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American Put Her Life on the Line for Iraqi Women

Fern Holland, slain last week, is remembered for passionate commitment to rights amid danger.

March 16, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

HILLAH, Iraq — Sawsan Barrak turns on her home computer and kisses the picture that appears on the screen. It is of a slight, blond-haired, blue-eyed young woman with a warm smile and a look of determination -- not dissimilar from Barrak herself.

The screensaver is Barrak's tribute to Fern Holland, 33, an American homecoming queen turned aid worker who was establishing women's centers across Iraq when she was slain a week ago. Gunmen ran her vehicle off the road and shot her and two colleagues to death, according to U.S. officials.

Four more American civilians, relief workers with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, were killed Monday evening in the northern city of Mosul, the military said. The board on its website said the workers, including Karen Denise Watson of Bakersfield, were researching needs for humanitarian projects.

To those who knew Holland, her story is in many ways a classic American tale of heartfelt commitment, a gift for inspiring others, and a naive belief that determination could trump danger.

Barrak and other Iraqis who worked on the women's centers say Holland had the rare ability to shorten the distance between the two cultures, knowing instinctively how to express the yearnings that Iraqis have in their own hearts but have not yet voiced.

"Fern treated me as a sister; she built my character," said Barrak, who trained as a chemical engineer and now serves on the board of the Hillah women's center. "She said to me, 'You, the women of Iraq with higher education, you need to build women's rights here.' "

But Holland was traversing dangerous territory. In an Islamic country where fundamentalism is on the rise, the support of women's rights is seen by some groups as an insolent challenge to the centuries-old power structure of family, tribe and mosque.

Month by month, Iraq's more conservative religious forces are wielding more power and pushing to limit women's roles to those of wife, housekeeper and mother.

In Karbala, one of the most holy cities for Shiite Muslims, where Holland opened a women's center just weeks ago, representatives of fundamentalist cleric Muqtader Sadr made no bones about their group's disapproval.

"We have had many young men come to us and say they want to do something about these women's centers, which are trying to harm Islam," said Sheik Hamza Taie, the deputy director of Sadr's office in Karbala.

"We told them, no, we cannot approve [violence against the centers], but it's the duty of any honorable Muslim to take care of anything harming the name of Islam," he said.

Holland worked for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority's office in Hillah, a large city about an hour's drive south of Baghdad, and since late summer had been the women's rights coordinator, setting up centers across south-central Iraq.

She was helping women participate in drafting the women's rights sections of the interim constitution and bringing delegations of Iraqi women to the United States to tell their stories and learn about democracy.

"The centers were all her work. She got the women organized. They wanted to have them, but they'd never done anything like this before, they'd never organized," said Hilary White, Holland's roommate in Hillah and the chief press officer for the CPA's south-central Iraq office. "She was a wonderful mentor and friend to them."

Holland had opened centers in Hillah, Karbala, Najaf and Diwaniya and was working on two more, in Al Kut and Ramadi. Without someone with Holland's drive, Iraqi women worry it will take much longer to get the last centers running.

In a meeting Sunday with women from the Hillah center, CPA officials said they would appoint an Iraqi woman as the liaison between their office and women's centers, said Faezala Ebadi, a gynecologist and board member of the center. But Ebadi said she doubted that after Holland's death any Iraqi woman would want to take the risk. "Maybe the other women know somebody, but I don't," she said.

The centers have a dual mission of job training and democracy education through classes on topics such as elections and how to lobby for rights.

They also serve as safe places for women to discuss their troubles. Many women in southern Iraq are poor and have lost male family members -- the chief breadwinners -- to war and persecution by Saddam Hussein.

Although investigators have arrested six suspects in connection with the deaths of Holland, press officer Robert Zangas and interpreter Salwa Ourmashi, it remains unclear whether they were targeted for their work with women or for being employees of the occupation authority. Four of the suspects appear to be members of the U.S.-trained Iraqi police.

In the months leading up to the attack, the road between Baghdad and Hillah has been the site of numerous deadly attacks on foreigners, and friends and colleagues had urged Holland to take more safety precautions.

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