[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 3 July, 2003, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
The women of Iraq
Iraqi women

Sixty per cent of Iraqis are female and yet under Saddam Hussein they were vastly under represented at a public level.

In a special report, David Loyn looked at the issues facing Iraqi women two months after the fighting was declared to be 'over'.

These are the remains of unknown victims of Saddam. Found in one of the dozens of mass graves now being dug up in central and southern Iraq. Some bodies here have been given names from a scrap of clothing and taken away for private burials, leaving these unnamed dead to go for mass burial with full ceremony to a traditional sound of gunfire. Lining the route are mothers and widows who wonder if their sons and husbands are among these pathetic boxes of bones. This boy has been brought up by his grandmother.

Saddam sent three men to kill this little boy's father. They took all his money and killed him. It is terrible. My husband is now 60 and he is the only working man in the family.

Hundreds of thousands of men died in Saddam's reign of terror. Most in the failed uprising of 1991. Their deaths left women to bear the burden. A British ex-policeman is trying to repeat a DNA testing scheme here which has already identified thousands of war dead in Bosnia.

It may be worse here because you hardly see any women. It must be more difficult than in the Balkans. It's terrible the job we are doing. The hardest part of it is working with the families because there is this desperate look in their eyes.

There was no expense spared in commemorating the million or so who died in Saddam Hussein's senseless war with Iran. He spent lavish amounts building this pair of blue domes in the centre of Baghdad. There's no memorial to the hundreds of thousands executed by his security apparatus. His former state would prefer we forget about them. Their families and friends never forgot. All over Baghdad, there are lists of names on banners now being put up by families who can announce their loss for the first time. Wherever women gather, the past is always present. Even as they struggle with the deprivations of post- war Iraq, the chaotic power, water and sewage provision, the memory of those who died is still with them.

As Oscar Wilde said: "Nothing is meaningless, least of all suffering." We have suffered a lot. In our district there are so many families that lost more than three or four, some have lost seven members.

This meeting was called to persuade more women to enter politics. Dr Yusuf has already been appointed to a local council to run her district, but remarkably she does not see this as politics. Politics was a word shamed by Saddam Hussein.

Politicians, we're withdrawn from those people, we are afraid that there will be too many promises that won't be fulfilled and a lot of talks that aren't true.

The star guest over the tea is Iraq's most prominent woman politician Safia Al-Souhail, in exile until now. She is guaranteed a place in the new Iraqi administration when America gets round to naming it.

We have to start to give them back their confidence. Taking the fear from their hearts and encourage not only women, but others, to give the opportunity to their women to live a normal life and participate.

Safia has been hosting a series of a high-profile receptions in a city where such power politics is in its infancy. At this party, senior Kurdish leaders and others rub shoulders with key American and British figures, while Safia plots to get more women into power.

They wanted to bring three other women to the conference tomorrow. I told them in Arabic, thank God you start thinking of us. We have women who are skilful and educated but need to be trained as well to be an activist, how to ask about their rights. Many don't know their rights.

It's like starting a society from the bottom?


What is the biggest problem women face?

The main problem is poverty for the Iraqi people. They need to start working to get some money and start having a normal life.

At the other end of society, women have far more pressing concerns than running for office. Saddam Hussein's most powerful instrument of social control was poverty. He calculated that people struggling for their daily bread are too preoccupied to rise up. In this village, they used to have water, electricity and a school. Now their only water supply is ground water drawn up by a pump. All the women complain their children are constantly sick. It's a vicious cycle of poor health where mothers are weakened by their diet and have low weight babies who are less able to cope. One in eight Iraqi children does not reach the age of five. Seham Farhan says if we're going to film her washing clothes, we might at least have brought some clean water with us. Saddam's legacy will be hard to erase. Seham has five children, none is at school. This failure could have long-lasting effects. Education, particularly women's, is one of the key factors in successful development.

If children are ill, we have to take them to Baghdad. We don't have hospitals here. The distance that you have driven from the main road to here, we have to walk that when we are sick, to get help.

Not far from this village is Safia's old family home, headquarters of her powerful tribe which has fallen on hard times. An uncle, straight from a Chekhov play, rises up from an afternoon doze to greet us.

It was a palace. You are seeing a house which still has a history, very powerful and strong history but it is a place which...

Has seen better times.


When the bomb came, the window broke?

Yes. We are happy to have this damage because Saddam Hussein is not any more here.

As in any Islamic countries, the issue of women's dress is going to be controversial in the new Iraq. Safia covers her head for the next meeting with a religious leader. He is one of Iraq's top ayatollahs and a potential power broker. Safia wants to make sure that women should continue to have the freedom not to cover their heads if they don't want to. The ayatollah emphasises that women have a role in the home. He won't commit himself on whether they should cover their heads in public. This is a literally a life and death matter. An Iraqi woman worker at the UN in Baghdad received a letter from a known Islamist force threatening her with death if she didn't wear the veil.

She came in my office and she was in tears. I can't understand why. She said: "What am I going to do? I have no money to move. I have to stay in the place where I am and there is nothing I can do." She said the only solution is for me to wear the veil. That's what she's doing now.

The idealised feminine images advertising the offerings of a beauty parlour are not visible outside its doors now. There are not many women seen outside at all and those that are seen cover themselves up. This is one area where Saddam's fall has made things worse. In that political meeting, Safia was the only woman in the room who didn't cover her head. It's another challenge to women in a society frozen until now by oppression inside and sanctions imposed from outside.

They have a big burden on them. Living off their children and escaping danger. This year of sanctions have been very strong on them, psychologically.

The unknown dead found in a mass grave were reburied in the holy city of Karbala. Their initial discovery came after detective work from satellite images stored since 1991. So we had the technology then to record the burial without the ability to stop the massacre. The blame game has gone on since as to whether sanctions or Saddam were more responsible for Iraq's poverty. Either way, while the remains of men are laid to rest, widows are left to pick up the pieces.

Newsnight can be seen on BBC Two at 2230 BST 2130 GMT, or in Real video, either live or on demand, by clicking on the latest programme button.

David Loyn
looks at the role of women in Iraq


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific