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Prominence in Public Life Disappears in Postwar Fear

By Carol Morello
Washington Post
Saturday, May 17, 2003; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- Most of the theatrical gowns designed by Feryal Kilidar over 32
years have gone up in smoke -- burned by looters.

Her studio had been located in the government-owned House of Fashion, but
that has become the headquarters of an upstart political party called the
Higher Council to Liberate Iraq. The party platform is a work in progress,
but on this the members are clear: Under the Baath Party government, the
House of Fashion was a warren of corrupt and un-Islamic activities.

One party activist suggested that Kilidar, who is from a prominent and
wealthy family of Shiite clerics, is not really a Muslim because she does
not wear a head scarf. "What are we going to do with them?" Kilidar said
with a laugh when told what party members had said about her.

Her career a shambles and hostile newcomers squatting in her office, Kilidar
has not been back to see the charred gowns with their Sumerian motifs or the
damaged paintings on which the new occupants tried to write the name of
their party. Like most Iraqi women, she has not left her house since the
government of Saddam Hussein collapsed April 9, unleashing a crime wave that
residents say is unlike anything they have ever seen.

"We never used to stay at home," said Kilidar, who lives in a spacious,
art-filled house in a field of date palms along the Tigris River. "But I
don't want to see Baghdad in this state. And we hear about men with guns
stopping cars. I'm too afraid to go out."

Kilidar was a privileged citizen under the former government, although she
said she joined the Baath Party only three years ago. But while she enjoyed
more advantages than most, the collapse of her career, her self-imposed
confinement and the fog over her future mirror the uneasy situations facing
many Iraqi women. A chaotic city filled with soldiers, thieves and
carjackers, Baghdad often appears to be inhabited only by men. Alarmed by
the lawlessness and now without jobs, most Iraqi women refuse to step
outside their homes.

The absence of women in public view is striking in a country where women
have for decades held professional jobs and lived with a measure of
independence unusual in Arab countries, fostered by the Baath Party
philosophy of modern Arab nationalism.

Since the war, women have been missing from the markets, where men now shop
for food. Nor can women be seen in the long lines that begin forming
overnight at gas stations. Most significantly, an interim government and
scores of political parties are being formed with little to no input from

Without television news or readily available newspapers, women have no way
of knowing which parties are addressing their concerns. The only permitted
women's organization was an arm of the defunct Baath Party, so women have no
natural networks to turn to outside of friends, family and co-workers.

"I'm a bit surprised myself that Iraqi women are not on the stage," said
Tamara Daghistani, one of a handful of women working with the Iraqi National
Congress, an exile organization seeking a political role in postwar Iraq.
"Iraqi women are famous for being tough and decisive. But they went through
three long and terrible wars. Women lost children, they lost husbands, they
lost their sense of self-dependence. It takes time for them to readjust. As
soon as the country gets running and the electricity comes back, things will
fall into place and women will start shopping around for a niche."

Even among themselves, Iraqi women are not discussing power-sharing or the
potential for an Islamic government that could dictate their movements and
their dress. They say their immediate concern is not with getting a seat in
parliament, but with getting a reliable supply of electricity to their homes
and a police car patrolling their neighborhoods.

"The coming of an Islamic government is possible," said Azhar Shehily, a
political scientist and constitutional law professor at Baghdad University.
"We would harshly refuse anyone telling us what we have to wear. If that
happened, I'd be very afraid. But I think the coming government will not be
100 percent Islamic. And frankly, we have more important concerns now --
like security, and having social services, first of all electricity."

Sidelined as Never Before
Still, some worry that women are being sidelined as never before. Thikra
Nadr, a novelist in her mid-forties who published a tale about a government
that ruined the country through deprivation and war, said she cannot
remember a time when women had less visibility or freedom.

"The long period of sanctions reduced the role of women in Iraq," she said
as a generator roared across the street from her ground-floor apartment in
the middle-class Mansour district. "But this period we're living in right
now has completely canceled the role of women in society."

