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AFTER THE WAR / FEARING THE FUTURE

Women Fear Their Rights Will End With Hussein Era

Many in Iraq say their liberties and ambitions may be curtailed if Shiite religious leaders prevail.

April 27, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Haida Azzawi doesn't wear a scarf to hide her long, flowing hair. She dresses in striped cotton trousers and a colorful T-shirt. She comes and goes from her house as she pleases, unescorted by male relatives.

And she wants to keep it that way.

Like many Iraqi women, the lively 24-year-old, who has a degree in math and statistics from a private college in Baghdad, is happy about the end of Saddam Hussein's rule, but she worries that the change in government could lead to a dramatic erosion of women's freedoms.

"I have never worn hijab, and I don't want to," said Azzawi, referring to the head covering worn by observant Muslim women. "But now I wonder if that is what's in store for the future. That and more things like it."

For decades, Iraqi women -- at least those living in Baghdad and some other big cities -- have enjoyed a degree of personal liberty undreamed of by women in neighboring nations such as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates.

They can drive. They can attend coeducational college classes. They can work outside the home in offices where men work as well. They can inherit property equally with their brothers.

Women make up a large proportion of Iraq's professional class -- doctors, lawyers, engineers, college professors, bank directors, faculty deans. Many are free to choose whom, or even whether, to marry.

But there is a growing sense here that the power vacuum left by Hussein's fall will probably be filled, in large measure, by Shiite Muslim political figures who may seek to impose the conservative social mores that are typical in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south.

Like their society as a whole, Iraqi women are wrestling with a complex and subtle calculus of gains that is yet to be realized, coupled with potentially irredeemable losses, as a result of Hussein's fall.

The Iraqi leader presided over one of the world's most repressive police states, but at the same time his secular, socialist-minded Baath Party provided many women with professional and educational opportunities unparalleled in the region.

"It's all mixed in my mind," said May George, a 41-year-old professor of engineering at Baghdad Technical College. "I am so glad he is gone, yes, but look at this."

She was standing in her shattered office in the college's department of metallurgy and industrial engineering, where looters had smashed windows, scattered documents, set fires that left a still-acrid pall of soot and smoke, and tossed computer terminals out third-story windows.

"It's a reminder to me that where there is change, there is often destruction as well," said George, who was born to a Christian family in the northern city of Mosul. "So I'm worried -- very, very worried -- about whether I can continue with the kind of life and work that I have had until now."

There have been signs that the American-backed transitional government will protect women's rights.

"We will have a very strong, democratic government in Iraq," Jay Garner, the retired U.S. Army general charged with administering postwar Iraq, told questioners last week on a visit to the Kurdish north. "And maybe one day, we will have a woman to govern Iraq."

Whatever the Americans' intent, powerful social forces unleashed by the toppling of Hussein will ultimately come into play, predicted Wamid Nadmi, professor of political science at Baghdad University.

"Iraq is like any Muslim country -- there is a real conservatism, though to a lesser degree here than in some places," he said. "At some point, the direction of the new government will have to reflect that."

Nadmi foresees a split in the months and years ahead not only between the Shiites and the more traditionally secular Sunni Muslims but also between the fundamentalists and pragmatic elements within the Shiite community.

"There is a real question about what kind of a country this should be," he said.

Hussein's Iraq operated on a model in many ways similar to that of the former Soviet Union, with women's rights enshrined in party doctrine.

Iraqi women were afforded some genuine opportunities as a result, but some commonly cited indicators of women's status were artificial ones, said Hana Ibrahim Kafaji, a prominent economist.

"Yes, there were women government ministers and women members of parliament and a few high-ranking women in the structure of the Baath Party, but they were all handpicked loyalists," she said. "It doesn't represent real equality for women."

Some women, like some Iraqi men, said they had been stymied in their careers by their refusal to join the party, or felt that they had to pledge allegiance to advance.

"You have to be a member of the Baath Party to find work in my field," said Azzawi, the young math graduate, who has been unemployed since finishing school. "I want a job, and my family was willing to allow it, but I couldn't find work because of this."

Areij Ibrahimi, 30, a law graduate, said she joined the party because she wanted to pursue a doctorate in international criminal law.

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