Marked Women

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ON THE RUN: "Shaima" says her brother has attempted to kill her for working as a prostitute

Shaima is running for her life. Her delicate face peeks out of a black head scarf as she nervously scans the sidewalk outside a Baghdad cafe. A 24-year-old prostitute, Shaima (not her real name) lives in fear of a man who is determined to kill her. The tormentor is her younger brother, who has been delegated by his parents to murder his sister and reclaim the family's honor.

He has already come close. Last month the brother spotted Shaima walking in the sprawling outdoor market in east Baghdad. He lunged at his sister with a knife, but she fled toward a policeman standing nearby. Shaima's brother explained to the officer that he was carrying out the family's desire to "cleanse" the shame over Shaima's profession. "Any other policeman would have turned me over to him," says Shaima. "For some reason, he shielded me." Her eyes darting around the cafe, Shaima says she does not expect to be so lucky the next time. "My brother's still out there — hunting me."

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When U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein 15 months ago, the Bush Administration proclaimed that women's rights would be a centerpiece of its project to make Iraq a democratic model for the rest of the Arab world. But for many Iraqi women, the tyranny of Saddam's regime has been replaced by chronic violence and growing religious conservatism that have stifled their hopes for wider freedoms — and, for many, put their lives in even greater peril. For women like Shaima, the most terrifying development has been the rash of honor killings committed by Iraqi men against sisters, wives, daughters or mothers whom they suspect of straying from traditional rules of chastity and fidelity. Although such killings are hard to quantify and occurred during Saddam's regime as well, Iraqi professionals believe that women are now being murdered by their kin at an unprecedented rate. On the basis of case reports provided by police, court officials and doctors at Baghdad's forensics institute, the number of victims of honor killings in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 may total in the hundreds. (By comparison, in neighboring Jordan, where women's-rights advocates have succeeded in bringing attention to the issue, activists report an average of 20 honor killings a year.) "This isn't just an issue about women. It's about the whole society," says Safia al-Souhail, a female Iraqi politician who was appointed ambassador to Egypt last week. "We have to stop it. It's going on everywhere, and no one is speaking about it."

The rise in honor killings comes amid ongoing violence, including four car bombs last week that killed at least 28 Iraqis. The instability that has plagued Iraq since the war's end 15 months ago has curtailed the spread of liberties that U.S. officials once promised would have taken root by now. Violent crime remains rampant. And while interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi last week vowed to "annihilate" the armed insurgents, few Iraqis expect relief from the dangers that have become part of daily life.

Women are at the greatest risk. Many have become virtual prisoners inside their houses, seeking a safe haven amid rising rates of rape, kidnapping and carjacking. At the same time, as the power of Iraq's Muslim clerics has grown, the everyday freedoms that Iraqi women enjoyed under Saddam's secular Baathist regime have eroded. Women who once felt free to dress in Western clothing and shop alone now must wear a hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf, when venturing outside. Many government offices require female employees to wear a veil at work. "Since the war, women feel they cannot go anywhere without it," says Jacqueline Zia, 30, who runs a hair salon in Baghdad. The perils of being out after dark have forced Zia to eliminate the salon's evening hours, which for years provided women with a social outing away from their husbands.

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