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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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By Hamza Hendawi

September 6, 2010

BAGHDAD — Only one of Nidal Haidar’s six sisters is married. She has given up on ever getting hitched.

“Our chances of finding husbands are diminishing as we grow older,” said Haidar, a 38-year-old dressmaker from Baghdad. “I am at an age where anyone who may propose to me will either be a widower or very, very old, but no one is really proposing to me since all the men now are looking for a rich or a young bride.”

The war has had any number of hidden costs for Iraqis. One that few outside Iraq might notice or even consider a significant problem: More women are finding themselves over 30 and single after seven years of bloody turmoil that made marriage more difficult, killing many young men and blowing apart social networks.

In Iraq’s conservative society, women are expected to be married in their teens or early 20s. Women who cross the 30-year threshold and are single face powerful social stigmas and live under heavy limitations.

Generally, they must continue living with their parents or other family. If they are not wealthy, educated or employed, they are often reduced by relatives to servitude — cleaning, washing, cooking and watching over small children.

Work opportunities are limited. At jobs or in public, unmarried women are sometimes seen as vulnerable, without the protection of a husband. Some almost never leave their houses.

“I am home all day long. I rarely go out,” Haidar whispered, out of the earshot of a client who dropped by her home one recent afternoon to pick up a dress.

Haidar, who has a high school diploma, at least can earn a living and keep active with her dressmaking business. She and her fellow unmarried sisters — aged 23 to 40 — live with their parents in Sadr City, a Shiite district in eastern Baghdad that has seen some of the Iraq war’s worst street fighting.

“The last seven years of fighting has killed whatever chance I had of marrying. I no longer think of marriage,” she said.

There are no figures available for the number of single females in their 30s in Iraq, but women’s rights activists say it is beyond question that a disproportionately large number of them exists.

Being female, single and over 30 was already common because of Iraq’s decades of conflict, including the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. But their number is believed to have significantly grown since 2003. Besides the young men killed in violence, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis — many of them fighting-age males — fled the country.

Also, suicide bombings, sectarian slayings, death squads and gunbattles disrupted social networks for marriage. People feared leaving their homes, so young people had little chance to meet potential spouses.

Family visits, traditionally an opportunity for the men to meet future spouses have become rare during the height of the violence.

The Shiite-Sunni violence also meant that cross-sect marriages have become much less frequent.

Economic woes have also left many young men unable to afford the heavy expenses they must traditionally pay for marriage — including buying or renting and furnishing a home.

Unmarried and jobless, 39-year-old Fayhaa Jalil lives with her brother and his family in west Baghdad’s Jihad neighborhood. “My sister-in-law persecutes me and treats me like a house servant,” Jalil said.

Jalil still dreams of starting her own family but, she said, she’s “realistic.” On her street, only a handful of the 50 or so homes are occupied. Everyone else fled Shiite-Sunni violence.

“Who will see me if I don’t have any neighbors?” Jalil said. “Wars, violence and sectarianism are the cause of my misery. … There are no suitable public places where someone like me can meet someone and eventually marry.”

Jinan Mubarak, the head of a leading non-governmental women’s organization in Baghdad, said the problems unmarried women face get little attention as the government focuses on helping the hundreds of thousands of widows left by wars.

“Single women are constantly harassed at work and at home because of their perceived vulnerability,” she said. “They are exploited by their families too.”

Women’s activists are publicly debating solutions to promote marriage, like having the government offer cash incentives to men prepared to marry older women or take second wives, allowed under Islamic law.

Mubarak cautiously backs one proposal for the government to pay a one-off sum of money to men who marry a woman over the age of 35. But she recognizes such a policy has its dangers for women.

“Women are not merchandise for sale, there must be guarantees of good intentions on the part of the men if we allow this to go ahead,” she said.

To encourage marriage amid economic hard times, authorities and charities often organize mass weddings free of charge for couples unable to afford private parties and offer them wedding presents of cash or domestic appliances.

But another women’s rights activist, Hanaa Adwar, says such gestures won’t solve the deeper problems for unmarried women. “The real solution is in security, the revival of the economy and tackling unemployment,” she said.

Unmarried women “must be given vocational skills to earn a living and get help to start small projects and be integrated in society,” she said.

Others brush aside the social stigma and put more premium on careers than marriage.

Lina Hameed Ali, a 32-year-old English college teacher from Baghdad, is one of them.

“I prefer a successful career over a marriage that does not work,” she said. “At work, my efforts are met with gratitude, but giving in a marriage is not always reciprocated,” said Ali, a Shiite who rejected three marriage proposals because the suitors were not from her religious sect.

“I am filled with sorrow when relatives keep asking me why I am not married yet or blame me for rejecting proposals,” said Ali. “It is the narrowminded mentality of our Eastern societies.”

Associated Press Writer Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.

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