BASRA, IRAQ–Even though I know schwayya Arabic, I sensed the Iraqi truckers squatting in the shade of an 18-wheeler weren’t happy. After all, seated on the sidewalk opposite them, a foreigner was chatting with a beautiful Iraqi woman whose beige scarf, worn with a maroon blouse and tan-colored slacks, indicated she was Muslim. As they waited to drive their vehicles through the British checkpoint, the truckers’ stares burned holes through us. My friend, Nour Al-Khal, a 20-something press liaison for an American NGO, felt it too, but advised me to do what she did when confronted by what she called her country’s “ignorant men”–ignore them. “Believe me, Steve,” she said, stretching out her legs and crossing them at the ankles. “There’s nothing you can do.”
We were sitting outside the British military base at Basra International Airport, waiting for soldiers to open the gate. The afternoon was hot, a desert wind blowing dust and grit across the asphalt. As the boredom mounted, a trucker stood and crossed the roadway. Looming over Nour, he snapped something in Arabic, causing her expression to fall and her body to flinch as she curled her legs beneath her. As the trucker strode back to his companions, I asked Nour what he’d said. “He demanded that I sit more like a respectable Muslim woman,” she replied in an embarrassed voice. Angered at the man’s effrontery, I rose to confront him, only to be halted again by Nour’s demurrals. “You’ll only cause me trouble.” Sadly, she was right. Convening a one-man Morals Police for the sole purpose of humiliating a woman, the trucker had acted in the name of the force we had no defense against: Islam.
A small incident, perhaps–yet it’s hard to overstate its symbolism, or the problems its portends for Iraq’s future. Something frightening lies at the heart of this nation, I’ve come to understand, something dark, irrational, thuggish, especially among the “ignorant men” of its lower classes. In public, it often takes the forms of a weaponized stare that glowers at an unescorted woman–or a woman accompanied by a foreigner–as if yearning to see her disgrace herself, do something scandalous or un-Islamic, in order to fuel invidious gossip and innuendo. In private, it manifests itself in the threat, and frequently the reality, of violence to restrain and subjugate females. To accommodate and placate this malevolence, Iraqi females learn to repress their own behavior and instincts, while safeguarding their most important social possession–reputation.
“Reputation is all–if I lose that, I lose everything,” explained Nour, expressing a female sensibility as old as time. No wonder then, as we traveled around Basra, interviewing clerics, newspaper editors, and CPA officials, she forbade me from touching her, kissing her cheek, or paying for tea, cabs, or meals. Because of her scarf, I don’t even know the color of her hair.
If this were Saudi Arabia, we might ascribe such misogyny to Wahabbism. But this is Iraq–a country that until the 1970s existed as a model for equal rights in the Islamic Middle East. Beginning with the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s, however, women’s freedom began to contract. Today, turbaned clerics advocate ever-more vociferously for sharia, or Islamic law that allows men such conveniences as polygamy, temporary marriages, and divorce by repudiation–while denying women the ability to choose husbands, travel freely, or wearing anything but cloaks to cover their bodies and hair. “Women’s rights must follow Islamic teaching,” Sheikh Aoda El Obaydi of the Basra branch of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. “We oppose open sex, free love–and insist that woman wear hijab.”
Meanwhile, once relegated to rural areas, tribal mentality is flooding into cities, bringing with it the backwash of patriarchal domination. Anecdotal evidence suggests that increasingly men are preventing their daughters from going to school, inflicting “honor killings” on errant women, and treating females like brood-mares. For example, a friend recently told me of visiting a Baghdad man whose claim to dignity consisted of his two wives and 22 children–all of whom lived together in a two-room apartment. “We face the twin-headed problem of political Islam and tribal customs,” says Yanar Mohammad, a Baghdad-based feminist whose views have earned her death-threats from religious extremists. “Women are expected to serve men, be good Muslims and produce babies.”
It is impossible to grasp the psychic claustrophobia this attitude creates for women without actually experiencing it. One afternoon, Nour and I took a boat ride down the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. The pilot, a barely literate teenager, insisting on turning around and looking at us, as if supervising our behavior. Irritated by his glare, I suggested to Nour we ask the kid–or even pay him–to face the front of the boat. “Oh no!” she protested. “Then he’ll think we are really doing something scandalous and he’ll tell his friends and I’ll never be able to take a boat ride again.” For most of the trip, we sat under the teen-ager’s gaze, trying to ignore it. As we disembarked, Nour muttered, “Now you see why I hate these ignorant men?”
She’s not alone. The rage and despair women feel toward religious and social customs is palpable. Take TV newscaster Najiah Abdulsala. On camera, the attractive Basran reads the news sans scarf. “I know it’s against Islam, but I don’t care–it’s my choice!” she told me at her office. On the streets, however, Najiah is careful to wear hijab. “Religious men verbally assault me and I’ve received warnings from the Islamic parties,” she said angrily. “Fortunately, I am marrying and my husband is taking me to Kuwait.” Another Basran is not so lucky. She told me how her four brothers dominate every aspect of her life–when she can leave home, with whom, for how long. “If I run away, they will track me down and kill me.” Once, when they discovered that she planned to marry without their permission, they beat her so badly they broke her arm.
Paradoxically, many women turn to Islam for defense against Iraq’s “ignorant men.” “When I wear hijab, I feel freer,” says Ala Abdul Qadir, a member of the Baghdad-based Muslim Sisters’ League, an Islamic feminist group. “Men don’t leer at me. The Koran frees us from tribal attitudes that do not take women lives into consideration.” Argues Anwar Algebar, director of Basra’s AM Radio Nahrain, “I gain more respect from men wearing hijab–as a professional woman I use hijab as a shield against them.” The lesson was not lost on me. In Basra, when a group of loitering men fixed their stares on Nour, I surprised myself by blurting: “I’m glad you wear a scarf, it protects you from these goons.” Nour smiled. “Now you understand.”
I do–as much as any male can. And it makes me uneasy. I dislike writing too negatively about Iraqis, fearing I might add to America’s frustration about the war. But we mustn’t close our eyes to the character of the people whose fates we now hold in our hands. There are many wonderful individuals in the country–brave, idealistic men and women who believe in America and its promise of democracy. But beyond these shining stars lies a deep rift where Islam and tribal custom intertwine, spawning a demon of shame, impotency and self-loathing. We saw that demon erupt recently in Fallujah, devouring four lives in madness and fire.
For women, it is only a slightly less-malign beast that dominates their lives, restricting their freedom and driving them beneath the veil. True democracy will not flourish in this country until this terrorist, along with al Qaeda, is vanquished, too. I once asked Nour why she didn’t leave Iraq. “Someday, I might,” she replied. “But now, for the lives of millions of Iraqi women, I must stay and help bring moderate Islam and democracy to our country.” I couldn’t have scripted anything more noble, or more heartbreaking. For it’s a fight against their own worse impulses that Iraqis now face in order to achieve a stable future. And as I found when I could not help as truckers shamed a remarkable woman worth ten times their lot, it is a fight in which America must stand aside and let the Iraqis, for better or worse, wage themselves.
–Steven Vincent is a freelance journalist who recently returned from Iraq.