Teenage Girls Hope for More Freedom

Jun 29, 2004 by

Christina Asquith  June 29, 2004
Special Middle-East Correspondent

What has always scared Walla the most about the war is the noise. At night, she says, US missiles have landed in her neighborhood and shook the floor of the 2nd floor apartment she shares with her 3 siblings and parent. ‘My father works at night, and I call him and cry and say please daddy come home.

Christina Asquith

Walla is a 17-year old freshman at the Baghdad Girls School for Art, and she plans one day to be a photographer. Her life is typical of Baghdad teenage girls these days. While Walla hopes the US presence and the new Iraqi government will bring her more independence, the incessant violence has meant less “not more” freedom for her and her girlfriends.

Across Iraq, war is changing the lives of women in dramatic and different ways. Walla lives in a Baghdad neighborhood that is very poor, religious and conservative. Along the dirt streets, women move in fluttering black abayas from the bread and bakery stores to their homes, usually with small barefoot children in tow.
Under the final years of Saddam’s regime, her father lost his job as a kebab chef, and so the family moved into a two-story apartment with her extended family. Her uncle and his family are on the first floor. Walla’s family shares the second floor. Her two older sisters, her younger brother and her parents all cram into one room with beds, a refrigerator and closets.

Walla rarely leaves the house now. Because of the lack of security, her neighborhood has become a battleground. Lately, boys have started rebelling against the US soldiers. They accuse the US soldiers of shooting at them, and say they think the US will steal Iraq’s oil and occupy the country for many months. Many throw rocks at the US tanks, and Walla suspects are behind many of the more serious shootings and missile attacks against the US. At night, the US bombs the neighborhood, trying to weed out the insurgents, but they often kill innocent people instead.

I like the US soldiers but I don’t dare wave at them now, says Walla. €œI know one of the fighters; he attacked a US convoy and his friend was killed and he tried to run and hide in the neighbors house and he’s still there.
He’s putting our life in danger, but he just wants a place to hide so we have to help him.™

The US government officially departed Iraq yesterday, and they leave behind a strong record of support for the women’s movement here. In government, Iraqi women have better representation than any other nation in the Middle East. There are six female Governing Council members and seven female government ministers. They have also written into law that no less than 25 percent of the Iraqi government must be female.
Already, at least a nine women’s centers are under construction built with US help, aimed at giving women job training, education, literacy classes and serve as a springboard around which to revolve any number of entrepreneurial type activities that help women not only carve a role for themselves in the new Iraq, but also keep the nation together in the meantime.

Thus far, US Congress has devoted $27 million for women’s program; USAID gave another $17 million, and the US State Department has given $10 million to help Iraqi women in business.

Women in Iraq have traditionally had many more rights than their Arab counterparts, winning the right to drive and vote in the first half of the century, and by the 1980s, holding many high positions in education. In the 1980s, Saddam even won accolades for female enrollment in schools. However, in the 1990s, in an effort to shore up support from tribesman and religious groups, Saddam introduced into the penal code section 111, which exempted men who killed female relatives in defense of “their honor.” Due to the poor economy, many girls had to drop out of school to work. The war has exacerbated this.

‘My mother always says to us that she lived through many wars and that we have to get used to it,” says Walla. “There’s no need to be scared, she says. We must be strong, like her.

However, just as the unstable situation requires Walla be more reserved and stay in the house, the modernization of Iraq is tempting her to be more open. Walla’s family bought their first satellite television last year.

Saddam forbade families from owning satellites because he feared they would see negative news about Iraq. He only allowed three channels, two for adults and one for youth, which had American movies from the 1980s. Now, Walla’s family has 300 channels to choose from, and Walla says her favorite thing to watch anything that comes from America, especially music videos by Enrique Iglesias. In these videos the girls wear tight clothing, loose hair and lots of makeup. “I want to know how to look like this,” Walla says.

In the room Walla’s family shares, she hangs a poster of Enrique Iglesias over the bed she shares with her sister. “My dream is to go to New York City,” she says, “and to be a famous photographer.’

Walla is viewed by many Iraqis to be ‘modern’. She does not wear the hajab, which is a scarf to cover her head. Nor does she wear the abaya, which is a full length black dress that cloaks a womens’ figure. More than half of the girls at Walla’s university wear a hajab; and in rural areas of Iraq almost all women wear the hajab and the abaya, but Walla said most girls can choose in Baghdad to wear it, and she has never felt comfortable in it.

In Iraq’s conservative society, it’s inappropriate in most cases for teenage girls and boys to socialize together. They are schooled separately. Walla sometimes sees boys in her neighborhood that she would like to talk to.
Once, though, she was just walking down the street with a boy and the neighbors saw and told her father.
‘The neighbors always watch to see what I am wearing, and judge if it is too tight.’ Her father sat her down and told her that he was bringing shame onto the whole family by talking to a boy that was not her husband. If her father finds out again she is talking to a boy, he will withdraw her from her college, and forbid her from leaving the house. ‘If a boy tries to talk to me, I can’t allow it. I have to tell him ‘respect yourself’, and don’t get me in trouble.’

Prayer in her household was very important. Like 95 percent of Iraq, Walla is Muslim and she studied the Koran in elementary school. Her religion requires her to pray five times a day. Each time, she takes out a small rectangular prayer mat, and faces it towards Mecca, which is in Saudi Arabia and is the most holy site for Muslims. She kneels on it, and prays for about three minutes. Prayer is important to Walla because she believes she it is her way of communicating directly to her God, Allah, and it helps her feel comfort during stressful times. It is the only thing that gives her hope for the future.

‘I pray that my father will be safe because his job requires he work with Americans, and many Iraqis are being killed for this. I pray for the future.

Most of all, I pray for peace.’

For more articles on Iraq education, visithttp://www.christinareporting.com/

Christina Asquith is a freelance journalist who’s written for The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and The Economist. She recently finished a book about her year as a teacher in a tough Philadelphia school. It is due out next year. Contact her at ChristinaAsquith@hotmail.com

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