Five women confront a new Iraq
From actresses to lawyers, women are seizing a historic if uncertain moment
BAGHDAD — Ashtar Jassim Al-Yasari is standing in the cramped office of her newspaper, Habez Bouz, when the air conditioning suddenly cuts out. An immediate crash of heat - the product of temperatures outside soaring above 130 degrees F. - makes it harder to tolerate the jostling in the narrow room that houses editors of four papers that have sprung to life in postwar Baghdad.
Ms. Yasari, wearing a lavender head scarf that makes her khaki-green eyes even more striking, is the only woman among them.
There are other women journalists in Iraq, but postwar insecurity has forced many professional women to stay home. Yasari shrugs at the situation with an air of steely equanimity: It won't stop her, she says, though her father or brother escorts her whenever she leaves home - something she never faced before the war.
Neither will the signs warning women to dress more conservatively slow her down. "We are an Islamic country, but we can't be forced to wear things we don't like. No group has any right to tell us what to do just yet. That's why we're putting out this paper."
Three months since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq is tottering between the forces of renewal and revolt.
Amid the anarchy, some women are seizing opportunities to make an impact in ways never before possible. Some are just trying to stay afloat in conditions that make life feel more difficult than it was under the Baathist regime. Still others are alarmed to find that many liberties appear to be fast disappearing under the weight of ongoing violence and the newfound muscle of Islamic fundamentalists.
For the more than half of Iraqis who are women, whether life is better now than under Mr. Hussein depends on whom one asks.
A man lectures his friend about the rampant looting in Baghdad. "It's your fault you're religious!" the man says. "I told you to steal, but you're too stubborn to listen!" Elsewhere, people praise a neighbor who has brought a generator to share among several houses without electricity. Exclaims one: "God bless him for such a good robbery!"
Such humor laced with social criticism fills the pages of one of the hippest new papers to hit Baghdad. A rarity among the flood of publications that have cropped up, "Habez Bouz" is a satirical weekly that revels in lampooning life both under Hussein and the US-led occupation.
A rarity, moreover, because its founder and editor, Ms. Yasari, is a 24-year-old woman.
The majority of Iraq's new publications tend to serve things straight up. But Yasari started her paper with a different mission: to hold a mirror up to Iraqi society and force people to snicker at its reflection. "Due to the circumstances we live in, everything around us seems ironic, and the only way we can breathe is to laugh at it," says Yasari.
The security problems are sometimes the focus of the more serious articles in the paper. In one piece, Yasari tells the story of a man who, not long ago, was arrested by intelligence police and imprisoned and tortured for a year and a half. He was sent home when the police realized they had mistaken him for someone with a similar name.
Yasari likes to publish such stories because in the past they were whispered about in secret, or simply went untold.
"All the newspapers after the fall reflect political subjects. But ours also reflect social problems. We write about the water problems, the gasoline lines, the looting. This wasn't allowed in the past," says Yasari.
Yasari gained some of her appreciation for a good story from her father, also a journalist and co-publisher of the paper. At Baghdad University, where she studied journalism, students learned the concept of using the press to take government institutions to task.
"Not everything we learned about could be put into practice," she says, acknowledging the understatement with a roll of her eyes. It was while studying media history that she learned of the original Habez Bouz, published in the 1930s. In studying the original - closed when the monarchy deemed it too uppity - Yasari discovered a tone no longer heard in Iraqi public life: irreverence.
But what perhaps helped her most were her college years spent interning at the newspaper Az-Zawra. There, she met Abed Hassan Abd-Ali Abdul Karim, one of Iraq's most famous cartoonists. When she told him about her hope to restart Habez Bouz, he agreed to help because he admired Yasari's willingness to push boundaries. "Most of the pictures I'm doing now I couldn't do in the past," says Abdul Karim. "It was like there was a policeman inside me."
Yasari is worried new press restrictions laid out by the US will stand in the way. They were meant to prohibit the use of media to incite violence, but she sees them as censorship. "If the Americans are doing bad things, we should let the people know about that," she says.
