by Miaad A. Hassan
- USA -
For a long time she resisted, but four years ago Amal started to wear the hijab - her bright and shining youth draped in black. She is a 25-year-old Iraqi woman, and she is sad. Amal remembers when her life was freer, happier, and easier, when she didn’t need to cover her hair whenever she sought to step outdoors.
Amal was once my neighbor in Iraq. My childhood friend is depressed, but she is not the only one since most of her sisters - the women of Iraq - have been forced to wear the hijab and more. Cajoled, shamed and threatened, the women of Iraq have been draped in black. Iraqi men have seen to that.
“Where do you want me to begin?” asks Intisar. Over the phone and from half a world away, the voice of my former classmate sounds like that of a woman recovering from a long illness or the loss of a loved one. After an exchange of courtesies, I asked her to tell me about the suffering she had recently endured.
It is argued by proponents of the hijab that covering one’s self is liberating. For the women of Iraq like Amal and Intisar this argument is particularly ironic, because it was the 2003 War of Liberation that served to excuse the loss of their liberty—their freedom to choose.
“Let me tell you that the newly introduced concept of freedom was ridiculously rendered to [have] the opposite [effect]. [It has] sadly embittered our lives as women by covering us all, and mostly made us sit in our homes,” Intisar tells me.
Intisar earned her Master’s Degree in 2006 and has since taught English poetry at Tikrit University, my alma mater.
In 2003, and ever since, Intisar has been “uncovered.” Her determination to be free swiftly brought her to the attention of authorities, both religious and secular, who sought to instruct university women about how to dress. When Intisar refused to submit to their dress code she was subjected to daily harassment and investigation. Her courage and resistance has led some of her conspiracy-minded colleagues to believe that she must be an undercover affiliate of a terrorist group or terror-supporting political party. They suspect that her freedom is a disguise - the expression of hidden, malevolent power.
How do once tolerant colleagues become so twisted and confused? How are good people painted bad, and for their bravery, accused of terrible affiliations?
Those of us who are busy and distant from the invasions and the battlefields of the world have a hard time imagining what the effect of a sudden change can do to a society. We might expect long-oppressed people to gleefully share in liberation. We are surprised to learn that sometimes just the opposite happens.
We see video of laser-guided munitions and precision bombing campaigns. We hear news of surgical strikes. Sometimes, to our horror, we learn of collateral damage, and we mourn the innocent victims, praying that no more will fall that way. We sense that war is a calamity - like a crashing wave tumbling, tossing, and scattering whomever it falls upon - yet we remember that wars are sometimes liberating. We think of the United States in World War II, when labor shortages led to the progressive enfranchisement of women - and so we hope.
In 2003 Amal had dreamed that soon her circumstances would return to normal; hers was a conservative life by Western standards, built around home and family, yet she could dress as she pleased and travel as she needed.
In those days Amal lived with her guardian, a cousin, as well as her mother and two younger brothers. After the invasion, Iraqi society recoiled from shock and awe and squared to face an occupation. As the agents of terror began to indiscriminately bomb from the ground up, Iraqi society fell to ever-greater paroxysms of conservatism, and Amal’s guardian became ever more literal-minded about his responsibilities. Her protector became her jailer.
Understanding that her guardian - like every other Iraqi, male or female - had to negotiate very difficult, sometimes very humiliating changes, Amal was prepared to sympathize: war had fallen upon them all. She saw that her guardian suffered, yet she expected him to see that she too was suffering. But as the months passed, and as the militias seeded the growth of chaos with innocence-destroying bombs, her guardian seemed to absorb these threats and then project them right at her. Her protector had become her enemy; he demanded that Amal wear the black abbayah - he put her in a shroud.
Of course Amal tried to discuss the issue with her cousin many times. She pleaded, hands held high and shaking in the air, just as her heart shook within. She pleaded her case to other family members. She went to friends for help. But her appeals were all in vain.
The thrust of events swept Amal from bad to worse: into the shroud, into complete isolation and into depression. Her rights became privileges and then her privileges were taken away. She was not allowed to speak to friends on the phone, she was not allowed to visit or be visited by female friends and she could no longer even go shopping in the nearby souk.
As the sparkle and the color faded from her life Amal contemplated suicide, but she refrained, knowing this would only produce greater misery for her mother and brothers who, no doubt, would have been pushed into the street as her guardian sought to protect his reputation at the expense of their lives.
Not long ago Amal graduated from university with an Agricultural Engineering degree, yet did not attend her own graduation as her participation was prohibited by her guardian. With the passing of the months leading into years, Amal saw that her family had sided with her guardian - as she earned her degree she lost her family.
She continues to long for her freedom, yet even if it returns, will its value equal or exceed all that she has lost?
Thinking about Amal’s plight, I recall something Intisar told me as our interview came to an end.
“Some of my female students come to me to express their envy and admiration that I happen to be the most freed women they’ve ever known,” she says. “But I tell them they are wrong in their assumption, because they are accepted in the eyes of our society - they do what it wants them to do, unlike me. Disapproved of, I am not a good member of this society.”
A common expression of many people worldwide is that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Today the women in Iraq, even very young women such as Amal and Intisar, are dressed in mourning whether they want to be or not. Let us hope that very soon the people of Iraq, especially the men, decide that a new day has dawned and that they no longer have to paint their hopes and dreams - their mothers, wives, sisters, cousins and daughters - black.
About the Author
Miaad Hassan arrived in the United States in 2005 as a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship. A native of Iraq, Miaad studied English Literature and Linguistics at the University of Tikrit where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Having completed her scholarship in Iowa, Miaad moved to California and continues her education, focusing on Conflict Resolution and International Negotiations in the Masters program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
This past spring Miaad participated in the IPSS program at the United Nations in New York, where she interned at the Department of Political Affairs. Miaad focused her research paper on counter-terrorism issues related to the soft power application of certain communications strategies in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development countries of East Africa.