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[casi] Before the invasion: Voices from Iraq (III)

Dear List,

This is from a series of articles posted to Citizens
Concerned for the People of Iraq (CCPI) from Seattle.
In February 2003, a group of these people went to
Iraq to talk to different Iraqis in universities,
and elsewhere.

Here the writer describes a meeting with Maysam, a
24-year-old MA student in literature. The reason I
am posting this is to show the preconceived notions
these American women bring to Iraq - about culture,
women's emancipation, and so on. (It's a big world.)

Looking at the article from a European viewpoint,
I noticed this: The American describes Maysam as
wearing a "fashionable" suit - not a "power suit",
but maybe a "serious" suit, she says. Now a power suit,
so-called, is modelled very closely on a man's suit.
For an American woman to be taken seriously in what
is still a man's world - to occupy power - she also
must resemble a man. You don't find this in France,
say, and obviously not in Iraq either. So American
women's emanicipation seems  far more restricted.

Another point: they ask Maysam about wife beating.
It happens rarely, she says, because of religious
reason. Maysam then adds that if a woman is
"terrible" she, Maysam, would give a man the right
to beat her. To this, the American shows an "expression
of dismay". Now I don't endorse wife beating either,
but Maysam is clearly talking about exceptional
circumstances. On the other hand, in Canada and the
US, domestic violence is rampant: men batter (not
just beat) women on a regular basis. Often these
women end up in hospitals and in women's shelters.
There is something called the 'battered wife syndrome'.
Is the American visitor dismayed about these conditions
in her homeland too?

Next point: Maysam then talks about the American
slogans of 'Human Rights' and freedom. "They
take care of the dogs, and not people", she says.
Maysam can't understand the contradictions when she
thinks how the US denies Iraqis human rights through
constant bombing and the sanctions. Understandably,
Maysam gets worked up as she talks about this. The
American visitor calls this a "tirade". Pretty
callous, I'd say, for someone "Concerned for the
People of Iraq".

Last point: they then talk about "women's freedom
throughout the world". Pre-marital relations are
not permissable and rape is punishable, says Maysam.
Nor do women go out alone. "So when you hear about
liberated women, how do you feel?", asks the American.
She seems to equate liberal sexual mores with
emancipation. Yet professionally, Iraqi women have
found open doors far longer than their US and
European counterparts.

So this is just to dispell some of the myths, that's



Posted on February 2, 2003.


By Ginny NiCarthy


In some respects, university graduate student Maysam has
one foot firmly placed in Middle East culture, and the
other tiptoeing into that of the West. For our
interview, she wore a fashionably tailored gray jacket
and skirt -- not what you'd call a "power suit," but
maybe a "serious" suit, with collar detail suggesting a
finely developed aesthetic, neither obviously West nor
East. Her elegant scarf added a graceful touch. She is
twenty-four years old, with regular features, pearly
skin and dark eyes. She is writing her masters' thesis
on images of women in the plays of Pinter and Becket,
and complained about not being able to get needed books.

"When I was writing my thesis," she said, "I found a lot
of books on the Internet, and I thought, 'I need these
books.' But the prices were $40 dollars! Oh, my God, I
cannot buy it. I found a book called 'The women's Place
in Pinter's Plays.' I can't get it, even if I have
someone outside the country bring it in. I cannot pay

Thamir, our team's government minder, had reluctantly
given permission for me to accept an invitation to the
university, so long as I was accompanied by our driver
Yassim, and without Yassim's help I would never have
found the English department. We were misdirected twice
by a guard at the university gate, and finally entered
the campus through a jumble of trash, discarded chairs
and other items, piled outside a one-story building. We
made our way across a small square of grass, up a flight
of stairs, finally arriving at the professor's office.
After visiting his class, I was left in the care of his
graduate student Maysam.

Maysam speaks excellent English, and throughout the
interview she sat straight in her chair, hands at rest,
never fiddling with the scarf that stayed obediently in
place. When she spoke of the United States, her poise
would ruffle for a few moments, as emotionally laden
words spilled out, to describe the sufferings of others,
and her own frustrations.

"I just want this embargo to go, because for twelve
years we have been hurt a lot. It is terrible for the
Iraqis, for the children and the young, even for the
young who are healthy. I have things to do, I am an
ambitious woman, but because of these terrible things
about the war, I am stuck. I can't do this; can't do
that. I want to start on a higher degree, but there is a
problem of getting books. New books. The books I've used
in my thesis are from 1960, or something. Why? Most of
the books I want are published in the U.K. or the U.S.
But we can't get them. Why? I'm a specialist in modern
drama. I'm supposed to write about the 80s and 90s, but
I'm writing about the 60s and 70s, and I think it is
about the embargo."

I asked, "Is there a feminist women's rights movement?"

"Of course. Since the war, twenty years ago. There's a
lot of emphasis on women, they are just like men, they
have to work, they have to be educated. They need
opportunities to do all these things. They are ambitious
and educated. Women started to have an open mind, to
want to be something, to help men, because life is
difficult. Many have big families, and men cannot do the
whole thing alone."

Maysam says many women agree with her that it is
important to "have a good education, so we can work and
get a good job." Though some men accept the changes in
women's roles as normal, others do not, "because they
have those traditional thoughts that women stay at home
and take care of the babies." Maysam would like to start
work on her PhD next year. She is the oldest of seven
children, and her mother is at home, "taking care of the
babies," but she approves of her daughter's ambitions.
Her father is proud of her, as well. When Maysam told me
her father is an army officer, that gave me pause. But
she said he is retired.

"Good," I said, and we exchanged a smile. At that
moment, I was thinking only of a young woman's fear that
her father would lose his life, not about heinous acts
her father may have committed as a military man in the
service of Saddam Hussein.