Other editors in Baghdad say Yasari has a unique product. "As an investigative journalist, she is good," says Ni'ma Abdulrazzaq, senior editor of the As-Saah newspaper. "But ... the paper deals with subjects by depending on jokes too much."
Yasari hopes to give readers more than a good giggle. "In between the sentences, there is a path, an awareness for the people that is different from the past," she says.
Before the war, Alia Khalaf threw herself into a passion that has long been her passport to another world: English literature. Then, while sitting in her tiny apartment across from Mustansirriye University where she teaches, the war arrived, literally, in her living room.
An antiaircraft missile launched by Iraqi soldiers pierced the ceiling and landed "right in Nadia's heart," Ms. Khalaf says. Her younger and only sibling, who also had a promising academic career, died almost instantly.
Khalaf traded her more colorful, if Islamically conservative, dress for a shroud of pure black, the hue of mourning she will wear for a year. The Shakespearean plays and sonnets that were a joy to teach have taken on a more poignant, personal tone.
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?"
Khalaf is reading to students from Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. "Hamlet is destroyed now," Khalaf explains to her class. "He is asking whether he should end his life. Hamlet is saying, I am ready to endure the pain of unrequited love because I am afraid of what comes after death," she says. "It is better to endure the difficulties that we know than to face the horrors that we don't know."
The temperature in the packed classroom hovers around 115 degrees F. A fan whines fecklessly overhead. The war froze higher education for nearly two months, and now, instead of taking exams in balmy April or May, the students are sitting for them in the furnace of July.
Hamlet, Khalaf points out later in the scene, tends to blame Ophelia for his troubles. "We see he thinks that all women are corrupt and immoral," Khalaf says in a smooth, soprano English, as students fan themselves.
Something about this theme seems to leap from the English texts into current-day Iraq. On campus, signs have appeared urging women to cover up with proper hijab, or head covering. Though Khalaf dresses in Islamic fashion, this development disturbs her. "They're saying you shouldn't wear the 'French hijab.' Maybe next week they will say a woman should cover her whole face. Maybe in 10 years, they'll say we should be buried," Khalaf says. "Everyone is free now not just to give his opinion, but to impose it."
The signs have been posted by a clique of students claiming to represent the Hawza, a council of religious Shiite clerics in Najaf. Khalaf is also a religious Shiite, but she is troubled by the Hawza's use of this vacuum.
Where the Baathists' informants used to spread fear on campus, she says, now the Hawza's do. After her last class at 12:30 p.m., some of the Hawza's self-appointed security toughs tell her and her visitor they need to leave the campus. "I am a teacher here," said Khalaf, who, from a distance, looks as if she might be one of the students.
She lingers a little longer to make a point. "You cannot confront them as a teacher, or they will target you. We have no government, and they can do whatever they want to us."
Khalaf's students seem to worship her; her teaching style is more inspirational than didactic. Many of them wrote sympathy letters to her, in English, about her sister.
"She is like a ladder - she help us understand. When you look at her, it gives you hope that there still something good out there," says Zeinab Sadiq, a stylish junior in a short-sleeved pants suit. Before the war, Ms. Sadiq says, she wore above-the-knee skirts to class; now she wouldn't dare.
Khalaf - who is still completing her doctorate - is that kind of special teacher who moves minds, the kind students stop in to see after class. But she is no pushover. A former night student - now forced to come in the daytime because it's too dangerous to hold classes at night - stops by to tell her she should make a handout summarizing what they must know for the exam. "No, you should read the books and come to my class," she says firmly, before moving on to the next student in the scrum.
"Even if she's demanding, she does it for our own benefit," says George Nichola, an Iraqi Christian who takes her poetry class. "I thought she couldn't get past [her sister's death], but I was surprised. She came in a few days later and said, 'We have many poems ahead of us.' "
And many changes to be made come fall. The university needs to fix buildings wrecked by looting. Baathists who held senior positions must be moved out. One of the biggest challenges, she says, will be turning students on to real learning after years of a dictatorship in which connections mattered more than capabilities. "The aspiration to attain knowledge is limited," she says. "Some students have it. Too many others expect to be spoon-fed."
