excerpt from ‘Barefoot in Baghdad’ by Manal M. Omar
She was hiding. Then again, everyone seemed to be hiding. It was October 2003, eight months into the disastrous U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But she was practically a child. And her enemy proved to be more insidious – and heartbreaking – than the ones we read about and saw on television. Getting to her was my first hurdle…
Once inside the police building, an Iraqi police officer and a U.S. Military Policeman practically tackled me in an effort to argue their case…. Both men were right. She would be killed if she were released. But the police had no authority, under Iraqi law, to hold her…
Luckily for me, I didn’t have to make any decision. I wasn’t there to judge or referee. My sole purpose was to ensure that the girl was safe, clothed, fed, and healthy.
“I’m only here to speak with the girl. May I please see her?”…
I opened the door to a small room… The girl sat in the opposite corner, her knees pulled into her chest, her chin resting on top. She rocked back and forth, barely noticing that I’d entered… The sight of her shocked me. Her skin practically hung from her bones, and the long, thick black hair stretching down her back emphasized her frailty. She was a child trapped in an old woman’s body.
I quietly walked toward her and sat next to her. I wasn’t sure how to begin, so I said hello and introduced myself. She continued to rock, saying nothing…
She finally spoke and told me that her name was Kalthoum… When she stood, I realized why the Iraqi policeman said that he couldn’t protect her, not even against his own officers. The way she was dressed – in tight Capri jeans and a low-cut tank top – would have offended even the most liberal Iraqi men…
“I am sure they told you I am a prostitute,” she said sheepishly. “Those hypocrites out there. One of them used to be my client. That is why they are so eager to get me out.”
The man, one of the police officers, had used her for sex, and now he wanted her released and left for dead. This was not, as one might expect in the United States, because he was ashamed of having patronized a prostitute. To the contrary, in Iraq it was not uncommon for men to engage in such behaviour. They did so openly and without remorse. But the judgement of a prostitute? Death. So the very man who had slept with Kalthoum wanted her to die because of it.
“Kalthoum,” I said…”I need you to tell me exactly what happened. Who were the men who were shooting at you? Also, do you have a place you can go, other than here?”
She shook her head as her eyes filled with tears. The men who’d chased here were her husband and brother-in-law. Three years ago her family had forced her to marry her cousin. She was thirteen at the time. She took a photo from her wallet and showed me a picture of her in a wedding gown next to a man old enough to be her father. On her wedding night, she did not want to have sex. So her new husband had beaten and raped her. This, according to Kalthoum, became their normal form of intimacy. He pulled her out of school and locked her in his house. She had considered killing herself.
From Iraqi women protest against draft law to permit child marriage
Then the Americans invaded Iraq. That same week, Kalthoum ran away. An older woman found her on the steets and offered her food and shelter. The woman had nursed her back to health and gave her pills to ease her pain. Soon Kalthoum became addicted. At the time, she didn’t realize that the woman was the head of a prostitution ring.
I’d heard many similar stories. But hearing them first hand from Kalthoum, a child, made me sick.
From Iraq drafts law to allow marriage of nine-year-old girls
“I want to make sure you have food, shelter, and good health care… I want you to protect yourself from disease and unwanted pregnancies“.
“You are too late for that,” she said in a barely audible whisper as tears filled her eyes. She put her hand on her stomach to indicate that she was already pregnant. I closed my eyes…
From the Battle Against Child Marriage
The fact that Kalthoum was under eighteen placed her in the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Legally, the ministry was required to provide her with a place in one of the public orphanages… Orphans in both Iraqi and Muslim Society have a special reverence. Numerous verses in the Koran and sayings from the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) called for respecting, caring for, and providing for orphans…
From Muslims for Humanity: Helping Hand
I settled in the backseat to prepare my case for the minister… She had a compelling story, and the fact that she had been forced into marriage at such a young age solidified her status as a victim. Besides, she was only sixteen years old. The deputy minister had to take pity on her situation…
One hour later it was clear that this was not going to happen. The deputy minister was visibly insulted that I had the audacity to bring such a case to his attention… When I tried to point out that she was underage, he countered with the fact that she was a married woman, which placed her in the category of adulthood. Orphanages were for children only. I tried to argue that she had been forced into marriage at the age of thirteen, which was illegal according to Iraqi law. He shook his head, pointing out that it was a common occurrence during the years of UN sanctions.
