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A Painful Road to Leadership

Salama Khafaji has drawn respect with a striking mix of Shiite and feminist thought. But her rise to power has come at great personal cost.

November 02, 2005|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Baghdad — Salama Khafaji did not make a powerful first impression. When I met her, she had just been appointed to the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council as the replacement for a female official who had been assassinated, and she barely spoke during our interview. She wore, as she always does, the traditional head abaya favored by religious Shiite women in Iraq, a flowing black robe that covers everything but the face. In response to most of my questions she deferred to a man -- her chief advisor, Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa -- who sat nearby. I left doubting that she would make a mark in the predominantly male world of Iraqi politics.

But, two years later, Khafaji has found her voice, espousing a striking mix of Shiite and feminist thought. She is now one of the most powerful women in Iraq, and is in constant demand on Arabic radio and television. She plans to run for a seat in the permanent parliament in December.

Khafaji's journey to prominence makes plain the possibilities and the risks for educated Iraqi women. On one hand, she has been able to play a much larger role than many would expect of a woman from a traditional and religious society. But her achievements have come at terrible personal cost. Her eldest son was shot to death during one of three attempts on her life. Her marriage, strained by the boy's death and her political work, collapsed.

She anguishes over whether she has taken the right path, yet feels she cannot abandon a struggle that few other women will take up.


Salama Khafaji was born nearly 50 years ago to a modest Baghdad family that valued learning. Her father, a carpenter, spurred her to pursue a career. "He encouraged me to be a doctor or a dentist and he always said, 'You should have been a man.' "

She became a dentist, but out of intellectual curiosity also began the formal study of Islam. Though women are barred from becoming judges and ayatollahs, it is not unknown for a woman to spend years studying with the goal of becoming a mujtahid, a scholar of Islamic law, and then teaching it to others.

The decision to pursue religious study in the 1990s was a risky one because Koranic schools were infiltrated by Saddam Hussein's secret police. Hussein, a Sunni, feared that the Shiite schools were a cover to plot against him.

Khafaji and a small group of like-minded women studied with Ghitaa until 1998, when he was arrested on charges that he was educating people to oppose the regime and was a supporter of the Badr Brigade, a rebellious Shiite militia. He was sent to Abu Ghraib prison.

His arrest radicalized Khafaji and forced her to see the world in more political terms.

"We were educated women, we had graduated from college, we were dentists, pharmacists, doctors, some had been in prison themselves or had relatives who had been in prison," she said.

Along with Ghitaa's mother, the women raised money to hire a lawyer and get him out of solitary confinement, where he was being tortured. They ultimately managed to get his sentence reduced to five years. The women's success spurred them to continue their resistance work, helping the families of other political prisoners improve the conditions of their relatives.

When the U.S. invaded in March 2003 and Hussein went into hiding, "that was a big opportunity for us," Khafaji said.

Six months later, Governing Council member Aqila Hashimi was assassinated by gunmen as she left for work. Khafaji, who was known because of her involvement in teaching Islamic studies to women, was recommended by the Islamic Dawa Party as Hashimi's replacement. She wanted to take the post, but first traveled to Najaf to consult the marjaia -- the most senior body of Shiite clerics, which at the time consisted of four grand ayatollahs.

"I said to the marjaia, 'I think I have to work in politics, others say no, it's not for women to work.' I asked them, 'Is it possible for me to work with the Americans?' "

The marjaia told Khafaji that it was her duty to serve her country. On working with the Americans, Khafaji recalled, "they all said, 'This is very important. There have to be some Iraqi people to work with the Americans.' "

Khafaji's family turned out to be the bigger obstacle. By then, her greatest supporter, her father, had died.

"When I started in politics, my mother and brother disapproved, they fought it because of the danger. No one in our family had been in politics, but I know my father would have supported my political work, and I decided to do it.

"At first," she said, "my husband supported me."


On the council, Khafaji staked out positions that set her apart, basing many of her views on her understanding of Islam and her experience as a woman.

When the council was contemplating whether to strip Iraq's civil courts of power over domestic relations -- marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance -- she sided with Shiite clerics who wanted to place such issues in the hands of imams.

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