The New York Times
May 25, 2003
Iraqi Career Women Ponder a Future Under Shiite Rule
By NAZILA FATHI
BASRA, Iraq, _ Like many Iraqis, Thawra Yousif Jacob has no job these days. But Ms. Jacob, a 43-year-old dancer and theater director, fears that with the empowerment of Shiite clerics in southern Iraq, she may not be able to resume her career.
After Saddam Hussein's government fell, the three main theaters here were taken over by the three rival Shiite Muslim factions. The University of Basra, where Ms. Jacob taught drama, was closed after it was looted and badly damaged.
"Frankly, from March until now, the fall of Saddam was like a good dream," she said. "But now the situation is like a nightmare. I do not know if I would be able to have my dancing classes or direct a play anymore."
Sixty percent of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, and they are especially dominant in the south. Shiite clerics have quickly moved to assert themselves in southern cities and to seize power after 35 years of suppression by Mr. Hussein's Baath Party, which was dominated by Sunni Muslims.
The Shiite clerics have moved quickly to constrain the freedom of women as a show of their authority. That has left many women in these southern cities, especially professionals like Ms. Jacob, wrestling with the losses and gains in the post-Hussein era.
The cleric appointed to run the educational system in Basra, Ahmad al-Malek, declared that female teachers would not be allowed to receive their emergency salary payment if they appeared without a head scarf.
Female students at the university said they were being harassed by followers of these Shiite clerics for not wearing head scarves, and many shops in the market have put up signs that read, "My sister, cover your hair."
Ms. Jacob said she wore a head scarf when she went to get her payment and has begun wearing it when she goes to the market. "But I refuse to wear it at university because I do not want them to impose it on me," she added.
During most of the years when Mr. Hussein was in power, Iraqi women worked and studied with fewer restrictions than in neighboring Muslim countries, and they made up a large percentage of the professional class. They could vote, choose their own husbands and maintain custody of their children after a divorce. Iraq allowed women to inherit equally with their brothers.
Women came under pressure in the 1990's, though, when Mr. Hussein began trying to please Islamic leaders. He barred women from traveling without a male relative, for example, unless they were going to work.
Here in southern Iraq, years of suppression of the Shiites and poverty have eroded the middle class and led more people to turn to religion as a refuge or to use it as a tool for solidarity. Economic hardship has shaped the attitudes of many women here, leaving them less likely to give priority to their rights as women.
In more conservative cities, like Najaf, the burial place of Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and the founder of the Shiite branch of Islam, no woman is seen in public without an abaya, a head-to-toe black garment. Religious men are vocal in criticizing women, even foreign women, who do not wear an abaya there.
Sundis Abdul Sadegh, a 26-year-old nurse in the city of Amara, 110 miles north of here, said her husband had allowed her to work only because her salary was more than his income as a shopkeeper. She said her family had ordered her not to speak to the British soldiers in the city.
"I listen to him because it is the order of religious men that it is forbidden for women to speak to foreigners," she said, wearing a gray head scarf.
Muhammad Qassem Malek, a student at the University of Basra and a nephew of the man in charge of the educational system, explained the reason for such an order: "There is a special softness to women's voices, and because of that they can speak flirtatiously. So it is better for them and society not to speak to American and British soldiers."
Mr. Malek, 28, added that in the mid-1990's, he became a follower of the teachings of Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, an influential Shiite leader who had been killed by Mr. Hussein. Ayatollah Sadr had made strong pronouncements about how women should dress, and Mr. Malek considers himself on a mission to make sure women observe his edicts.
At the university he approaches women who are not wearing a head scarf, which is called a hijab. "Sometimes they swear at me and tell me to get lost, but I see it as my religious obligation," he said. "Some of them have listened and have become good Muslim women."
Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, leader of the influential Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution, returned to Iraq early in May after 23 years of exile in Iran, and he invited all Shiites, including women, to take part in the development of the country.
He said on the day he arrived here that women, especially educated and professional women, should not remain at home. Rather, he invited them to work and to contribute to the reconstruction of the country.
But Ms. Jacob is not confident this will enable her to resume her career. Ayatollah Hakim's party is one of the groups that have taken over the theaters in Basra.
Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/25/international/worldspecial/25WOME.html
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)