The Price of Work: Iraqi Women in Public and Private

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Outside, Iraq is pale, grey, dusty. But inside homes, life explodes in color and lush texture. That is the rediscovery I made when I visited Iraq for the first time in eight years. From 2003 to 2005, I covered the war from the perspective of Iraqi civilians, for the most part not embedded with U.S. troops. I sought to show what the invasion looked like on the receiving end.


I returned to Iraq last summer to learn first hand what had happened after I left and how ethnic violence affected the lives of people I had met years before. I was looking for a ground-level view of daily life and for perspectives on the violence that followed the invasion. Specifically, I wanted to know the role that religion played in individual political viewpoints and in Iraqi's personal lives. This work was part of a project I undertook for a Knight Luce fellowship on Media and Religion called Does God Love War?


The reporting led me into the quiet interior spaces of peoples' homes where they sought sanctuary from the dangerous streets, and into conversations about hope and faith. The answers I sought were threads weaving in and out of conversations and stories, lines that were not easy to follow. Because Iraq is still a dangerous place to work as a journalist, or for Iraqis to be seen fraternizing with a foreigner, these meetings took place in rushed passing, or in a couple of quiet hours hidden away from sight. What I recorded was a tapestry of stories that I’ve been unfolding in a series of photo essays and text.


Iraqi women work under threat, and brave increasing crime and religious conservatism. Many are afraid to leave their homes. A dancer after having her hair styled. She dances in a Baghdad hotel to support herself and her mother, at right. Displaced by the war, they live at the hotel as well.


In the years since my first trip to Iraq, I encountered many misperceptions about the lives of Iraqi women. Many Americans I met believed that before the invasion, most Iraqi women lived very gender segregated lives dictated by a restrictive Islamic code, were required to wear hijab, and were considered second-class citizens to men. In reality, women in Iraq had made significant social progress before 2003. Iraq was the first country in the Middle East to have a female representative elected to parliament, and since the 1970s, women enjoyed equal public education – which produced nearly universal literacy – and the right to vote and to hold public jobs. In the 1980s, the Ba’ath party opened the door to more women in public office. 


After the invasion, another huge step was made: In 2006, the constitution was amended to place men and women on equal footing under Iraqi law. One provision of that amendment requires 25% of all delegates in parliament be women, higher than the 16.8 percent currently serving in the U.S. Congress. But Iraq's constitution also states that Islamic law, which is open to different interpretations, has an important place in Iraqi society and the 25 percent representation provision is heavily contested.


Women’s rights have been challenged: on the streets by self-styled militias enforcing their own interpretation of proper behavior, and by elected officials and members of parliament who promote conservative social politics and who challenge the constitutional changes that protect women’s rights. Activists say that since the U.S. invasion, women’s rights have been increasingly threatened.


Growing religious conservativism among some lawmakers is amplified by the damage to Iraqi family structure. Due to violence, economic distress, and continued insecurity on the streets, women are in increasingly vulnerable positions. The years of war have left an estimated one million widows supporting families in an environment that’s grown hostile to women. Domestic violence toward women is on the rise, as well as sex-trafficking. Americans I meet assume that women’s rights have made great progress since 2003. But if anything, Iraqis told me that the power and security of women have eroded since the invasion through a complex mix of opportunistic politics and religious rhetoric, fueled in part by a backlash against the U.S. intervention. 


In this series of photographs, I found women impacted by the political and social climate in Iraq, particularly women making their way at the head of their own households. I photographed them at home, or in their outside work environments and asked them about their ability to work, their sense of security and the roles that religion has played in the conflict or in their lives. Due to the continued sense of insecurity among ordinary Iraqis, many women do not want to be identified by name.



Fatima, in her early 20s, dropped out of school at age 12 to help her mother raise seven younger brothers and sisters after her father died in a car accident in 1996. Her mother worked cleaning houses while Fatima stayed home with the kids. I met the family before the invasion in 2003. Fatima is known for her beauty and she enjoyed being photographed; during our portrait session I saw her beam and laugh for the first time during my visit. Like most people I’d photographed years ago and was able to find again, she remembered me. I was worried that after all these people had been through, a passing encounter with a foreign journalist would be discarded in the shadows of painful memories. It’s strange to live in a parallel universe carrying the same memories.


In the time since my last visit, Fatima married a neighborhood sweetheart at age 18, then divorced a few years later, because her husband didn't treat her well. Her sisters keep a video of the wedding preserved in video on all the girls’ cell phones and played it for me, prompting a pained smile from Fatima. Her family reported that her husband had been banging Fatima’s head against the wall. They explained that he was stingy with money and that he is Sunni, (Fatima is Shia) which they say in the climate at that time contributed to some tension between the couple. It took threats from male members of her family, who feared she could be killed, to get him to agree to a divorce. Fatima’s story illustrates the rising statistics of domestic violence toward women since 2003.


