Iraq: For Iraqi girls, fear and few options

International Herald Tribune Online
To catch a glimpse of the future of this country, look for a moment through the eyes of teenage girls who are coming of age here in the capital.
In an air-conditioned bedroom with pink everything on the walls, Yosor Ali al Qatan, 15, stares longingly at a hip-hugging pair of pink pinstriped pants. The new Iraq, her mother warns her, is far too dangerous for a 15-year-old girl to be seen in such pants.
Across town, at the end of an alley leaking sewage, Sali Ismail, 16, spends her days staring blankly at the television. A spate of kidnappings, combined with her working-class Shiite family's ever-deepening poverty, has prompted her to drop out of high school.

In a hair salon where Baghdad's ladies of leisure come to put blond streaks in their hair, Beatrice Sirkis, 14, quietly sweeps the floor. Her father, a retired soldier who has fallen on hard times, had to choose between sending her or her older brother to school. Beatrice was chosen to work.

The perils and pressures bearing on the lives of teenage girls here offer a snapshot of the changes bedeviling Iraq. In the past several months, the new access to satellite dishes, Internet cafés and cell phones has given these young women a new window on the outside world.

But creeping religious conservatism, lawlessness and economic uncertainty have also been conspiring against them in peculiar ways. Parents are so rattled by reports of rapes and kidnappings that they keep their girls under closer watch than ever. Girls accustomed to pool outings and piano lessons during the crushingly hot summer vacation months are instead locked up at home. They quarrel with their mothers; they sleep too much; they grow cranky and dejected from mind-numbing boredom. During the school year, young men claiming to represent new religious groups arrived at some schools, demanding that girls' heads be covered or long-sleeved shirts be required. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of the girls seem to be covering their heads - as much out of fear as out of newfound conviction. Some have stopped going to school altogether, as much because of the threat of violence as because of the economic hardships facing their families. In Yosor's school, for example, 700 girls registered for classes this past year, compared with 850 the previous year.

What long-term effect any of this will have remains to be seen. In a country that was once singular in the Arab world for its ranks of educated, professional women, it is impossible to tell whether the fate of today's teenage girls will be any different from that of their mothers. Still, the U.S. invasion and occupation have wrought small, but profound, changes in the lives of girls, changes that serve as a weather vane for the social fabric of a sovereign Iraq.

Even though the last years of Saddam Hussein's rule had brought new restrictions on women's freedoms, the collapse of the police state that had kept public order and the new leeway for religious clerics to demand stricter compliance with Islamic law have increasingly narrowed girls' lives.

"It's as if you're in prison," 15-year-old Mariam Saeed said of her predicament, sitting by the pool one morning inside a well-guarded private club. It was her first outing to the pool all year. For months, Mariam said, her parents have kept her under strict lockdown at home. She has read all the teen magazines she can stand, seen movie after movie. She has grown bored and glum. She has lost weight. Once she would stay out with her parents until midnight. She would hang out with her cousins every week. Now hardly anyone goes out. Everyone lives in fear.

"Me, through the winter, I suffered great depression," Mariam said. Her brother, barely a year older, recently offered what to her was an audacious suggestion. He suggested that she start covering her head. "'I'm worried about you,'" she recalled him saying. "'You're my sister.'" She said she snapped at him. "Because we are girls," she said, "they think we're aliens or something?"

In a city where a girl's uncovered head was, until recently, a common sight, the head scarf has become an urgent matter of debate. At Yosor's school, a group of men showed up, urging girls to cover their heads. The same happened at the school Sali's sister attends. Neither school yielded to the demands. But across Baghdad, even in wealthy cosmopolitan enclaves, head scarves are becoming increasingly common - both to fend off unwanted attention, girls said, and to avoid the ire of conservative religious groups.

Although Mariam's brother has not pressed her, she is worried. With the transition to Iraqi sovereignty approaching, the prospect of more violence looms. "The end of the month is coming - I think things are going to get worse," she said. "But I'm being optimistic. You always should be optimistic."

Fear eats at everyone here, but in a conservative society where daughters are already governed by stricter rules than sons, adolescent girls find themselves particularly vulnerable.

In a scrappy, hard-core Shiite neighborhood on the fringes of the city, the kidnapping of a young girl from the gates of the neighborhood primary school has so shaken Sali that she seldom leaves her family's two-room apartment.

Chubby and shy, with the face of a girl half her age, Sali, 16, left school two months after the invasion began. Hope of getting the high school diploma that her mother, Mendab Abdulhalaq, 39, had been accustomed to calling Sali's weapon against poverty slipped away.

Cloaked in a mountain of black nylon, Abdulhalaq wiped the sweat from her brow. A bomb went off in the distance. Sali sat on a daybed staring at the television: On the screen, women in skin-tight clothes and frosty lipstick pranced around improbably to Egyptian love songs. Then the electricity went out, shutting off the fan, darkening the television and turning the family's small sitting room into a bathhouse.

In a way, the family confessed, Sali's dropping out came as a relief. Her father, a day laborer at a pickle factory, earns less than he used to. Some days, a car bomb makes it impossible to get to work. On other days, the factory does not open. Financially, Abdulhalaq said, the family is barely hanging on. Sali's two brothers are in school. Her eldest sister, Jwan, 20, attends a teachers' training college. Her middle sister, Susan, 18, has just finished high school final exams, though it is unlikely that the family will be able to afford college. Susan knows it, too. "I have to make sacrifices," she said.

Somini Sengupta, NYT
International Herald Tribune Online, 28 June 2004