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V-Day Awardee Yanar Mohammed Featured: Shielding Women From a Renewal of Domestic Violence

Originally published in:
The New York Times

Shielding Women From a Renewal of Domestic Violence

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A sampling of the smashed lives in this city's first shelter for battered women shows just how much work its founder, Yanar Mohamed, has before her.

There is Susan, whose new husband began to beat her after discovering that she had been raped as a teenager. He held their new baby to her breast for feedings, because she was not allowed to touch the infant. She now lives in the shelter with the child.

Rana, a 16-year-old who had been abused for years by her father, escaped from her home soon after he beat her sister so badly that she died.

Over the summer, Ms. Mohamed, an Iraqi-Canadian architect-turned-advocate, has opened a shelter in Baghdad and another in Kirkuk, in the north. Between them, the shelters house 10 women. The shelters are the first in Iraq (not including the Kurdish-controlled part of northern Iraq, which has been free from Saddam Hussein since 1991), and they have provided a safe place for victims of abuse.

The women come without papers or passports. They even leave their names behind them, for safety. They are blamed for the very abuse they suffer, accused of bringing dishonor on their families. In a punishing and rigid Islamic tradition, some would be killed if their relatives found them.

Since the American invasion and the virtual collapse of the Iraqi state, Islamic militancy has grown. Hard-line Islamists dominate several cities just north and west of Baghdad. Liquor stores have been bombed, and more women are covering their heads in public.

At the same time, women's groups have mushroomed. Hanaa Edwar, secretary of Iraqi al-Amal, which provides health care to poor women, estimates that there are a few hundred women's groups across Iraq now, compared to just a few dozen before the war.

Ms. Mohamed's group, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, is among them. In addition to the shelters, she runs a newspaper, organizes lobbying campaigns out of a tiny office in central Baghdad, and employs a lawyer who offers legal services to women.

Her decision to become an advocate for abused women grew from her own past. Her family forced her grandmother, as a teenager, to marry a cleric who was 40 years her senior. She ran away but was returned a few years later and eventually bore him five children.

"Imagine being married by force and having five children with a man you despise," said Ms. Mohamed, 43, who on a recent day was wearing jeans, platform sandals and a red T-shirt. "It cannot happen again. But if you look at the streets now, the politics, it is happening."

In many ways, Iraqi women were freer a half-century ago than they are today. Women's groups had pushed through changes to the civil code making multiple marriages more difficult for men and improving rules that governed inheritance for women. Some women were educated abroad, and women were appointed as judges and to government posts.

But women began losing those gains in the 1980's, when years of war sapped economic resources, plunging the country into poverty and eroding women's independence. To appease religious leaders in Iraq and his Arab neighbors, Mr. Hussein forced a stricter adherence to conservative religious rules.

The Baghdad shelter is a two-story house rented by Ms. Mohamed and run by a woman in her 30's. Its location is secret. An armed guard is always on duty. A handful of women live in two bedrooms and a living room.

Rana, the 16-year-old, is from a conservative southern city. She was taken out of school after the fourth grade. She was not allowed to leave the house, or watch television. After her sister died and she fled, a woman from the American military saved her, she said, allowing her to stay on a military base temporarily.

Her family tracked her down, through a local Iraqi translator at the base, and showed up one day to take her back. The family signed an agreement saying they would not beat her, but she said it had no effect. Relatives placed hot coals on her head to cure her of her running away, which they perceived as a mental illness, Rana said.

She escaped again, back to the base, and has been in the shelter since it opened. She spoke sitting on a sunny patch of couch in Ms. Mohamed's office, wearing a tight lime-green T-shirt, tennis shoes and a leather wristband. Most of all, she said, she wants to return to school, for the first time in many years.

Shelters for abused women are completely new to most Iraqis. Violence against women is not discussed publicly. It is implicitly condoned even by Iraq's legal system, which gives much reduced sentences in cases of so-called honor killings, in which male relatives kill a woman they think has violated the honor of the family. Rega Rauf, an Iraqi now living in Sweden, wrote a book on honor killings in northern Iraq that detailed 400 cases in Sulaimaniya in 1998."When you speak about the phenomenon of violence against women, it is very new," Ms. Edwar said. "It's a very old problem, but people are not used to hearing it talked about."

Ms. Mohamed is talking loudly. She separated from her husband and returned to Iraq last year after living abroad since 1993. She sold her house in Canada, left her 17-year-old son there with his father and used the proceeds from the sale to start her organization.

She is a last-resort advocate for women in many situations. She helped a group of 47 who worked in a bank and who were jailed in the spring after their supervisor accused them of stealing. After days of waiting to plead her case, she lost her patience and began shouting at the Iraqi clerks and American military officials in the room with her.

"I had bad manners," she said, smiling. "But they listened to us."

Three weeks later, all 47 women were released, and a superior was arrested.

Ms. Mohamed has received threats by e-mail and by phone. Both her phone number and her e-mail address are published in her newspaper so women can reach her about abuse. One person threatened to kill her, and another said he would blow her up.

"He was very specific," she said. She seemed unruffled, but said she had worn a bulletproof vest to the hearing for the bank workers, just to be safe.

The women most in danger of being killed are those whose families accuse them of besmirching the family honor. They are being sought by their entire tribe. There are three such women in the Baghdad shelter.

The killing and abuse stretches across class and educational lines.

Ms. Mohamed's newspaper, Equality, recently published a story about a woman who died after being tied to a tree, shot and beaten in an area called New Baghdad after she went alone with the man she wanted to marry to a southern city to fetch a tribal leader. She had hoped he could persuade her father, a lawyer, to accept her choice of husband. "I don't want to take us back to the time of my grandmother," Ms. Mohamed said. "It depends on us whether we resist or not."

Mona Mahmoud contributed reporting for this article.

Correction: Oct. 15, 2004, Friday

An article yesterday about shelters in Iraq that protect abused women referred incorrectly to the risk of death the women often face from relatives, who believe the abuse victims have brought dishonor on the family. While such a reaction occurs in some parts of the Arab world, it is not an Islamic tradition and has been rejected by a vast majority of Islamic scholars.