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Daughters of Iraq: front-line guards against suicide bombers

Iraqi women take on key security role as attacks by female suicide bombers rise.

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To reverse the new trend, community leaders began calling for women to join the Daughters of Iraq about a year ago. Though females in the group number in the hundreds, they remain a small fraction of the 103,000-strong Sons of Iraq community policing organization.

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Generally, the women guard strategic locations, such a bridges, government buildings, or schools. Unlike their male counterparts, they do not carry weapons. Instead, they are stationed at checkpoints with armed males. They also do not search or interact with men, only women.

In Adhamiya, Sheikh Zaid says the Daughters of Iraq have found women carrying everything from intelligence for insurgents to stolen gold and medicine.

Despite the rise in women bombers, many Iraqi women were initially resistant to being searched, even by other women.

"When we started our work, other females said, 'How can you work a job like this?' They did not accept us working as Sahwa (Arabic for 'Awakening')," says Fatima Khadhem, a Daughters of Iraq member in Adhamiya. "But we insisted on doing our jobs and now the same ladies have accepted us."

Likes the female suicide bombers, some of the women drawn to the Daughters of Iraq are motivated by wrongs done to family members. After insurgents killed her husband, Liqae Gazhi Mohamed joined the Daughters to help make her community safer.

"The Sahwa has given life back to Adhamiya," says Mrs. Mohamed, who supports five children with her work as a security guard. "I feel like I'm more independent and stronger than before."

Involving women in security roles also challenges traditional gender roles. While Iraqi women have never faced restrictions like those imposed on females in countries like Saudi Arabia, in many circles women in the workforce carried a stigma.

Although Malath Fahmi's mother wanted to work when her family fell on hard times under Saddam Hussein's regime, her father forbade it. A generation later, facing economic hardships, this time due to the insurgency, Ms. Fahmi joined the Sahwa to support her family.

"In my mother's time, if a woman had a degree she could work, but many people did not support the idea," says Fahmi, who hopes to continue working. "I don't want to be dependent on my brother, or my father, or my husband," she says.

Still, attitudes toward women's roles are slow to change, says Kawakib Salih, a professor of sociology at Baghdad University.

"Men still see female security guards as not having a feminine side, so men will not want to marry a woman who has worked as a Sahwa," says Dr. Salih. "In the future, maybe men will not support this job. It was created as a temporary solution to address the security situation and perhaps in the future it will disappear."