Nothing has come easily to Khalaf. But in a few students' eyes, she has found reasons to keep going. Mr. Nichola quotes Sonnet 33, a favorite: "But if the while I think on thee, dear friend. All losses are restor'd, and sorrows end."
In real life, not all losses can be restored. But they can be compensated. Perpetrators can be punished. People can be treated as equals before the law.
Those were Zakia Hakki's ideals when she decided to go into law half a century ago. And they are what she had to believe was possible when she agreed to leave the US to help rebuild the legal system of a country she fled.
Ms. Hakki, who worked in Baghdad as a lawyer and judge for many years, left in 1996 by bribing her way out with a valuable carpet and the help of family members who had already escaped to the US. But for Hakki, the struggle began long before the Baathist regime came to power.
When she graduated from law school in 1957, she was one of five women in a class of 350 men. Even then, she was always a minority within a minority. "When you are a female, that's one count against you. When you are the wrong race, a Kurd, that's two. And when you're the wrong religion, Shiite," she says, that made three strikes against her.
Today she wonders how she muscled her way into the law - and a prominent place in Iraqi Kurdish politics. "Maybe I was young and I didn't care about these dangers. Maybe I was a little crazy," grins Hakki, leaning back into one of the regal armchairs in the Republican Palace.
The opulent building is now the home of the US-led administration in Iraq - as well as the temporary offices of each of the Iraqi government ministries. "In my wildest dreams I couldn't imagine I would be working in this palace," says Zakki, who peppers her speech with terms of endearment, calling others "habibti" and "hayati," or "my love" and "my life."
Hakki is now an adviser to the Ministry of Justice from the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council, a US-funded panel of Iraqi-Americans. She is working on revamping courts and laws. She oversees the process of selecting new judges and staff the ministry. And she will be involved in plans to convene a constitutional convention, which would draft a constitution and send it to the Iraqi people in a referendum before elections.
Hakki remembers discrimination from an early age. When she was little, a tough question came up in Arabic class. No one knew the answer but Hakki, and the teacher berated the others, saying, "You allowed a Kurdish girl to answer this question?"
As early as the 1950s, Hakki smuggled documents into the US Embassy about the treatment of Kurds in Iraq. She had become involved in the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP], keen to gain attention in the West. "We were trying to tell them that there is a Kurdish people here, and we need tobe equal in front of the law."
Hakki became a judge, and was a founder and president of the Union of Women of Iraqi Kurdistan; in the mid-1970s, she became the only woman in the leadership of the KDP. But the regime placed her under house arrest, and later she other KDP leaders who could fled to Iran. She was put up in a beautiful house by the Shah, she recalls, but didn't want to live "on the Shah's charity." I said, 'Let me go to Baghdad and be punished.' "
Upon her return, she kept a lower political profile and spent years working on family and civil law. That is how she knows that the image some have ascribed to the Baath Party - that of socialist institution that gave equal rights to women - was little more than myth: A woman who kills her husband in a fit of jealous rage will get the death penalty; a man in the same situation will be exonerated for an "honor killing." A woman cannot gain custody of her children in a divorce, she says - and Hussein's regime passed laws allowing a man to beat his wife.
When she left Iraq seven years ago, Hakki points out, she had to have her son to accompany her - she would not have been able to travel alone. "As if I am handicapped and need a guardian," snaps Hakki, who covers her head with a loose and gauzy black scarf. "If I have a PhD and he is an illiterate man, then I still need to bring him."
Hakki carries around a stack of position papers she's written, in English, outlining what a new government should look like. She wants to see a federal system of Iraq's north, central, and south regions, a balance of power between different branches of government, and a Supreme Court. But federalism seems to appeal more to Kurds than anyone else, and it's unclear whether the US favors a decentralization of power. "I'm not here because I'm a Kurd, I'm here because I'm an Iraqi," she says. "I thank the people who discriminated against me, because it made me struggle for equality."
