WOMEN IN IRAQ
11th March 2003
from Iraq by Waratah (Rosemarie Gillespie)
human shield and independent news source.
Some years ago, a friend of mine, Maree Fisher, told me about a visit she made to Iraq with a group of women in 1990. Maree told me that, contrary to the common stereotypes about Arab countries, women in Iraq have a considerable degree of movement, are not required to cover their hair, and that many women hold professional or administrative positions.
On the streets of Baghdad and Basra, women can be seen moving around, going about their business. Some of them, particularly the younger women, prefer the freedom of movement afforded by wearing lighter clothes and no headscarf or “hijab” (a small garment which covers the hair and neck but not the face). The hijab is mostly worn by older women.
Many other young women wear a headscarf, while wearing clothes somewhat similar to those many women wear in Australia, such as jeans and skirts - except no miniskirts and no plunging necklines, at least not out in the street. What women wear in their own homes is another thing!
Asmaa is a young woman who gained her degree in computer science at the Al-Mustanseria University in Iraq. She did it by studying at night school: “Many men and women study at night school”, Asmaa told me. “Their numbers are increasing, both young and old, men and women.” Asmaa and her husband Zaid, who has a diploma in computer science from the Al-Russafa Administration Institute, are both well educated and fluent in English. Tertiary education is free in Iraq (despite the sanctions). While there are also some private educational institutions which do charge fees, the fees charged are not high, because Iraqi students can choose to study at those universities and colleges. Education is free and of a high standard.
Asmaa and Zaid had planned to set up a small business providing computer services, such as setting up websites, etc. “The two of us, we hoped to set up our own business in the computer field. We spent years studying to develop our computer skills and to set up a joint business,” Asmaa said. “But because of the sanctions, the economy was depressed, so we could not do it.” As a result, Zaid has to work long hours driving taxis. It’s a hard way to earn a living, I know, and much more difficult in Baghdad because there are so many cabdrivers on the road,all desperately trying to earn a living.
Asmaa and Zaid have two small children, Meriam, a little girl three years old, and Omar, their four moths old baby son. Zaid’s mother, Jihan, and his two sisters, Noor and Zainab, also live with the family. Neither Asmaa, Noor of Zainab wear a hijab. (A photograph of Noor is included in the package I gave to George Gittoes when he left Iraq last Tuesday. He will probably contact you soon and arrange to give it to you. He lives in Bundeena, between Sydney and Wollongong). “We are young girls”, said Asmaa. “We don’t wear it (the hijab), we don’t like it.” “We love to wear jeans”, Asmaa added.
Only Jihan, Zaid’s mother, who is now a grandmother, wears a hijab. She wears it to market and to the mosque. “Women wear the hijab as a matter of choice, or in observance of religious belief”, Asmaa continued. “The government does not force us to wear it. The government of Iran does force women to wear it, but Iran is not an Arab country.” Asmaa explained that in most Arab countries, such as Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, whether a woman wears a hijab or other head covering is a matter of choice, custom or religious belief. It is required in Saudi Arabia.
On the streets of Baghdad and Basrah, I had seen many women wearing a black over-garment, similar to the black nun’s habit worn by some religious orders in Australia. It is called an “abaya”, and covers the hair but not the face. The Iraqi name for the garment which covers everything, including the face, is “poshi”. Very few women in Iraq wear them. So far I have net seen any worn in Iraq (but I did see a few in Jordan and Bahrain).
In Bahrain, where fewer women go out with their heads uncovered, the younger women often found creative variations of the conventional garb of long black dresses with a headscarf or hijab - like on young woman who substituted black lace for black cloth in part of her ankle length skirt. No doubt that would be considered quite daring!
It is the middle of the afternoon, Noor is still at work. She does secretarial work (word processing, etc.)
“People are free to have any religion thay like here”, Zaid told me. “There is no racism here, people from many countries live here, for example, from Sudan. Racism is against our religion, it is against the teachings of the Qu’ran (Koran). Our religion teaches us that everyone is a human being; it teaches us to love everybody.” This confirms what Dr. Zoba (pronounced “Zorba”) and others, such as the Archbishop of Basrah had told me. There is no discrimination on grounds of religious belief. Peoples of different religions are free to engage in religious observance according to their beliefs, including Christians (followers of Jesus), the followers of John the Baptist, sun-worshippers and Muslims, who are in the majority in Iraq.
Muslims come to Christian shrines and churches; Christians are free to attend mosques and are made to feel welcome there. Jihan sometimes goes to church and lights a candle to Holy Mary. “I called my daughter Meriam after Mary” Asmaa said. Meriam is the Arabic word tor Mary.
My hour is up now and I must close,