WoMEN for Women in Iraq

Excerpts from Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal Omar


I was among the first international aid workers to arrive in Baghdad in 2003. I would also be among the last to leave. The two intervening years inside Iraq would transform my life forever…

My international colleagues were struggling to force Iraqi culture into convenient boxes, but I simply accepted its unique, fluctuating shape. International journalists marveled over the fact that women who were covered head to toe walked side by side with women with orange-colored hair and wearing tight jeans, but I simply shrugged. It was natural to me. The mosaic of identities inside Iraq was not hypocritical or schizophrenic; it was what made the country powerful. Nevertheless, that mosaic was shattered by the eruption of violence that followed on the heels of the U.S. invasion…

The hopes and dreams that Iraqis once dared to share evaporated in the smoke of car bombs. The diverse people who populated Iraq – Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, Sabaeans  had once sipped tea at their doorsteps, but now they had disappeared from the streets. Women hid behind closed doors. The only images from within Iraq were of death and destruction. The only feelings people described were betrayal and despair. Overnight, that brilliant diversity – Iraq’s own secret superpower – was forgotten, buried under the rubble left by bombs…

Iraqi woman
An Iraqi woman and child watch US soldiers carry out a raid in Tikrit 

I had been offered the position of country director with Women for Women International, a group that helped female survivors of war to rebuild their lives… Women for Women International focused on the most vulnerable women. This usually meant those who were the primary breadwinners in their house: widows, divorcees, or unmarried women living with elderly parents. In addition to the economic challenges, there was a social stigma attached to these women. This meant that their finding work was even more difficult…

First, the program addressed the pragmatic challenges of securing food, water, and shelter. Our main objective was to train the participants in a job skill that would enable them to earn an income. Second, the program hosted bimonthly sessions in which women would discuss ways to improve their lives. A large portion centered on protecting their rights. At the same time, we would organize awareness workshops centered on health care, family planning, and access to education…



Without any programs established, our staff consisted only of a local logistics team: Yusuf, Fadi, and Mais. Since we did not have an office space, the first time I met them was in the hotel restaurant… The three staffers stood in a line, looking at me as if I had landed from outer space. I reached out to shake their hands. All three appeared to be frozen in place, and then they shook my hand awkwardly and gave me tight, forced smiles. The look of disappointment on their faces was obvious, although I didn’t know its source…

I jumped in to try to break the ice… “Well, that’s all good. But at the end of the day it’s still a bit odd. Women for Women, and all I see in front of me are… men.”… The moment would have been less painful if I had slammed into an iceberg. The three continued to look at me with blank stares…

Later I learned that the three men had been promised an opportunity to work with an American woman. Instead, their boss looked a lot like an Iraqi women….

“Look,” said Fadi… “ when we joined the organization, Mark told us an American woman was coming. We were thrilled. We had seen all these blond and blue-eyed women and thought we would have the chance to get to know one. Instead, we got an Arab.” He grinned.

“Not, that’s not it,” Mais interrupted. “It’s not just that you’re not blond, although that was a bit of a shock. It’s that you’re also covered. I mean, who covers in America?”…

I laughed… and assured them that I could understand why they were disappointed. I also told them there were more where I came from. There were many Muslim American women who were veiled, gregarious professionals. They were excited to hear about my experiences growing up and pleased to see that I had liberal views despite my conservative dress…


Manal Omar

Mais and I reached the checkpoint outside the convention center…  A soldier asked for our IDs, and we promptly handed them over…
“Women for Women. Now that’s a great organization. Are you with them as well?” he asked Mais. Mais nodded, not daring to say anything.
“Well, then, I guess it’s only appropriate that you get searched with the women.” He pointed toward an Iraqi female translator seated a few meters away…

The Iraqi woman searched me, but she was too embarrassed to search Mais properly. She just patted him on the back and sent us on our way.

Mais turned completely red and murmured about how he had been humiliated… Two hours later… Mais was still fuming about the incident at the checkpoint. I could hear him as he told Fadi and Yusuf how the soldier had humiliated him.

“Saddiq? (For real?),” Yusuf asked. “Are you saying that you were patted down and body searched by a woman?”

Mais nodded, his face again turning red.

“I can’t believe you are complaining,” Fadi whined. “I am never that lucky!”

