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Iraqi women fear their rights will end with Hussein era.

Many women in Iraq say their liberties and ambitions may be curtailed if Shiite religious leaders prevail. Haida Azzawi doesn't wear a scarf to hide her long, flowing hair. She dresses in striped cotton trousers and a colorful T-shirt. She comes and goes from her house as she pleases, unescorted by male relatives. And she wants to keep it that way.

Like many Iraqi women, the lively 24-year-old, who has a degree in math and statistics from a private college in Baghdad, is happy about the end of Saddam Hussein's rule, but she worries that the change in government could lead to a dramatic erosion of women's freedoms.

"I have never worn hijab, and I don't want to," said Azzawi, referring to the head covering worn by observant Muslim women. "But now I wonder if that is what's in store for the future. That and more things like it."

For decades, Iraqi women--at least those living in Baghdad and some other big cities--have enjoyed a degree of personal liberty undreamed of by women in neighboring nations such as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates.

They can drive. They can attend co-educational college classes. They can work outside the home in offices where men work as well. They can inherit property equally with their brothers.

Women make up a large proportion of Iraq's professional class--doctors, lawyers, engineers, college professors, bank directors, faculty deans. Many are free to choose whom, or even whether, to marry.

But there is a growing sense here that the power vacuum left by Hussein's fall will probably be filled, in large measure, by Shiite Muslim political figures who may seek to impose the conservative social mores that are typical in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south.

Like their society as a whole, Iraqi women are wrestling with a complex and subtle calculus of gains that are yet to be realized, coupled with potentially irredeemable losses, as a result of Hussein's fall. The Iraqi leader presided over one of the world's most repressive police states, but at the same time his secular, socialist-minded Baath Party provided many women with professional and educational opportunities unparalleled in the region.

Already, in these early postwar days, some women say they are seeing signs that they might be relegated to a more restricted role.

Ibrahimi, a doctoral candidate, comes from a Shiite family but one that is liberal in its outlook. A few days ago, one Of her cousins looked critically at her tinted blond ponytail as she was preparing to leave the house. "He said to me, 'Maybe you should be wearing hi jab,'".

Occasionally, Ibrahimi said, she encountered male students--or even professors--who told her that higher education for women was a waste of time. "Before, I didn't pay any attention to them," she said. "But now I feel less secure. I don't know if I can ignore this point of view." Others, though, are more optimistic. Iraq's needs are so pressing, they say, that everyone's help--women included--will be crucial.

Source: Los Angeles Times (USA), 27 April 2003
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Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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