Iraq: Women forced to give up their jobs, marriages

News and Press Release
Originally published
BAGHDAD, 30 May 2007 (IRIN) - When Suha Abdel-Azim, 38, received a letter from her boss saying she had to stop working for security reasons, she couldn't believe it. After three years as an engineer for a local company, she was fired without compensation.

"I was shocked when they told me I was being fired. I was an excellent worker and had done many fantastic and profitable projects but they didn't want a woman with them any more. They tried to explain, saying it was too dangerous for the company to employ women: the company had received threats," Suha said.

"I tried to convince them that I could work from home. I have two children to bring up, and have been alone since my husband was killed by insurgents in 2004 for working for a foreign company, but in vain. They just sent me home," she said.

Suha is now unemployed. She has been trying to find a job but as a woman she is finding it difficult.

"When they see my cv [curriculum vitae] they get excited but later they say they cannot employ me because I'm a woman and it could be too dangerous for them. Most of the local construction companies in Iraq now have only men working for them," she said.

Unemployment affects children

"In about 14 percent of families in Iraq women are the main breadwinners, and often they care for a large number of children. The increase in unemployment among them just means more children without support," said Sarah Muthulak, a spokeswoman for the Baghdad-based Women's Rights Association (WRA).

"Discrimination against women today is unprecedented. They are being sacked because of their gender; that is unacceptable," she added.

Women say they are being threatened for working outside their homes and in places which are mostly patronised by men.

"Insurgents and militias want us out of the work environment for many reasons: Some because they believe that women were born to stay at home - cooking and cleaning - and others because they say it is against Islam to share the same space with men who are not close relatives," Nuha Salim, spokeswoman for the Baghdad-based NGO, Women's Freedom, said.

Forced to divorce

For other women in Iraq the problem goes beyond unemployment. With spiralling sectarian violence, they are being forced to marry men from their own sect even if they were in love for years with a man from a different sect.

"I was in love with a colleague in my college for more than three years. My family were going to accept our marriage but last year when my cousin was killed by [Shia] militants, my parents prohibited me from marrying him," said Nur Abdel-Amir, 23, a Baghdad resident.

"For two months now I have been in a forced marriage. He is from my own sect but I don't like him and nor does he love me but we don't have a choice. If I refuse I would die and so I will have to live the rest of my life with a man whom I cannot imagine sleeping with," Nur added.

Nuha from Women's Freedom said the problem is serious and getting worse. What is happening now in Iraq is a far cry from in the days of Saddam Hussein's regime when it was safe to marry across the sectarian divide.

"There are cases of women who are being forced to sign divorce papers after being threatened by their husband's family because they were of a different sect - even if they had been living for years in harmony or if innocent children were involved," she added.

Women teachers face threats

Women have also been prohibited by Shia militias from teaching other women. The threat has become real after two teachers - one in the mostly Shia Sadr City district and one in Kadhmiyah neighbourhood - were killed after giving lessons to illiterate women near their homes.

"They were brave women who stood up against the violence, and tried to promote education among those who had never had the opportunity," Nuha said. "They were killed just because they wanted to help other women to read and write."

In many villages, girls have been taken out of school and forced to stay at home without education.

"Girls and women don't need to read. They should be good mothers and housewives. The schools are just imbuing them with new and modern ideas that are inconsistent with Muslim women's duties," said Khalid Hassan, a Mahdi Army officer in Muthana Governorate.

"We have threatened all teachers near our villages, telling them to stop teaching, especially teaching women and girls," Hassan said.

WRA's Muthulak said many women activists' organisations in Iraq are developing projects to offer free education to women, but most of them have been threatened recently and will probably be forced to stop working for security reasons.