Iraq: Necklace a symbol of unity for Iraqi women

Associated Press
For Iraqi women, map-shaped necklaces have become a symbol of defiance, representing a yearning to keep the country unified.
Roba al Asaly fingers the sliver of gold on her necklace and explains that it reminds her of a place "that's not there anymore.'' The gold is shaped like the map of Iraq, and at a time when sectarian violence has fanned fears of civil war, it has become a gesture of defiance and of yearning for national unity.
It is seen on the streets and on television. Anchorwomen wear it while reading the news on Al-Iraqiya and Al-Sharqiya, Iraqi TV stations that are secular and more tolerant of women's jewelry.

''I hold on to it with my hand as if I'm holding on to the country I once knew,'' said Asaly, a 26-year-old Shiite Muslim accountant." A place where people were not identified by their sect, a place where bombs didn't go off every other minute.''

The map necklaces, in gold or silver, were on sale here even before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 but gained popularity in the months after the U.S.-led invasion. Now, as sectarian violence intensifies, jeweler Rafaa Ali says his shop in central Baghdad makes about 3,000 a week and can barely meet demand.

''It's like the more abnormal the situation becomes, the more demand increases,'' Ali said.

The necklaces cost the equivalent of $15 in silver, and $100 in gold. In neighboring Jordan and Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled to escape the violence, they serve as beacons bringing exiles together.

The pendants took on greater meaning after the slaying of 30-year-old Atwar Bahjat, a correspondent for the Arab satellite news network Al-Arabiya.

Bahjat, a Sunni, wore a veil on the air, along with a map necklace. She was abducted along with her cameraman and technician on Feb. 22 while reporting on the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found the next day.

Many women started wearing map necklaces in tribute to Bahjat's memory.

Some fear that with the country sliding toward possible division, their necklaces may become collectors' items.

''Who knows how long Iraq will remain looking like this?'' said Asmaa Hassan Ali, a 24-year-old Sunni and graduate of Baghdad University.

''Frankly, it's a pretty piece of jewelry,'' she said. "It's also my way of showing how I love my country the way it is, and I want it to stay like that: undivided.''

Basma al Khateeb, who used to run the Iraqi operation of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, said, "It's the threat that everyone senses is coming -- tearing the land and people of Iraq apart.''

She always wears her map necklace, and talking about it sets her off on a long discussion of what's wrong with Iraq and its newly elected leaders and her conviction that wherever there is conflict, women are the natural victims, "trying hard to secure their family's land.''

For Santa Michael, a correspondent for Ashour, the Christian TV broadcaster, wearing the map is her way of making a political protest.

''Officials now speak in the name of their sects, not in the name of the country,'' she said. 'Whenever I say my name, and people say, "Oh, you must be Christian,' I show my pendant and say: 'I'm Iraqi."

Michael says when people see her necklace, they give her a thumbs-up and say ''Afiya,'' which loosely translates as "Bravo.''

Her mother urged her to stop wearing it after Bahjat's slaying and after the February kidnapping of another female TV correspondent, Reem Zaeed, who also was wearing a map necklace when she was snatched.

It is not known where she is.

''But I refuse to take it off,'' Michael said. "They will be taking it off my body after I die.''