“How else were parents to secure their daughters?” he asked.
According to a UN report in 2005, 60 million girls worldwide have been married. A startling 100 million more are expected to be forced or sold into marriage by their parents in the next 10 years.
I could not accept his response, but all my phone calls to Iraqi women’s organizations resulted in dead ends. Kalthoum was too much of an extreme case, most of them argued. We cannot help her without making ourselves vulnerable to verbal and physical attacks. I was not surprised by these responses…
I called several Iraqi women’s organisations for information, as I knew they would be the only people to tell me the truth about her situation. They all confirmed my worse fears: her return to her family would be a death sentence.
Conference to Remember Du’a Khalil and denounce Honour Killings globally!
Yet Kalthoum was fully aware of this. In her heart of hearts, she seemed to believe it to be a reasonable sentence. Over the span of a few days, Kalthoum had developed a strong sense of the cosmic powers of Karma, and she begged me to allow her to pay her dues to her family so that her suffering would end.
She explained to me repeatedly that her life was over and that the decisions she had made had left little room for her to start over. However, she had four unmarried sisters at home. Her scandal reached the tribe… If she were to go back to her family and face her sentence, then honor would be restored. If she were to run away, then her four unmarried sisters would pay the price. They would be shunned by society and would never marry because of their sister’s tarnished reputation. Worse yet, she argued, they would be forced into unsuitable marriages as a third or fourth wife…
Kalthoum was only sixteen. That was the lone thought that went through my mind as she pleaded with me to help her get back to her family. What life was this girl talking about? What choices? Was she really given a choice when she was married off? Or tricked into prostitution? Was her family really given a choice, fighting to survive war after war and a decade of international sanctions?
I shook my head. I knew that the final decision would rest in my hands…
Members of a poor family sit in their makeshift house in Baghdad August 28, 2010.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to make this choice myself. I had met a strong Kurdish woman in a conference…She had established one of the first Iraqi women’s shelters to house women from across the country… The Asuda organization was also one of the only shelters I knew that would take ‘untouchable’ cases. Untouchable cases were almost always cases dealing with family honor…
Beyond the Asuda organization, I was captivated by Khanim Latif, the woman who led it… Khanim’s office was stacked with photo albums of abused women. Her contacts would often tip her off when they received such cases. Khanim would rush over with her camera to take photos… Entire albums were dedicated to corpses of women. When high-level government officials denied the practice of honor crimes, she would pull out numerous photos of women burned alive or with gun shots and silence her opposition immediately…
“Honor killings happen,” Khanim said. “And they happen more than we would like to admit. However, they often happen because our communities have not learned to mediate around such a sensitive topic. No father wants to kill his daughter. Give him an excuse to maintain his honor in front of his tribe, and he will grab on to it. But our community refuses to facilitate such discussions. At Asuda we do. We use religious and tribal leaders to encourage the parents to find solution other than slaying their daughters.”
An Iraqi man talks with his daughter
Khanim advised me to think of someone who could facilitate the discussion with her father. I could not think of anyone until Yusuf reminded me of Munther.
Munther was pleased to hear from us and to see that we were seeking reconciliation with Kalthoum’s tribe… He jumped at the opportunity to help… Munther managed to negotiate the terms of her return, successfully arranged her divorce, and had the father sign a statement that Kalthoum would not be harmed if she were to return. Munther also negotiated an agreement with the tribe that he would be able to visit every three months to confirm that Kalthoum was in good health (or to be more blunt, alive).
From the bulletin of the oppression of women
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Instead of passing the blame, let’s focus on finding culturally appropriate solutions. 😉