Marked Women

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

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Some believe the breakdown in law and order has contributed to the spike in honor killings. An unintended consequence of Saddam's fall is that there are fewer restraints on violent young men bent on taking matters into their own hands. Last September, Ali Jasib Mushiji, 17, shot his mother and half brother because he suspected them of having an affair and killed his 4-year-old sister because he thought she was their child. Sitting in a jail cell in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, he says he wiped out his family to cleanse its shame. He had thought about killing his mother for some time but says it wasn't until the fall of Saddam that he was able to buy a Kalashnikov and carry it out. "With the security before, it wasn't possible," he says.

Activists seeking stiffer punishments face bitter opposition from religious and tribal leaders. Like many other professional women, Julanar al-Zubaidi, a Baghdad schoolteacher and mother of four, fears that the state of women's rights could get even worse if Iraqis elect a government dominated by religious hard-liners. "The current government we can live with," she says. "We're very worried about what comes next." Those anxieties are spurring a few activists to venture into the political arena; the only chance they have to eliminate honor-killing laws, they say, is to flood political parties with women who can win positions in the government and fight from the inside. "Nothing will change unless we get elected," says al-Souhail, who has emerged as a leading women's-rights campaigner. "It's going to be a big fight because no one in Iraq declares it a crime."

The persecuted women do have a few places to turn. The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, a project run by Iraq's Workers' Communist Party, is hiding three women in a safe house hundreds of miles from their families. One of them is a 16-year-old girl named Rana who was raped by her neighbor last April in the city of Nasiriyah. When her family discovered what had happened, her brothers decided to kill her, since she was no longer a virgin. A cousin who was aware of the plan took Rana to a nearby Italian military base; she was later moved to Baghdad and finally to a secret location farther north. Having fled her family, she is unlikely ever to return home. "We hope to get a written guarantee from her parents that she will not be killed," says Zemnakow Aziz, a Workers' Communist Party official. "Even then we cannot be sure they will stick to it." Ultimately, Aziz says, he will try to find an Iraqi family abroad to take her in.

Shaima, the Baghdad prostitute, still hopes she can one day go home, perhaps when her father dies. "My mother might take me back then," she says. She first left her family at age 19, after her parents forbade her to marry her neighbor, with whom she had fallen in love. Five years later, Shaima still waits for a reconciliation that will come only when the country decides to value her life as much as her family's honor.

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