Donald Campbell, a Superior Court judge from New Jersey and adviser here to the Ministry of Justice, says Hakki carries unusual authority as an Iraqi coming from America - but one who didn't spend most of her life in contented exile. "There's some resistance on part of Iraqis who stayed to Iraqis from the US coming to taking an active role. But she's got tremendous credibility ... and she is more or less a legend, because of her political activities as a graduate of the judicial system here," he says. "She has lived in the US and she can explain to [Iraqis] what it is that we bring. Zakia brings the experience of having lived under both regimes."
Though life is dangerous now, Hakki says it would be still more dangerous to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone lose the peace. She vividly remembers when the Baath party came to power in a 1968. Several dozen people were hanged in a central Baghdad square. "No one said, 'What was their crime? Where were their trials?' To me, that means that we were the ones who created this tyrant, Saddam, because we kept silent."
Lena Aboud is not the quiet type. It's easy to think otherwise: Soft-spoken, in her tailored, short-sleeved dress, she appears to have more of the poise of a young Jackie O. than the prowess of an up-and-coming politician.
But just a month after the war ended, Ms. Aboud helped organize the first demonstration of women demanding the US do more to improve security in Baghdad. Paul Bremer, the top US official in Iraq, later met with some of the leaders of the protest. Among them, say officials working with Mr. Bremer in the Coalition Provisional Authority, Aboud has emerged as one of the most eloquent and energetic. She was considered a candidate for Iraq's governing council, appointed this week, though she did not make it. Only three women sit on the council, a disappointment for Voices of the Women of Iraq, who had pressed for 30 percent female representation in political bodies.
"We've been trying to widen our meetings to include women, and last time a few were there, but she [Aboud] really stood out as one of the ones who was very articulate," says Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the CPA. "She was definitely not a wallflower."
These days, it's best to catch Aboud in that slice of time after she comes home from a long day at work and before the start of curfew at 11 p.m. When not struggling with postwar politics, Aboud is a physician who works at a clinic in one of the city's poorest areas and does emergency rounds at a hospital in another.
The young activist has clear ideas about how to move towards an Iraqi interim government. "It's difficult to arrange a government and just let it get going, because there is no agreement on how it should look. To put in a political council as a consultant body, for now it's a good step, as long as elections are held soon, within a year."
Aboud, who exudes a coolly intelligent calm, could be a bridge between Iraqis who say the occupying authorities must turn over power to Iraqis as soon as possible, and those who argue Iraq is not yet ready to rule itself. "Democracy is perhaps the most important thing, but it's not the only thing," says Aboud. "There are so many buildings destroyed. The economy is destroyed. We need to make real steps towards rebuilding those things first."
During her childhood, Aboud learned to keep a low profile because her family moved around a lot; in one year, they lived in five different places. Aboud's parents, opponents of Hussein's regime, kept moving to try to elude the harassment and arrest of the security police. "It was a horror. They were always following us," she recalls.
Now, Iraqis are living with a different kind of fear. It is taking its greatest toll on women, rolling back freedoms to do simple things on one's own, she says. "The key thing is to bring back security, and to make the world hear Iraqi women who are from the inside, not just the outside," she says, referring to Iraqis who have been living abroad.
Crime and anticoalition violence have made many men insist that women stay home. Baghdad neighborhoods buzz with rumors of rapes, Iraqis say. Aboud had to agree to have her brother or father escort her to work.
Aboud hopes to wield influence to improve life for poorer Iraqi women and to push for equal protection under the law. "Simple women in rural areas are really suffering. They are facing violence. There are simple things that we need - we don't have one center or shelter where women affected by violence can come for help," she says.
Under Hussein's regime, there was little room for leadership outside the Baath Party. "Now," Aboud says, "I feel I can do something for Iraqi women, and for my country." Should she step into the political ring, she expects challenges. "For our society, it's difficult because they see you and think, maybe you could be a family doctor, but they don't believe you could be an open-heart surgeon. They don't believe a woman can do it," she says.