The entire ride back they both continued to tease him and asked him to recount the experience.


Body Search Cartoons

The security situation was fragile, and Mais argued that new employees had to be recruited based on strong relationship. At first, I thought this had been a setup for Mais to hire his brother or cousin. Instead, he brought in a childhood friend, Salah. After I saw how easily Salah integrated into the team, I understood Mais’s point of view.

The companionship between the four stood as a living testimony of a diverse yet unified Iraq: Fadi was a Christian, Mais a secular Shia, Yusuf a practicing Shia, and Salah a Sunni from the western province of Fallujah. These four men represented different communities in Iraq, and each one introduced me to a different side of Baghdad.

Early the next morning Salah stopped by with his wife, Nagham… She shared with me her stories of the four men who were now my self-appointed bodyguards. I was always aware of the camaraderie between the four friends, but I never realized how deep their relationship was with one another. She described them as neighbors who became friends, friends who became brothers…

Their friendship stood in defiance of talk of the inevitability of a segregated Iraq. As the situation inside Iraq disintegrated around me, I had the privilege of watching these four interact. They loved each other in a way Western culture reserved for blood brothers. Each one was quite literally prepared to take a bullet for the other. And somehow I had been allowed into their circle…


Iraqi Boys

Yusuf’s and Fadi’s families had adopted me as a long-lost cousin. Yusuf’s mother sent pots of food for me, and his sister, Maysoon, would send her housekeeper twice a week to clean my home and do my laundry… During this time, Hussein and Maysoon would often visit… During these visits, I also came to know Hussein.

A true representative of the modern Iraqi man, Hussein amazed me with how supportive he was of Maysoon. He loved the idea of her finding work outside their home. He would often tell me stories of the first time they met. They were college sweethearts, and he had admired her vibrancy and confidence during their freshman year…

Family1 Family1
Iraqi Family

There was a strong lobbying group inside the U.S.-appointed Interim Governing Council calling for an introduction of religious laws when applying the personal status laws in Iraq. These laws covered everything from the right to education to freedom of movement to inheritances to property rights to marriage and divorce, and child custody…

The passage of the 1959 personal status law had been the envy of all women’s rights movements in the region. It was a source of great pride. The law ensured that Iraqi women could marry under civil law instead of religious law, made polygamy more difficult, granted mothers custody of their children, and imposed a minimum age for marriage. Iraqi women had gained their rights in these and other crucial areas while other countries were struggling. Iraqi women were voting in the 1980s, for example, while Saudi women were still struggling for recognition… If the personal status laws were interpreted through a religious lens, however, the situation had turned dire. In almost all religious interpretations used in the Middle East, personal status laws placed women at a disadvantage…

On December 29, 2003, with less than a thirty-minute debate, the Interim Governing Council (IGC) voted for Resolution 137… Resolution 137 would push women’s rights back centuries. Whereas Iraqi women had been looking for ways to leap forward, they now found themselves in the unenviable position of fighting for the status quo…


Gender Equality – Steps Backwards

Work was flourishing. We had managed to recruit more than five hundred participants in Baghdad, Hillah, and Karbala, and our job skills training program had launched effectively. In addition to offering training in the more conservative jobs of carpet weaving and hairdressing, we introduced an untraditional course on carpentry… Due to the large number of widows and divorcees who were not allowed to call a male carpenter into their homes, a niche existed for female carpenters…

From Women for Women

Ironically, over the first six months I spent working on women’s issues in Iraq, I had been fully dependent on men. First, there was the male staff at Women for Women International. Yusuf, Fadi, and Mais had become my lifelines. I was dependent on them for everything from food and water to the ability to move around the country freely. Within months it became clear that any success I had in launching a program would be directly tied to them. Only years later did I fully grasp the extent of their loyalty; the risks they took were the sole reason I was able to leave Iraq alive. ..

Second, there were the male leaders in the communities. From Diyala to Karbala,to Tikrit, the one thing that remained consistent across the communities I visited was the need to go through the male elders before ever meeting with a woman. During my trips around the country I would have to meet with a room full of men in order to describe in detail the programs we planned to set up for the women in their community…

In almost every instance the men demonstrated a visible reassurance at hearing that Islam was my reference point for working on women’s rights…

womens rights
From Women’s Rights in Islam

“Did you know a woman had the right to charge her husband for breast-feeding?” an elderly man from Huriyah explained to me. He told me how this was an example of Islam acknowledging the mother’s role in contributing to society’s growth. It was also one of the many ways Islam supported the economic independence of women. He further explained that any property a woman acquired by her own work or through an inheritance belonged to her independently of her husband.