Iraqi women have attended universities for decades. They were well
represented in medicine, engineering, academia and the civil service. The
Baathist government made education mandatory for girls; the number of girls
attending school at all levels tripled in the 1970s after the Baath

The only legally permitted women's organization in Iraq, however, was the
General Federation of Iraqi Women, an arm of the government that allowed no
criticism of the government. While Iraq's constitution expressly outlawed
discrimination on the basis of gender, in practice the government's edicts
restraining individual liberties and the woeful economy caused women to
backslide along with the rest of the country.

U.N. Sanctions Hit Hard
The 12 years of U.N. sanctions made the buying power of the Iraqi dinar
dwindle to the point where a typical salary for a civil servant amounted to
little more than $5 a month. Many women stopped working because they could
not afford transportation and clothes. Others worked two or three jobs. Neda
Salih Amin, a gynecologist at Yarmouk Hospital, supplemented her $150
monthly salary with private patients, seen at an outside clinic for the
equivalent of $2.50 a visit.

"I haven't bought any new clothes for myself for 20 or 25 years," said Amin,
55, as she sat in her office with a broken window and an air conditioner
that stopped working long before the war. "We lost the best years of our
lives. But I don't like to look back. The past was so miserable, I want to
look to the future."

Fatima Feleifull quit her job with the Housing and Construction Ministry a
year ago because she was spending more money getting to work than she
earned. She has tutored schoolgirls to make ends meet, and this month
started working as a translator for the U.S. military. To get to her
$5-a-day job, she pays $2 for taxi rides.

Her crisp white dress, black jacket and button earrings give no hint of her
current poverty. The daughter of a wealthy contractor, she was educated in
private schools and lived in a large house. Now she and her sister share a
tiny apartment with a living room the size of a foyer. They have sold all
their gold and have borrowed money for food. Many nights, they have gone to
bed hungry.

"If our mother were still alive and could see the situation in which her
only two daughters are living, surely she will die all over again," said
Feleifull, 48.

"Whatever the Americans do is going to take a long time," she added, voicing
pessimism about the future. "If there are going to be many parties in Iraq,
it means a lot of fighting. I think this time I will leave Iraq."

Yearning to Go Abroad
Many Iraqi women yearn to save enough money to go abroad, which they were
largely prohibited from doing during the last two decades.

Travel restrictions were first imposed during Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran
to prevent military-age men from fleeing. The restrictions grew more
draconian after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Women under age 45 could not
leave Iraq unless accompanied by a husband, father, brother or son. And they
had to be 65 or older to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

In addition, the government levied a $200 fee on passports, making travel
outside Iraq a dream.

"I always wanted to go abroad and study, but I didn't get a chance," said
Dahlia Shawi, 33, who used to be a disc jockey on a radio program called the
Voice of Youth. "My father is dead, I have no brothers, and my uncles didn't
want to leave. Maybe I can save some money and go now. I want to do things,
because seven years from now I won't have the energy. I want to take the
chance. I don't care if I can make it or not, I just want to do it."

Trend Toward Head Scarves
Few Iraqi women say they feel their future would be in jeopardy if an
Islamic government came to power. Young women already have been gravitating
toward head scarves. The trend began during the Iran-Iraq war in reaction to
the large death toll and gained popularity during years of economic

At the insistence of her husband, Maysoon Salah does not leave her house
without donning a head scarf and a black abaya that is relatively permissive
among Islamic traditionalists because it has sleeves, like a long housecoat,
suggesting a rough outline of the female body. But Salah, an accountant,
does not favor an Islamic government.

"If the imams rule, they would forbid everything, even development
technology like satellite dishes, the Internet and mobile phones," said
Salah, 35, as she sat on a dilapidated chair in the burned-out government
building for cinema and theatrical arts where she used to work. "They just
want religion. My nephew is an imam in the mosque, and we argue about this
all the time. I don't want him to rule this country."

Descended from a family of Shiite clerics, Salah left her husband behind in
rural southern Iraq, where they had moved after she left her job a year ago,
to return to Baghdad. She told him she wanted to visit her family. It was a
ruse. As soon as she arrived in Baghdad a week ago, she hurried over to the
cinema building to see if she could help clean up and ready the stage for an
upcoming production of "Othello."

"I can't feel my presence in the world if I don't work," she said. "I'm
happy here, because I can feel myself. I want Iraq to go back like it was,
even before Saddam. I want to go outside the country and see the world. I
want to live."

pg, May 17

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