Aboud is optimistic pressures to veil and wear conservative clothing will pass. "These are coming up because the regime kept religion bottled up. It's temporary," she says, with a nod of confidence. "It will be changed."
Mays Gumar hopes so. She is one of the best-known character actresses in Baghdad, a city that had its own active theater circuit. The war, however, dropped the curtain on all that. At home in the evening, sitting in a dark, stifling house with her sister, mother, and husband, a national soccer player, Gumar says the show will not go on unless security improves. "We are in living an Eastern society, and here, an artist is viewed in a different way. It's very easy for people to see me in a negative light."
Theater is not so common in this part of the Arab world. The Baath Party's secular ideology gave room for some art forms to flourish, but the fact that the government supported these theaters leads some Iraqis to see actors as loyalists of Hussein's regime.
The last time Gumar went out, she covered her mane of hair, dyed an eye-popping blond, with an Islamic scarf. Still, she was spotted near a protest of decommissioned Iraqi soldiers. "The officers recognized me and they were hitting the car and saying, 'Get out and help us raise our voices, because you are well-known.' I was afraid. People don't know how to express their freedom, because they never had a chance to express it before."
Several well-known actresses have fled the country, and another, Rana Shaker, has reportedly been murdered. Gumar herself thought of leaving. "It is impossible for an artist to work in these circumstances," says Gumar. "Since the war, living standards have changed. Everything has changed," she says. Sitting in the dark past nine in the evening, a night-after-night blackout that jars in comparison to the curtain calls of the past, it is hard for her to say it has changed for the better.
Yet life is stirring inside Baghdad's National Theater of Iraq. There, actors and directors meet, broken glass and looted debris swept aside, to discuss future productions. Mona As-Safar, a colleague of Gumar's, is preparing to star in a new one-woman play in which she portrays five characters struggling to survive the war.
Recently, as As-Safar, also a blond, was walking through the market, a man cornered her and held a knife to her stomach. "He said, 'Didn't you act during the regime?' They think we're Baathists," she says. As-Safar used her acting skills to talk her way out of being stabbed.
As-Safar had to fight with her family to allow her to act, begging an uncle to take her to the theater when they were supposed to go to the zoo. She isn't about to give up. "I like the excitement of the theater. I'm not afraid. I'm Aaarnold," she laughs, feigning a Schwarzenegger accent.
She will not give in to pressures to stay off the stage, or to cover her hair. "Wear hejab?" she shakes her head. "I'll die first. This is our personal freedom, to wear what we want. If that changes, it might be better to leave Iraq."
An unstable postwar Iraq is testing the fortitude of many Iraqis - but the challenges are especially acute for women. While ongoing violence is keeping some women from going out at all, others are pushing their way into the public arena and grasping the opportunity to reshape their country.
Ashtar Jassim al-Yasari is the founder and editor of a new satirical weekly paper that specializes in spoofing some the absurdities of Iraqi society. Alia Khalaf teaches English classics at Mustansirriye University, where she struggles against new pressures from Islamic fundamentalists and the loss of her sister during the war. Zakia Hakki, an exiled former judge, has returned from the US to put her legal expertise to work in building a more just Iraq.
Lena Aboud is a physician and a rising politician who leads a group of women demanding more representation in public life - and a change in laws that restrict women's rights. Mona as-Safar and Mays Gumar are two actresses from Baghdad's once-thriving arts scene - one keen to perform; the other, afraid to leave home for fear of attack.
To many in postwar Iraq, violence and insecurity pose as much of a threat - albeit of a different sort - as they did under Hussein. In a report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch says the instability plaguing Baghdad and other Iraqi cities "has a distinct and debilitating impact on the daily lives of women and girls, preventing them from participating in public life at a crucial time in their country's history."
The New York-based group says that the lack of security has spurred a widespread fear of rape and abduction that is keeping women at home. It is a problem that may have a profound impact on how women, like the ones profiled here, will shape their roles in a rapidly changing Iraq.