Since her divorce, Fatima often seems depressed, spending her days inside watching TV. Two of her sisters are in college but Fatima and four of her brothers and sisters still live at home. Fatima’s mother, Karima, wants to see her daughter continue her education and regrets that her eldest daughter didn’t finish her schooling. Fatima is more interested in getting married again than training for work, but divorce carries a stigma in Iraq and she and her mother worry about her prospects.


The family was spared the worst violence of the last eight years. They live in Karrada, a Baghdad neighborhood known for its history of multi-ethnicity and relative security. Though today Karrada is predominately Shia, the neighborhood is still considered a place where Sunnis and Christians may take refuge. Fatima’s eldest brother, Ali, was arrested and held under false accusations for being part of Moqtada Al-Sadr’s militia, an ordeal that nearly destroyed the family financially when they sold everything to raise bribes and extortion money to get him released. They live in an apartment borrowed from Karima’s sister who lives in the U.S. and survives doing odd jobs and from Ali’s job in the Ministry of Electricity.


Each of the children has a different approach to their faith. The girls are more devout in their prayers but all of them follow their mother Karima’s example, judging others by their behavior and not their religious practice. The children speak openly about the tolerance needed for people to live in peace together. Fatima doesn’t visit the mosque regularly but she does pray at home. Her family gathers to make pilgrimages together to Shiite shrines during religious holidays -- some of the most joyous times I witnessed in Fatima’s life with her family.


This waitress was an unusual sight in Iraq, a single mother working in the service industry. She was the only woman I saw waiting tables. There are women who are teachers, in offices, even some in professional positions, but few young women are willing to expose themselves in public for fear of the attention or abuse it can bring, leaving many widows without means of financial support. Her husband was killed in sectarian violence. She works in this Baghdad cafe to support her twin boys. The bandage on her arm is from a burn in the kitchen.


Once a relatively secular and liberal society, lawlessness and the lack of economic opportunity in Iraq today has made it dangerous for women to be independent. This woman spoke of harassment on the street, of being called names and accused of loose morals, just because she’s a waitress and is seen going back and forth to work every day in central Baghdad. After I met and photographed her at the restaurant, we arranged to meet at her house so I could photograph her with her sons as she prepared for work, but at the time of our meeting she stood me up. She later told me that men in her neighborhood who were part of a local gang that she said “maybe were Al-Qaeda” learned of our meeting and were waiting in ambush for me. In order to protect me, she said, she called the meeting off. The story seemed strange because her neighborhood is a Shia area and not likely an Al-Qaeda haven. Nevertheless, I was concerned for her safety and worried I’d brought her unwanted attention. Like so many murky threats in Iraq, I may never know the actual danger to either of us, or the full truth. The experience was typical of the hostility faced in the course of ordinary life.


While some traditions may be conservative in Iraq, such problems facing women are more about crime than religion. It's not surprising that so many women stay at home. An estimated one million female heads of households must find ways to support themselves and their families in this climate, and the fact that so few women are seen working in public means that many are dependent on other family members for support. 



This owner of a hair salon supports herself and her daughter through her business, which she's had for 15 years. Her shop was in Sadr City, home of the Sadr militia, but she moved to this new location in Karrada because she was threatened for styling women.  “Imagine, they shot and killed a girl in front of the salon!”, she said. “I found a letter that said if I don’t move in 24 hours, they would blow up the salon.” Business is not as good now, but she’s had less trouble. Some of her clients are dancers at local men’s clubs.


She is divorced and is proud to be in business for herself. “My husband was a betrayer,” she said. “He got married for a second time, secretly. The divorce was my idea." Both she and her daughter have tattoos that they received in private, small but defiant personal gestures. She is planning for her daughter's future so that her child can choose not to marry and be able to support herself if she prefers. She took her daughter out of high school out of fear in the neighborhood where the school was located, and now her daughter spends days with her in the salon. 

 "It's a disgrace for a woman to work," said the mother-in-law of this 15-year-old newlywed, who has come to live here in the squatters settlement of Tchouk with her husband's family. The couple are cousins, not uncommon in Iraq. The match was made when her aunt's family was displaced by ethnic violence and needed extra help. Her husband lost his father, a taxi driver, who left for work one day and never returned. As the eldest son, not even 16-years-old at the time, he dropped out of school to work full time, becoming the head of the household. She is pregnant with her first child and spends her days doing housework under the guidance of her mother-in-law.

Interior of the hair salon.


Most Iraqi women I met do not conflate their religious traditions with their civil rights. But with the criminalization of society from the bottom, and fundamentalist religious rhetoric and widespread corruption from the top, there's a pervasive sense among most Iraqis I met that democratic values have failed. The words of the mothers I met were telling. Fatima’s mother Karima said, “Women are seen as something divine that cannot be touched. If a girl chooses her own husband, it’s seen as a sin!” She gazed at Fatima and described the challenges for a mother and for daughters who should be kept in the house so no one can look at them or touch them. “It’s not a promising life, sitting in the house all the time, watching movies, memorizing all the lines.” 

Julian Rubinstein

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