After an advocate's killing, Iraqi women try to stay course
For their new women's center, the women of Karbala chose the name of a warrior: Zainab al-Hawraa. Sister of the Shiite martyr Imam Hussein, Zainab fought alongside him in 680, saving his young son and his legacy for future generations.Skip to next paragraph
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When Fern Holland heard the story, she laughed and told the women, "We want all Iraqi women to be just like her."
Ms. Holland, a young lawyer from Oklahoma, was women's rights coordinator of Iraq's Shiite heartland for the Coalition Provisional Authority. She helped write the part of the new constitution addressing women's rights. To the women in Karbala, she was "just like a sister."
March 9, after visiting the center, Holland and her deputy, Salwa Ourmashi, and coalition press officer Robert Zangas were killed, their car forced off the road and machine-gunned. Investigators arrested six suspects, four with valid Iraqi police ID.
Coalition officials call the murders an assassination, but hesitate to conclude whether the three civilians were targeted for promoting women's rights or as part of a larger campaign against Americans and Iraqis who work with them. Either way, the killings accelerated the CPA's plan to hand over the centers to Iraqi women to run by themselves, financing their work by charging small fees for classes and renting out space. "Fern was a huge catalyst for women's rights, says Hilary White, CPA press officer and Holland's former roommate, "but the women wanted it just as much as she did."
But today, the women carrying on Holland's and Ourmashi's work are afraid.
Over the past few months, Iraqi women in public roles, especially those who work with Americans or in promoting women's rights, have increasingly become targets of death threats and assassination attempts.
Many large international aid groups, including most of those with women's programs, have already withdrawn international staff because of attacks against aid workers. Now the few remaining women's groups fear they will be next.
"We are all targets, women and Americans alike," says Yanar Mohammed, a newspaper editor and outspoken feminist. "There are many women activists, but they cannot speak boldly against political Islam."
Ms. Mohammed has received several death threats from a militant Islamic group called Jaish al-Sahaba, Army of the Prophet's Companions, for her opposition to Islamic law.
"If you do not ask forgiveness, then you are an apostate and should be killed by Islamic law," read the first threat, quoting a verse from the Koran that promises death or crucifixion for those who spread sins on Earth.
Mohammed is a socialist, a defiantly secular voice against sexual taboos. But even devoutly religious women who wear the veil aren't safe: Raja Habib Khuzai, a Shiite member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, received threats after voting against a controversial measure that would have replaced Iraq's civil personal status laws with Islamic law, or sharia.
At the Karbala center, the women are hardly opposed to sharia - most of them wear the maqna, a veil so concealing it even covers their chins. But they are determined to recapture a role in the city's teeming civic life.
"I came to this center because I wanted women to have a role in this community, because we are more than half the community," says Amal Omran, a young veterinarian. "And I think it's our reward for not having anything before."
Under Saddam Hussein, women enjoyed civil protections that were relatively advanced for the Arab world, a legacy of the pre-Baathist monarchy. But after the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Mr. Hussein began courting Islamic hard-liners, segregating schools and decriminalizing polygamy and honor killings.