Muslim Sexual Harassment in Iraq

Baghdad display warns that women who don't wear the hijab will be punished in the afterlife.
Photo Credit: McClatchy

This is the ninth post in my series Muslim Sexual Harassment to show that women in Muslim countries are either forced to wear a hijab or are harassed for not wearing one. See my first article, Muslim Sexual Harassment in Jordan.

A Brief History of Women in Iraq

After World War I the victorious Allies carved up the former Ottoman Empire into fictitious states and named them after ancient nations. The new State of Iraq's borders were defined without considering the various ethnic and religious groups in the country, including the Kurds, the Assyrians, and the Shi'ites. For example, the Brits took two former Ottoman regions, Baghdad and Basra, and formed them into a single country in August 1921, adding the northern region of Mosul five years later into what is now the modern borders.

Because the British were in control during the mandate years, women were allowed greater freedom than many other Muslim countries in the Middle East.

The British influence remained even years after they left. In 1959 The Personal Status Law was introduced shortly after Iraq became a Republic which granted equal inheritance and divorce rights for men and women. This was unheard of in Muslim countries which relied heavily upon Islamic Sharia Law for such questions.

From the 1970 to 1980 there were efforts to eradicate illiteracy among women mainly to help them enter the war-time labor force. Saddam Hussein became President of Iraq in 1979. A year later women were given the right to vote and hold office.

Despite all this, all was not bright and good for women. His brutal rule over the country extended to women as well. Women were used to punish dissidents both local and foreign; for example, one regime tactic was to send video tapes of their female relatives being raped by members of the secret police. Women under Saddam Hussein were imprisoned, tortured, murdered and raped.

After 1990, after years of war with Iran and needing support from surrounding Islamic states, Saddam publicly acknowledged the moral authority of Islam, thus eliminating many rights women previously had with respect to divorce, child custody, and inheritance especially after Saddam introduced Article 111 into the Iraqi Penal Code in 1990 exempting from punishment men who killed females in defense of family honor. As a consequence, honor killings rose dramatically.

[Some of the above taken from Women in Post-Saddam Iraq: One Step Forward or Two Steps Back? PDF]

After the Iraq invasion in 2003

Well, things have not gotten better for women because of the rise of Islamic groups that were mostly held in check by Saddam. The average woman in Iraq is subject to rape or kidnap if they leave their homes. (1)

Nothing illustrates the situation in regard to wearing of the hijab than the photo above. Here is the caption:

Men view a Baghdad display that warns that women who don't wear the hijab, or traditional Muslim head covering, will be punished in the afterlife. The display, which depicts women engulfed in flames, was erected by Islamist leaders as part of what many women see as a campaign to limit their role in public life. | Sahar Issa / MCT

This provocative display was erected outside a major Shiite shrine last November in northern Baghdad by local Islamist leaders. Behind the four veiled mannequins are another four mannequins but with uncovered heads laced with burns, shackled in chains and with red strands lapping at their feet to simulate a fiery afterlife. There is no subtlety: wear the hjab or burn in hell.

Before the US occupation very few women wore the hijab. Now in certain areas of Iraq, women, Christian or Muslim, are killed for not wearing it. In Basra, "more than 100 women who didn't adhere to strict Islamic dress code" were killed between the summer of 2007 and spring of 2008 by Islamist militias. (2)

In the beginning of the 20th century, it looked as if the hijab would disappear from most Arab countries. By 1950 almost no women in Egypt or Iraq wore the hijab. In another few years all women in Muslim countries will be wearing them - or else.



Human Rights Watch, Climate of Fear

Sexual Violence and Abduction of Women and Girls in Baghdad

July 15, 2003

The insecurity plaguing Baghdad and other Iraqi cities has a distinct and debilitating impact on the daily lives of women and girls, preventing them from participating in public life at a crucial time in their country's history. Human Rights Watch interviewed rape and abduction victims and witnesses, Iraqi police and health professionals, and U.S. military police and civil affairs officers, and learned of twenty-five credible allegations of rape or abduction. The report found that police officers gave low priority to allegations of sexual violence and abduction, that the police were under-resourced, and that victims of sexual violence confronted indifference and sexism from Iraqi law enforcement personnel. The report also found that U.S. military police were not filling the gap when Iraqi police were unwilling or unable to conduct serious investigations of sexual violence and abduction. This 17-page report concludes that the failure of Iraqi and U.S.-led occupation authorities to provide public security in Iraq's capital lies at the root of a widespread fear of rape and abduction among women and their families.

Download this report [PDF]


Washington Post, 4 Jan 2010, One woman's account of having to cover her head in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- "You have to wear a hijab," my husband told me shortly after we got married. "Don't argue with me over this issue."

With those words, he started imposing his will. It was the first tax I had to pay for getting married, the same one many of my female friends have had to pay in a country that sometimes pretends to be secular -- a country called Iraq.

Feeling as if I was being chained, I reluctantly put on the black veil over my head before heading to work one morning.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw another face, another person and I murmured to myself: "Who is this, and why do I have to accept this?"


After 2003, wearing the hijab became a means of protection. Many women opted to wear the veil to protect themselves from dogmatic militiamen who kidnapped and murdered people they deemed secular. Being beautiful or flashy made women particularly vulnerable to kidnappings and other attacks.

In Basra province, in southern Iraq, this trend became so pervasive that some groups forced Christian women to cover up.


Still, I can't help but sigh each time I think about how I dressed just a year ago when I went to the market. I used to wear short skirts and shirts with short sleeves.

### End of my article ###

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