Page last updated at 00:08 GMT, Sunday, 8 March 2009

The shame of Iraq's pariah widows

Funeral in Iraq

By Mike Sergeant
BBC News, Baghdad

Her husband and three brothers were killed. Her parents were already dead. Her house was burnt down. She was pregnant at the time and lost the baby.

But, in the months that followed, Nadia Hussein had to endure much more.

Now she lives at a refuge for women in the centre of Baghdad.

She spends her days feeding the pigeons and cooking. It's a place for her to escape the many dangers widows face in Iraq.

'Nephew beat me'

"After my husband died, I found work as a housekeeper," she told me.

"A man and his brother tried to make advances on me. They tried to sexually assault me. I refused.

Widow Nadia
Nadia Hussein's ordeal is an all too familiar story for Iraqi widows
"My nephew, who is an alcoholic, also used to beat me and accuse me of bad things."

Nadia said the people at the refuge were now her only family. But she still asks for their approval before doing anything or going anywhere.

Her story is not particularly unusual. Accurate figures are hard to obtain, but even before the invasion in 2003, there were hundreds of thousands of widows in Iraq.

Many lost husbands in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. At the height of the violence of recent years, up to 100 women a day were becoming widows.

Almost everywhere you go in Baghdad, you can see them begging at traffic lights and outside mosques - dressed from head to toe in black.

The women are supposed to be given just over $1 (0.70) a day from the government.

But a survey by the charity Oxfam has discovered that less than a quarter actually get the money.

'Will of God'

Many face physical and sexual abuse. Some are told to marry men who already have wives.

Iraqi widow Umm Harith
My husband always wanted me to be a suicide bomber
Umm Harith

Shia tradition also permits "temporary marriages" - which only last for a matter of days or weeks.

A few widows have themselves wanted to die violently - there have been many attacks by female suicide bombers.

Umm Harith was trained to carry one out but she backed away from going through with it.

"When my husband died I felt very isolated," she said. "He always wanted me to be a suicide bomber.

"When he was killed, I wanted to blow myself up. I wanted to kill the people who took away the person who was most precious to me."

Most of the widows we spoke to in Baghdad, though, do not seem to be interested in revenge.

They accept what has happened to them as the "will of God".

Indeed those who campaign on their behalf say one of the hardest things is getting the widows to think that they deserve better lives.

"It's not just about legislation," said Hana Adwar, a campaigner for women's rights.

"The problem is the way people behave inside the family. The question is how to change attitudes and behaviour towards them."

Nightclub dancers

Improvements in security have led to some shady opportunities for those who have lost their husbands and income. Nightclubs have started to reopen in Baghdad.

We visited one of them. The scene would previously have been unthinkable.

Widow Haifa Raheem
It's so difficult for women and girls to walk around freely - because of our traditions and our culture
Haifa Raheem

Men were sitting around drinking alcohol, listening to music and being entertained by women dancing.

Involvement in any of those activities a couple of years ago could have got you killed in Iraq.

I talk to the singer who works there. He says women are employed just to dance and talk to the customers.

But he tells me there are many other nightclubs in Baghdad where widows will leave with men for the right price.

There are a few places in this city where the women can get help.

At one centre, they are being taught the skills they need to find jobs - like IT and nursing.

Many are illiterate, though, and jobs are hard to come by.

The support available is dwarfed by the scale of the problem.

Just 120 - of the many tens of thousands who lost husbands since 2003 - have been given somewhere to live at a trailer park on the outskirts of Baghdad.


Haifa Raheem is one of them.

Inside her aluminium trailer, there is almost no furniture and just a few mats on the floor.

She lives here with her seven children and her mother. The family is almost entirely dependent on handouts.

"It's horribly hot in the summer," she said. "Staying here is better than nothing.

"But it's so difficult for women and girls to walk around freely - because of our traditions and our culture."

There's talk of passing new laws, and finding extra money for the hundreds of thousands of widows.

But campaigners say what they need more than anything is more respect in Iraqi society.

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