War, terror, and poverty rob Iraq of bridegrooms

The Rev. Ikram Mehanni slowly runs his finger down the registry of births, deaths, and marriages among his congregation, and it shows four or five marriages a year in the 1970s.

But since 2000, not a single couple has walked down the aisle at John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Baghdad.

"Surely, it's very sad for all of us," says Mr. Mehanni, the senior pastor.

Decades of war, terror, and bleak economic prospects have killed or traumatized many of Iraq's men, leading to a shortage of potential husbands.

While most talk of Iraq's reconstruction centers on oil, food aid, and the sorting out of religious tensions, some here are appealing for international help with a more fundamental kind of revival: "It's time for you to send us young men for our ladies to get married," says Cecile Mehanni, the pastor's wife.

"This problem started in the early 1980s," says Maha Alattar, daughter of a Shiite family that fled Iraq in 1983 to escape persecution. She recalls a childhood in Baghdad watching sunsets along the Tigris River - and listening to relatives bemoan the columns of men marching off to fight in the Iran/Iraq War.

It is estimated that between 160,000 and 200,000 Iraqis died, and when the survivors finally came home, "many were handicapped, or they were psychologically not viable to be married," says Ms. Alattar, now a professor of neurology at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh, and member of a group called Women for a Free Iraq.

The Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, but the demographic damage was just beginning. More men perished in the first Gulf War and in Saddam Hussein's brutal campaigns against the Shiite and Kurd populations. Then came United Nations sanctions and further economic decline, and many of the able-bodied men who were left had almost no choice but to go abroad to find work.

The ranks of potential grooms were thinned further by the most recent war, which sent an unknown number of Iraqi men to early graves.

The male deficit has hit every religious and ethnic group in Iraq, but tiny minorities, such as Christians, worry that the impact will narrow their footing in society even further.

The Mehannis' daughter Shareen, a Baghdad University art student, says that years of war, increasing poverty, and disappearing men have led many women to trade notions of romance for a desperate pragmatism.

Describing her adolescence, Shareen recalls few love stories among her classmates.

"There was very little real love here." The ideal many women seek now is not a love match, but a suitor who can offer them a ticket out of Iraq, she says. Because it's difficult for females to exit the country on their own, "any man they know who comes and asks for marriage ... they say yes," without much courtship or passion, says Shareen.

The dearth of males has also caused other societal shifts.

As men were fighting and dying in the trenches, women stepped in to fill many posts in the government and business sector, and continued their education. That led to a new class difference between women and the men who came back from war, who had grown up believing they would return to find a traditional wife, says Parwin Salih, head of projects for the Kurdistan Women's Union. "The different level of education made it more difficult for marriages," Ms. Salih says.

Even potential husbands who escaped death or injury from military service or from Saddam's terrors have scars from their economic battles, says Toni Paulus, an engineer who has returned to Iraq after working abroad. He says that he and other men who left Iraq found that, as cheap imported labor, they were often treated as second-class citizens in other Arab countries.

"Those men [who left to work] suffered so much, psychologically, and even physically," says Paulus, adding, however, that he himself is "ready to get married."

In returning to Iraq, men (and some educated women) who lived abroad in the diaspora are bringing new ideas to a traditional culture, and that includes concepts of marriage.

"We are more free nowadays," says Baghdad resident Raina Nuri. "My father gave me the full freedom to marry whom I choose," she says, but adds, "I still have to convince my family to accept the man."

The hardships of Hussein's regime have had at least one positive effect on male/ female relations, says Salih, of the Kurdish Women's Union. The suffering all Kurds endured forged a common bond that has helped men see women as equal individuals, she says. Now, "there are many women who do not want to get married. They prefer to work," and there are even a small number of women business owners.

With Iraq's economy still in shambles and a transition to democracy challenged by continuing violence, Shareen Mehanni is sometimes despondent over how long it will take Iraq to recover from the societal toll of the Hussein era. "Maybe a generation," she says. "maybe a 100 years."

Alattar is more sanguine, but in the interim she sees a country with many spinsters. "I have some relatives who are single, and haven't found the right man," she says, "and they're probably going to stay single forever."

Ms. Nuri says that women who can't marry "will suffer," but adds, "it is not the end of the world."

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