties, and paramilitary forces have gained followers and influ¬ence in Central and Southern Iraq.

As a result, radical religious groups can more openly harass women who defy their interpretations of Shari’a. Many girls and women in urban areas who might have previously worn western clothes will not now leave home without wear¬ing the hijab or the abaya. Although choice of dress does not necessarily mean insecurity or loss of freedom, women’s rights advocate Yanar Mohammed claims, “If you go without the protection of the scarf, [armed men] can stop you and you may get assaulted…Being good and chaste means you put a veil on. They tell you it’s voluntary, but how can it be voluntary when there’s that much pressure on you?” Even Christian women in the south have resorted to wearing the hijab.

The tactics of the radical Shi’a that terrorize Iraqis, par¬ticularly in the South, often fall more heavily on women. In March 1995 group of Shi’a militiamen with rifles, pistols, thick wire cables and sticks charged into a crowded college picnic in Basra. The students’ transgres¬sions: men dancing and singing, music playing, and couples mixing. Most of the women were veiled, although a handful, including some Christians, was bare headed. Especially hard on women, the militiamen who were loyal to the militant Shi’a cleric Moqtada Sadr, fired shots, beat students and hauled some stu¬dents away in pickup trucks.
Radical religious groups are also apparently guilty of more severe crimes against women. A group of men in Mosul threw acid in the face of a Christian female lawyer whom they had previously warned to wear a veil or face death. In 2005, on a highway near Baghdad the body of pharmacist and women’s rights activist Zeena Al¬Qushtaini turned up ten days after assailants had abduct¬ed her at gunpoint. Al¬Qushtaini had two bullet holes close to her eyes and was reportedly dressed in an abaya; she normally wore Western clothes. Pinned to the abaya was a message that read, “She was a collaborator against Islam.” In Latifya, a city south of Baghdad, Sunni radi¬cals have covered walls warning women and girls not to go out in public without covering their heads and faces and threatening death to the violators.
Public violence, shortages in the economy, and a crum¬bling infrastructure have transformed women’s work lives. Public violence has driven low¬income women engaged in street commerce out of their jobs and into their homes, and fewer children, particularly girls, brave the streets to attend school. Older, educated women who had created small businesses in their homes during sanctions are often out of work because of the lack of electricity. Female heads of household have lost work as the formal economic sector collapsed. The women most likely to earn money are the better¬educated urban women who work in education and public administra¬tion and rural women with little or no education who do agricultural work. However, even then, a non¬sectar¬ian wave of assassinations against academics, journalists, and scientists has not spared women.
The privatization of businesses and the U.S. introduc¬tion of “free market reforms” are also exacting their toll on women. At the Agras clothing factory in Baghdad, 600 seamstresses, most of whom were supporting their families, havelost their jobs since the U.S. authorities slashed tariffs in 2003. Agras now sends its designs to China and imports the finished product. As free market policies kick into full gear over the next year, cheap fuel , inexpensive commodities and public sector jobs, all part of the pre¬war Ba’athist regime’s social contract with the Iraqi people, are bound to disappear.

Working for the Coalition Forces is often the only employment available, but this can be perilous. Among other incidents, women working as cleaners and laun¬dry personnel at a U.S. base near Baghdad were gunned down in 2004, and a translator for a U.S. news organi¬zation found a note under her door reading: “’Warning: Those who deal with the atheists and the infidels on the soil of the homeland deserve but death and destruction. Thus, we warn you to stay away from the infidels and the blasphemists, the followers of Satan, otherwise your killing shall be a mercy for Muslims. Those who heed the warning shall be excused.’”
The increased power of conservative Islamists has revived the practice of mutaa—a 1,400¬year¬old tradi¬tion alternately known as pleasure marriage or tempo¬rary marriage. A pleasure marriage may last a few min¬utes or a lifetime, and an unmarried woman may enter into one with any man, regardless of his marital status. Although many Shi’a clerics in Iraq, including the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, believe that temporary marriage accords with Islamic law and is consensual, Sunni authorities generally disagree. Outlawed during Hussein’s presidency, the practice never entirely disap¬peared. Since the invasion, Shi’a women are increasing¬ly entering into these marriages. Perhaps Iraq’s dire eco¬nomic straits lead unmarried women to hope that mutaa may provide financial salvation even though the man has the right to end the relationship at will.

Since the occupation, the notion that secularization will transform Iraqi women’s lives for the better has been severely undermined. For example, freed from Hussein’s restrictions, more Shi’a women are involved in religious studies. Before 2003, teaching women about Islam, if it occurred, took place informally in homes or underground— more because of Hussein’s desire to control the Shi’a’s religious activities than his opposition to women’s education. If a man were found performing religious practices outside of strict guidelines, he might face arrest; a woman faced the danger of having her entire family taken into custody. In 2004, some of Baghdad’s Shi’a mosques introduced women’s religious classes and in March of that year one source estimated that there were classes in 100 Baghdad mosques. The tone of the classes is generally conservative, no personal questions are allowed although practical matters arise. Some advocates for women support the increased reli¬gious freedom and practices but worry about the link to social conservatism and the potential for discrimination against women.

And, in 2004, when urban Kurdish and Sunni women were marching in the streets to protest the Iraqi Governing Council’s attempt to scrap secular family laws and reinstate Shari’a, Shi’a women’s groups demon¬strated in Najaf in support of the Governing Council’s action. But the Shi’a were not alone—a Sunni spokes¬woman, the head of the Islamic Union for Women in Iraq, also backed basing family law on Shari’a.

Since senior clerics, particularly among the Shi’a, derive much of their influence from their ability to build and support mosques, schools, libraries, and other public institutions and to provide for students and the poor, the more the Coalition and the Iraqi government fail to meet the population’s basic needs, the more Iraqis have looked to the clerics as providers. And, the more influ¬ential the clerics will become.