Nada Hatem Farhan toys with a heart-shaped red pen at the small desk in her bedroom and talks about the gap between the life she expects to have and the one she really wants. The March 7 Iraq elections are her first opportunity to vote, but in her tightly constricted world, she doesn't think any politician in the parliamentary contest will have an effect on her future.
"There are many things I want to do, but our society doesn't allow one to become a lawyer or a journalist," says the 19-year-old 12th grader. Instead, she says, the plan for her is a more respectable route for a woman in this conservative city: She'll go to teachers' college.
An only child, Nada has been raised in the home of her maternal uncles, who make all the major decisions affecting her life.
"I would love to study law and become a lawyer," she admits. "But if I were to graduate from law school, what would I do? Even if I became a lawyer, where would I work? The profession is considered more for men than for women."
She adds: "In Fallujah, especially, people would criticize that I go back and forth to different places, and there are security issues as well."
On the wall of Nada's room is a photo of her father, who died the year she was born. Next to it, in her parents' wedding photo, her mother's curly hair cascades onto an elaborate Western wedding dress. When her maternal grandfather died, Nada's other relatives pressured her mother to remarry. As is often customary, her mother had to leave Nada to start a new family. Her mother comes over every day – they would like to live together, but both know it would be impossible.
Nada has been engaged for a year to her cousin. Fallujah, which had become an Al Qaeda stronghold, was almost leveled in 2004 in the fiercest urban fighting by US forces since the Vietnam War. As occurred in many families, her fiancé left the city and dropped out of school in Grade 9. He now works with his father's transport business.
"So far the plan is [that] I finish high school, and then I have to get married. But I want to finish college," she says at her desk piled high with schoolwork and notebooks.
Nada says the most important issues for young people are security and the lack of jobs – both, she says, are keeping young people, and particularly young women, out of university.
"The families are afraid – because of the security issues they don't want to send them to a place that is far away and also there is no incentive because even after they graduate, what about employment? There is no motivation for the families to allow them to go to school."
She says she doesn't think Sunni Arabs like her family will boycott these elections as many did the last for the sake of boycotting.
"The Sunnis don't have issues with participating, but they see that Shiites are in control and so they don't feel welcome and gave up," says Nada.
She has little faith that any of the politicians will be able to make things safer, but adds that she doesn't want to leave the country to "live among strangers."
Nada says government officials have come to her school to encourage students to vote, but she's not sure what the point would be: "Since the occupation we have not witnessed 1 percent who are thinking of Iraqis and not just of themselves and their own interests."