FOR THE WOMEN OF IRAQ THE WAR OF FREEDOM IS JUST STARTING

Baghdad: Women's rights

Two of our three female employees repert stepped up harassment beginning in May. One, a Shiite who favours Western clothing, was advised by a woman in her neighbourhood to wear a veil and not drive her car. She said some groups are pushing women to cover their face, a step not taken in Iran at its most conservative.

Another said people are harassing women to cover up and stop using cellphones. The driver who brings her to the Green Zone said he cannot let her ride unless she wears a headcover.

The women say they cannot identify the groups. Some ministries, notably the Sadrist controlled Ministry of Transport, have been forcing females to wear the huab at work.

Basra: Murders and oppression on increase as Islamic extremists grab hold of power

by Terel Judd in Basra

The women of Basra have disappeared. Three years after the US-led
invasion of Iraq, women's secular freedoms-once the envy of women
across the Middle East-have been snatched away because militant Islam
is rising across the country.

Across Iraq, a bloody and relentless oppression of women has taken
hold. Many women had their heads shaved for refusing to wear a scarf
or have been stoned in the street for wearing make-up. Others have
been kidnapped and murdered for crimes that are being labelled simply
as "inappropriate behaviour". The insurrection against the fragile
and barely functioning state has left the country prey to extremists
whose notion of freedom does not extend to women.

In the British-occupied south where Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi army
retains a stranglehold, women insist the situation is at its worst.

Here they are forced to live behind closed doors only to emerge,
concealed behind scarves, hidden behind hus- | bands and fathers.
Even wearing a l pair of trousers is considered an act of I defiance,
punishable by death.

One Basra woman, known only as Dr Kefaya, was working in the women
and children's hospital unit at the city university when she started
receiving threats from extremists. She defied them. Then, one day a
man walked | into the building and murdered her.

Eman Aziz, one of the first women to speak publicly about the
dangers, | said: "There were flve prople on the | death list with Dr
Kefaya. They were threatened if you continue working, you will be
killed'."

Many women are too afraid to complain. But, fear that their rights
will be eroded for good, some have taken the courageous step of
speaking out. Dr Kefaya was only one of many professional women
murdered in recent months. Speaking near Saddam's old palace in
Basra, Aziz reeled off the names of other dead friends. Three of her
university class have been killed since the invasion.

"My friend Sheda and her sister. They were threatened. One day they
returned to their house with theIr women. They were all shot dead.
Her language is chillingly perfunctory.

"My friend Lubna, she was with her fiance. They shot him in the arm
and then killed her in front of him."

Then there were the two sisters who worked in the laundry at Basra
Palace base. With a shrug, she briefly detailed each life cut short.

Under Saddam, women played little part in politics but businesswomen
and academics travelled the country unchallenged, while their
daughters mixed with men at university. Now, even the most
emancipated woman feels cowed.

Television producer Aru Al-Soltan, 27, now exiled, said: "It is much
worse for women in the south. I blame the British for not taking a
strong stand."

Sajeda Hanoon Alebadi, 37, who, like Aziz, has now taken to wearlng a
headscarf, said: "Women are being assassinated. We know the people
behind it are saying these are not good women, they should be killed."

Behind the wave of insurgent attacks, the violence against women who
dare to challenge the Islamic orthodoxy is growing. Fatwas banning
women from driving or being seen out alone are regularly issued.

Infiltrated by militia, the police are unwilling or unable to crack
down on the fundamentalists.

Alebadi said: "After the fall of the regime, the religious extremist
parties came out on to the streets and threatened women. Although the
extremists are the minority, they control powerful positions, so they
control Basra."

To venture on the streets today without a male relative is to risk
attack humiliation or kidnap.

A joumalist, Shatta Elareem, said: "l 'was driving my car one day
when someone just crashed into me and drove me off the road. A woman
is seen driving these days it is considered a violation of men's
rights."

There is a fear that Islamic law will become enshrined in the new
legislation. Aziz said "In the Muslim religion if a man dies his
money goes to a maie family member. After the Iran-Iraq war, there
were so many widows that Saddam changed the law so it would go to
women and children. Now it has changed back."

Alebadi estimated that as many as 70 per cent of women in Basra had
been widowed by endless conflicts. "You see widows on the streets
begging at the intersections."

Optimists say the very fact that 25 per cent of Iraq's Provincial
Council is composed of women proves they have been empowered since
the invasion.

Critics say that any woman who becomes a part of the system can do
nothing to change it.

Posters around the city promoting the constitution graphically
illustrate that view. The faces of the women candidates have been
blacked out, the accompanying slogan, "No women in politics," stark
reminder of opposition they face. Aziz said: "Women members of the
council had many dreams but they were told 'With respect, you don't
know anything. This is a world of men. Your view is good but not
better.'

"More and more they just agreed - sign whatever they were told. We
have women in power who are powerless."

A spokesman for the Foreign Office would only say: "The new [Iraqi]
Goternment's programme says that women constitute half of society and
must take an active role in building the society and the state."

Around Basra, the shy women wlm peer round doorways are
uncomplaining. For one Marsh Arab, Makir Jafar, the fact she has been
taught enough to help her son with his homework is enough. "Life is
nice. There is the river. I do not want for anything."

There is a growing fear among educated women, however, that the
extreme dangers of daily life will allow the issue of women's
oppression to remain unchallenged. In Kareems words: "Men have a
voice. But women will not get their part in building this country."

INDEPENDENT