"Others in my family," she quickly added, "are not
retired. And even if I knew no one in the army, we are
living in this time, we are the generation of the war."

When I asked about domestic abuse of women, I was given
an answer similar to the ones provided by her professor
Saad, his wife, Lamia and Anisa, of the Women's
Federation. "Our men are different because of our
religion: men should respect women, and women should be
gentle; men should take care of her, be responsible for
her, this is the message. Even if a man wanted to beat
her, he would stop, because maybe he is afraid of God."

When questioned further, Maysan admitted, as had others
I had questioned, "There are a few people, a few cases,
but generally speaking no." Then she went a step
farther. "If a woman is terrible, and a man can't stand
her and she is doing terrible things to him, I give him
the right to beat her. There are a lot of terrible
women, and it is not good, the way she talks to him and
doesn't listen."

Perhaps my expression of dismay betrayed me. In any
case, she backed off from that punitive stance. "But
even if she is terrible she can't fight with him, so men
should not beat her because it will cause her a lot of
harm, because she is weaker than he is. Abuse harms the
heart and the soul as much as the body."

Seeking a broader perspective and perhaps more knowledge
about battering of women, I asked about radical feminist
groups, and Maysam said, enthusiastically, "There is a
Women's Union. Very famous for calling for women's
rights. The only one in Iraq. You can meet them. Most of
the women are part of the union." She said anyone could
tell me how to reach the group, but she was hazy about
how to find them. She may have had in mind the Women's
Federation, which I already knew about.

On the question of women's freedom throughout the world,
Maysam said, "In Europe they have relations, not
marriage, here we don't have it, because it is
forbidden. In this country, one who rapes will be
punished... We have such a case every few years, but we
don't hear about it much here, as in the U.S. Maybe
because, here, women do not go out alone, do not go far
away from their families. That's why our religion
protects women, and when she does go away, she takes a
member of her family. So we don't have so many cases."

"So when you hear about liberated women, how do you

"Women can get their rights all over the world and
that's fine; I feel happy for all women. We want to do
something useful for our country. For these rights, to
get them, to improve our country, to help people. I am a
university teacher, I can teach students something I
know, and they will remember it as something useful. A
few years ago, that wouldn't happen, but this is useful
for the country. So women have to get their rights."

When I asked what message I might deliver to Americans,
Maysam responded at length:

"We hope war won't happen, because we can't stand it any
more, war after war. We don't have time to think about
our future. I talk about myself, but I am a symbol of
others. Just like people in U.S. and U.K., we have
something to do. If we have war after war, all we think
of is whether we can live or whether we will die."

"I decided to work for a PhD, but I don't know if I will
even be alive." At this thought, Maysam burst out with a
sudden inexplicable laugh, which seemed to startle her
as much as me, and which ended as quickly as it began.
As she talked about the threat from the United States,
her anger intensified, and once again her words tumbled
out too fast, at times, for her mind to keep up.

"If there is more war, all my ambition will be stopped.
My home will be stopped. We are hurting. People in Iraq
don't know why America is doing it, it's like a game or
something -- for twelve years, the embargo. It's not
just in Baghdad. All over, we're being attacked. And no
one says stop. Why, I don't know. We have enough sick
people we should take care of, I've lost two uncles, one
from cancer, one from trouble with his heart, because of
lack of good care for them as patients. My aunt has only
one baby, and it came into this world in a very
difficult way, and she almost lost it. I think we
breathe something in the air, because of chemical
weapons. We get used to breathing these things, they are
in everything."

In contrast to her rather prim posture, which never
wavered, Maysam's emotions kept bubbling to the surface,
along with her rising voice. "America calls for Human
Rights. They take care of the dogs, and not people. I
can't understand this contradiction. We are people just
like them, and we have the same rights. Is it because of
the oil? This is our oil. We would not go and take your
oil. God gives each country something special. Do we
have to buy the oil and give all the money to America?
And we continue being poorer and poorer. And America is
richer and richer. Can they sleep well at night?

"They don't want us to defend our country. They don't
want us to have any weapons. Why? Because when they
come, they don't want us to fight them. They want
everyone to surrender. Is this freedom? How can we give
up our dreams, our future? We will have no future at
all. Why do they come to us, why don't they go to
Israel? They are killing people, they have weapons,
chemicals, and bombs. So why these sanctions only on us,
and forgetting about all the other countries? Iraqis are
very proud of their country. We have a spine, we are not
arrogant, but we are human. We have the right to have
our country; to be safe to live in peace. How many
bridges and roads have been destroyed in the war? We had
to rebuild everything, and now they want to destroy it
all again. The Security Council we hope will not give
Bush what he wants. But they will do it just like that.
They don't need anyone's permission.

"This is not a way of life. Is this one of the films in
America? Is this a film for them, just like those films
in Hollywood? They are the ones who are superior? They
are the ones who will save the world? They really are
the aliens from Mars or somewhere. They are talking
about themselves. So tell them to just go home. Take
care of your business. Don't put your nose in other
people's business. This is what is taught by God, by
Jesus, by all the prophets. So for God's sake, if you
believe in God, let us live in peace so our children
will live without any fear tomorrow."

Maysam had worked herself up, and was close to tears. So
was I. Suddenly, she stopped, her anger spent. The room
was silent. She looked surprised at her tirade, but she
did not apologize.

"I will deliver your message," I said.

As I prepared to leave, we put out our hands to shake,
but then tentatively, carefully, we embraced. I
photographed Maysam, and when Yassim emerged from his
corner, he was enlisted to take a picture of us

The photo I took of Maysam alone is good and clear. The
photo taken by Yassim of the two of us, standing, eyes
welling, arms around each other's waist, is blurred
almost beyond recognition.

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