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

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By Jack Healy and Yasir Ghazi

Published by the New York Times, February 27, 2011

BAQUBA, Iraq — The women charged with thwarting Iraq’s female suicide bombers spend their days in cramped metal sheds at police checkpoints and lobbies of government offices, running their hands over the black-robed bodies of other women.

Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

The Daughters of Iraq, a security team developed to search women for suicide bombers, say they have not been paid in nearly a year, since the government took control of the program.

The Iraqi authorities say the searches have helped to curb female suicide attacks, once a scourge of this still-dangerous city. And they say the teams of women, known as the Daughters of Iraq, play a crucial role in a country where rigid divisions between the sexes make it awkward, sometimes unthinkable, for male police officers to frisk women and girls in search of the telltale lump of a gun or an explosive belt.

But the women say they have not been paid in nearly a year, since the Iraqi government took control of the program from the United States military, which helped establish and finance the Daughters in 2008.

“They keep promising they’ll pay us next month, then next month,” said Hind Jasim, who joined the Daughters after her husband lost his job. “What keeps us here are their promises.”

The women’s struggles reflect broader concerns about how the Iraqi government will maintain projects financed by the United States as the remaining 50,000 American troops depart over the next 10 months.

Some of the 300 women in the Daughters quit after their $250 monthly pay dried up. Those who stayed on, a vast majority, are sliding deeper into the poverty the program was intended to ameliorate. Many are war widows or their family’s only breadwinners.

Here in Diyala Province, in the northeast, once the country’s epicenter of female suicide attacks, the group’s leaders are straining to find money to pay electric bills and rent on its drafty headquarters. The women said that the local government and police forces had advocated on behalf of the group, but that they had provided little material support.

Wijdan Adil, who helped found the Daughters, said Iraqi officials had encouraged the women to keep working as a matter of duty to Iraq and their slain husbands, even as some sank into debt and became disillusioned with the government.

“If you give up on the Daughters of Iraq, there will be a security vacuum in Diyala,” Ms. Adil said. “They’ll be an easy target for Al Qaeda,” she said, referring to the Daughters.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki blamed “technical reasons” for the lapse in payments, but said the government was committed to financing the Daughters and integrating them into a branch of the security services.

“They are doing a job that cannot be done by their brothers in security,” said the spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi. “Their work is respected and appreciated by all.”

Iraq has also been slow to pay the Awakening Movement, American-backed teams of former Sunni insurgents who switched sides to fight alongside United States forces.

Iraqi officials promised to weave the Awakening members into security forces and other government ministries, but a recent report by American officials overseeing Iraqreconstruction found that only 41 percent of 95,000 Awakening members had been given jobs.

The Daughters of Iraq were modeled after the Awakening, though on a much smaller scale. In late 2008, trained in self-defense and small-arms use, they fanned out to traffic checkpoints and other security posts in Diyala, Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods and towns south of the capital.

Some Iraqis were angered by the sight of women wearing gray, military-style shirts at checkpoints or marching in formation during parades. A few of the women received threatening phone calls, said Ms. Adil, the group’s director, who survived a roadside bombing last October that maimed her brother.

Iraqi officials said the searches played a role in curbing female bombers. There were 36 such attacks in 2008; the number plunged to four in 2009 and to only one in 2010 — actually a man dressed as a woman, according to the United States military. There have been no reported female suicide attacks this year.

The drop coincides with an overall decline in violence over the past few years, and much of the decrease in female suicide bombings may be attributed to American and Iraqi military actions against militant groups.

Akbal Abed Rashid, 45, said she joined the Daughters out of necessity. Her husband, an Iraqi soldier, was killed by militants in 2006. A month later, fearing retribution, they killed her 17-year-old son. Ms. Rashid said she alone had to care for her four daughters and two young sons.

“Joining the Banat al-Iraq was the only way to survive,” she said, using the group’s Arabic name. “Nobody sees how much we have sacrificed, how much trouble we have supporting our families.”

Stories like hers are common in the streets in Diyala, where workers and farmers are still discovering mass graves holding men, women and children killed by militants.

In 2004, Abistam Aboud, 37, said she watched as militants stormed her house and shot her husband in the head. She said she scraped by for a few years by selling baked goods on the streets and running a corner store out of her living room, but was drawn to the Daughters by the promise of regular pay and the idea of protecting other people from attacks.

“I could protect other people, which I couldn’t do for my husband,” she said. “This is what I put in front of my eyes.”

But as months have passed without paychecks, women with the Daughters of Iraq say they are struggling to hang on, and growing cynical about the promises of back pay and government support.

Some have sold their jewelry and furniture, or left their homes to move in with family members, and racked up debts at local bakeries, clothing stores and supermarkets. One woman said she had to borrow money simply to commute to work at her checkpoint.

“We’ve fallen into debt, lots of debt,” said Zahara Abdullah, 34, who frisks women as they enter Diyala’s Ministry of Youth. “We are just buying the necessities to keep us alive.”

Like an estimated one in five Iraqis, Ms. Abdullah’s husband, a laborer, is out of work, leaving her to provide for the family. But since the monthly checks stopped, they have given up doctor’s visits. As she worked, her 5-year-old son collected handfuls of grass and clover to feed the rabbits and chickens the family raises in the backyard.

Though Ms. Abdullah said she had an accounting degree, a search for other work yielded nothing. So she has decided to hold out, saying she hopes that, any day now, her paycheck will come.

 

An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting.

 

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