A son of a tribal leader of Fallujah outlined for me the women of the historical narrative of Islam. Among the stories he shared was that of Umm ‘Umara, a woman who lived at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and fought in many battles. He explained that she was famous for her effectiveness with weapons, and the Prophet (peace be upon him) stated she was better than most men.

I pointed out what I hoped was obvious: somewhere along the lines we lost that remarkable tradition, and women had suffered the consequences. In most cases the conversation was enough to grant me permission to meet with the women in the communities…

From imaq.me

At some point during the first few months in Iraq, I came across Ashraf Al-Khalidi, a young civil society activist… Ashraf saw the potential in a democratic Iraq, and he worked day and night to fulfil his role in making it happen. He was a native of Karbala, and he urged me to expand my programs into the governorate…

Although he was based in Baghdad, his family home was in Karbala’s city centre. Ashraf had six sisters; two were married and four were still at the family home. His father passed away and, as the oldest son, Ashraf was considered the head of the household… The fact that Ashraf was an active member of civil society strongly distinguished him from other male heads of households. He urged his sisters to continue their education and encouraged them not to rush into marriage. I was touched at the way his sisters would run to greet him, love and admiration radiating as they embraced him each time he visited…

The New Arab Manhood: Ali from Iraq.

I stood straddling the toilet, yelling out the window for help… Thirty minutes earlier I had managed to lock myself inside the bathroom of one of our Baghdad women’s centres, which we were renovating… The first ten minutes I had been paralyzed with horror as I realized that I had not only locked the stall but also locked the front door to the bathroom as well. There was no logic to the fact that I had locked not one but two doors except that I was so exhausted that I was no longer thinking. And now I had to pay the price.

After the initial shock wore off, I started to bang and yell on the stall, but to no avail… It was almost sunset. The official opening of the women’s centers was the next morning, and we had been working late hours to make sure the center would be ready in time. I shook my head as I realized that nobody could hear me. My imagination ran wild as I realized that it would be easy for the staff to think someone else had taken me home. I prepared myself to be locked for the next twenty-four hours in the Baghdad bathroom stall. …

Just as I accepted the idea that I had been left behind, I heard the outer door of the bathroom rattle. Then there was a knock. I started to yell. “Manal?” It was Yusuf. He must have noticed I was missing… I was so happy to hear his voice… Finally, the bathroom door swung open and Yusuf charged in. I could feel my face grow red as I imagined the sight that greeted him. There I was, my head peering over the bathroom stall, thrilled that I had been saved. Well, partially saved.

“What are you doing?” he asked…

“This door is locked too,” I offered feebly.

Yusuf shook his head as he looked at the bathroom stall. By now Mais, Fadi, and other staff arrived to witness the scene.  I avoided Fadi’s eyes, knowing that he would never let me forget this… I was embarrassed to the core. Here I was developing a centre to empower women, and I was already playing a damsel in distress…

From GotGame

The distinction between a humanitarian aid worker, a journalist, a contractor, and a civilian officer in the military were opaque at best among the Iraqi population. Given that the first civilian casualties in Fallujah had turned out to be mercenaries employed by Blackwater Security Consulting, it was no wonder that Iraqis could not differentiate between civilians and soldiers. The Iraqi population was increasingly doubtful of the intentions of international aid workers inside Iraq…

“Yusuf and I have the perfect solution!” Fadi declared… The two of them had decided that the only solution was for them to move in with me in the house in Mansour. Yusuf explained that all attempts to strengthen security could not eliminate the fact that I was a single non-Iraqi woman living alone, the easiest of targets. As they saw it, the equation was simple: if I was willing to risk my life to work inside Iraq, then they were willing to risk their lives by staying by my side 24/7…

