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After an advocate's killing, Iraqi women try to stay course

(Page 2 of 2)

After the 1991 Gulf War, women in Iraq's Kurdish-controlled north were able to pass laws protecting their rights, including one that outlaws honor killings. But in the rest of Iraq, Hussein's reign of terror led men to clamp down on women - especially in the south, where Hussein executed tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of Shiites, mostly men but also women.

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Today, women make up about two-thirds of southern Iraq's population. Yet they are largely absent from public life. Holland wanted to change that.

"Her whole push was for the centers, so that the women in the south wouldn't be forgotten," says Manal Omar, the Iraq coordinator of Women for Women, a non-profit group dedicated to helping women in former war zones become self-sufficient.

With Ourmashi, Holland opened four women's centers in Iraq's south-central region, all offering classes in computers, catering, sewing, and other skills designed to help women support themselves. They were planning three more.

"She was the one who suggested that we open a center for women," says Amira Salih, who met Holland while volunteering for Human Rights Watch. "And I told her about this building, which used to be for women in the time of Saddam."

After talking to the mayor of Karbala, Holland reclaimed the building from the Shiite Dawa Party, which had occupied it after the war. On Feb. 16, US administrator Paul Bremer showed up to open the center. "Iraq is full of hope," he told the women, "and I know you will succeed."

Bremer's mere presence was enough to irk some Shiite clerics. "The development that the center is bringing, the new technology, it serves all of the people," says Sheikh Khidayer al-Ansari, manager of the Karbala office of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "But I object that foreigners came here to open this center."

There was trouble even before the center opened. Ms. Salih, the center's first manager, stepped down after repeated threats to shoot or hang her. "I talked to Salwa, and she said, 'just ignore them,'" says Salih. "But I was scared for my life."

Today, the center remains open. Children scamper down hallways lined with potted eucalyptus, while women hunch over computers in the Internet cafe. But the women inside are under siege. Many get threatening phone calls, some explicit and others unsettlingly vague. "They always say, 'Why did they choose you?' " says Badiqa al-Samawi, a volunteer board member.

On March 24, a woman came to Ms. Samawi's home, warning her to stay away from the center. "She said that this center is set up to serve the Americans - and that they are not just Americans, they are Jews, and it's not good for a woman's reputation to go there," recalls Samawi. Weeping, she begged the woman to visit the center, to see for herself. But the woman refused.

Samawi hopes the threats will ease once the Americans hand over control. But Ms. Omar and others fear that once the Americans pull out, someone - perhaps the Dawa Party, perhaps simply armed men - will try to take over the Karbala building and other women's centers. "It might not even be informal, it might even be the government itself," says Omar.

For now, the women feel isolated. Before she was killed, Holland would visit Karbala at least once a week, bringing them falafel she bought in the souks. But today, few foreigners risk the roads to Karbala. "We can't get out there because of the security risk, and it's tearing me apart, because I know Fern and Salwa would have wanted us to carry on their work," says Omar, an Arab-American whose group is one of a handful of aid organizations still helping women in southern Iraq.

But Omar is determined to go back. "Fern and Salwa bridged two completely separate parts of the world," she says, "and people who might not have stopped and thought about women in Iraq now will, because of them."