The second day of my stay in Iraq, I traveled about 80 miles south to Karbala, where we work with about 1,000 women. The road we travel from Baghdad is filled with memories. My grandmother used to live in Karbala when I was a kid and it was always fun when we went to visit her, which we did quite often. The trip took about an hour and a half and we never thought twice about it. I remember once my mother drove it in the middle of the night when she was mad at my father and wanted to stay with her mother. Now, this road is so dangerous that one section is even called the “death triangle.” We passed by old scenes, old memories, except now they look so very different…. Everything looked destroyed. I even started doubting myself and my memory and asked my colleagues for affirmation of what I was seeing and observing. How could it be that a country goes backward instead of forward in every single way?
On the way to Karbala we talked about everything—how expensive and dangerous life is, all the friends and colleagues who no longer live in the country—until we approached the “death triangle.” Everyone suddenly went quiet, leaving the driver to focus on his own driving. “Not too long ago, we feared that we could not pass this area alive,” a colleague whispered in my ears. “This used to be an area that was Al-Qaeda dominated and since most people who would pass this road are assumed to be Shi’ah visiting Karbala or Najaf, there were often random shots that we would get as we drove. But the most dangerous were the fake check points where they asked people for their ID cards and try to guesstimate if they were Sunni or Shi’ah from their names. If you were Shi’ah, they would drag you from the car and slaughter you. It didn’t matter if you were a woman or a child. They slaughtered all,” she continued.
Once we passed the “death triangle,” the road changed. It is now filled with white, black, yellow, red and green flags in commemoration of one of the most important months in Shi’ah history, the very historical moment that made the division in Islam between Shi’ah and Sunni. The driver soon asked us to cover our hair and put on the abaya, a black piece of cloth that covers a woman’s body from head to toe. I am familiar with these traditions, for since my childhood, no one could enter Karbala, a religious town with two very important historical mosques, without wearing the abaya. I used to be excited about wearing my child-sized one and was always so disappointed when everyone on the street was able to guess that I was from Baghdad and, like most of the women in Baghdad, I was not used to wearing the abaya.
Aside from its religious characteristics, Karbala feels very different from Baghdad in terms of security and people’s movement. In Baghdad almost everyone goes to their home by no later than 7 pm, but in Karbala people walk at night more freely and in a relaxed way.
When I asked a woman in our program what she would do if she was in charge of the country, she said “I would make filling the stomach of the people as my utmost priority. We are dealing with a situation in which you can not get a job anywhere without paying a bribe. During Saddam’s time, our sons used to run away from the military and he would punish them in all sorts of ways for that. Now, we have to pay all that we have in bribes for our sons to enter the army for that is the only job available in the country,” she added. Electricity and education were also on the top of the list for what women wanted to change about their country.
The women also spoke at length about the incredible challenges faced by the widows and divorcees, many of whom do not have proper papers for themselves or their children due to either the death or disappearance of the father or the lack of cooperation from the father if he divorced the woman. The papers are of vital importance because the formal registration gives their children legitimacy and the right to go to school. Many of the women talked about the challenges they do not know what to do with their children’s education and future since they can not issue the children proper papers. This is a challenge that is spreading throughout the country, leaving many of the estimated 8 million widows and orphans with ambiguous futures regarding their status in the country.
As an Iraqi American, I know I am often asked how the situation in Iraq now compares to Saddam’s time and which one I prefer most. My answer has been consistent—“It is an unfair question.” Neither situation was/is good and I refuse to choose between two bad situations. I prefer neither and I want a better future for Iraq.