I checked to make sure their families were aware of what they were thinking… Women for Women was happy with the arrangement, provided it was clear it was strictly voluntary and being done out of a personal rather than any professional commitment. My parents were not as easy to convince. … Reluctantly, my father agreed it was better than my staying alone. … In any other context, the ideas of a boss living with her staff – a Muslim woman living with male bachelors – would have been scandalous. Yet in the surreal backdrop of Baghdad, it seemed like the natural solution…


From Muslim Men can be Feminists

By the end of summer of 2004, the situation in the streets of Baghdad had deteriorated as much as I ever could imagine. At that point, a hundred international aid workers, contractors, and journalists had been kidnapped, and twenty-three had been killed. And countless Iraqi had died… What I was witnessing was the onset of a major civil war; the nation was being torn apart in its infancy… My dear friend Reema Khalaf endured the trauma of negotiating her teenage son’s ransom and had fled to Dubai the moment he was released. The neighbour across the street… who used to send me freshly baked pastries was not widowed. At every turn the Iraqi families I had become a part of were being ripped apart…

from Iraq War – Timeline in Pictures

With the withdrawal of all international aid workers, the primary target of the insurgency became Iraqi civil society itself… Late one April night in Amman, I received the dreaded phone call all of my Iraqi friends got sooner or later… Our dear friend Salah, who had also been one of my drivers, had vanished… Over the next six months, we were sent on numerous wild goose chases…. All the clues led to a dead end…

It had been two years since Salah’s disappearance. Yusuf described how Nagham was packing all of Salah’s winter clothes and taking out his spring wardrobe.

When he asked what she was doing, Nagham responded, “Everything must be in place when Salah returns.”

To this day, no trace of Salah… have been discovered….It is hard to believe that there are thousands like Salah in Iraq…


Iraqi women struggle to survive as violence claims their men

A few weeks after Salah disappeared, armed gunmen came to Yusuf’s parents home and asked for Yusuf. Fortunately, he was not home. The next day Yusuf’s car windows were broken and his tires were slashed. A death threat was found on the driver’s seat…

Hussein had already been brutally murdered…

Over the past seven years, my most vivid dreams are about my experiences in Iraq. In my dream, I experience Hussein in the same ways I experienced him in life: simple, gentle, and profound… He slaps his hands on his knees, just as he would do when he visited me in my house… His gesture says, “Sitting here is great, but I must be moving on.” Before he leaves he calls out to his three children. Fatima! Ali! Hamza! They come running into the room. I watch as they hug and kiss one another…. In my dream, Hussein and I exchange sincere smiles, albeit smiles of sadness and loss. He turns for one final glance at his children, and hope fills his eyes. Then he is gone…

Iraqi woman crying when talking about her killed husband



17 thoughts on “WoMEN for Women in Iraq

  1. Reblogged this on Forget the Viagra, Pass Me a Carrot and commented:
    A powerful piece for those of us who take our freedom so much for granted. Deserves to be shared by us all.

  2. Thank you for this, a reminder of the tragedy of Iraq. Such sorrow for a wonderful people.

    • Otrazhenie says:

      I also feel very sorry for all the wonderful people, who get caught in such nasty turmoils, conflicts or wars. Reading such stories reminds me how blessed I’m to be living in a stable peaceful country.

  3. thepracticalpriestess says:

    What an amazing story. Wonderful.

  4. dolphin says:

    A profound and insightful post. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. […] profound and thoughtful post here on the part of Iraqi society you won’t see by the lame media.  It’s sooo much easier […]

  6. Ajaytao2010 says:

    Oh dear glad to hear that you were in Iraq and that too for two years

    thank you for sharing your beautiful story 🙂

    • Otrazhenie says:

      Hi Ajay, This story is not mine – it is from Manal Omar’s book ‘Barefoot in Baghdad’. However after reading this book I do feel a bit like if I have been to Iraq myself. 🙂

      • Ajaytao2010 says:

        Oh sorry I thought it is your story

        anyway I see you as a women right activist also dear
        you are like that also apart from a brilliant writer

        Thank you dear 🙂

      • Otrazhenie says:

        Thanks for your kind words, Ajay. Your comments always brighten up my day 🙂

      • Ajaytao2010 says:

        oh dear I like your posts you know it
        so please dont ever thank me dear 🙂

        Thanks dear 🙂

  7. […] WoMEN for Women in Iraq […]

  8. […] Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya… – this can happen to anyone […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s