Tortured Iraqi Woman’s Book Details Baghdad’s `City of Widows’
Interview by Dale Crofts
Dec. 6 (Bloomberg) — From a Baghdad woman’s despairing comment, Iraqi author Haifa Zangana found an epigraph for the insecurity and erosion of human rights in her country: “Today is worse than yesterday, and yesterday was worse than the day before.”
Imprisoned and tortured for opposing Saddam Hussein’s regime, Zangana was freed from Abu Ghraib after a relative who served as a bodyguard for the dictator secured her release. She now works as a journalist in London.
Her most recent book is “City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance.” She details how women’s rights have suffered under the occupation and how violence has left 1 million widows to lead Iraqi households.
Zangana, 57, is slight, parts her wispy gray hair down the middle and conveyed an air of quiet determination as we spoke at Chicago’s InterContinental Hotel. I started by asking her what image of life in Iraq was emerging from the blogs by women there.
Zangana: Girls more than boys are the real losers. Their families fear for their safety so they are kept at home. The fear is of kidnapping, shooting, one family taking revenge on another, car bombs. You name it, it’s there. The minute you step outside your house, you are targeted one way or another. Education is disappearing. The number of kids attending school this year is 30 percent of what it used to be. It’s taking us back to the 1930s.
Crofts: Has the role of Iraqi women in resistance been under-reported or misstated by Western media?
Zangana: The picture, to start, was very confused because they mixed up Afghani women with Iraqi women. Or at least they selectively chose Iraqi women as victims and as waiting to be liberated from a male chauvinistic society. In Iraq, women were more or less equal to men. They were encouraged to develop. Iraqi women were far ahead compared with other Arab countries. The stereotype doesn’t fit.
Crofts: Is life in Iraq now worse than under Saddam Hussein?
Zangana: Women are saying it is worse in a way because they are losing their freedom of movement and their lives. There have been 1 million civilians killed. Iraqi families consist on average of seven members, the parents and five children.
The killing of every man means a widow left on her own to care and look after and feed five people, plus the extended family. In Baghdad alone there are 300,000 widows.
There is no welfare state or protection net. They are still relying on monthly food rations established under Saddam’s regime and which are still feeding 16 million Iraqis. The rations consist of a couple of kilos of lentils, sugar, baby milk, flour, oil for cooking.
End of Occupation
Crofts: Do you see a decline in violence if foreign troops exit Iraq?
Zangana: The end of the occupation is imminent. It’s only a matter of when and how. We read history and no occupation lasted forever. It is costing us lives and the Americans lives and the British lives. This is needless for all parties involved.
Al-Qaeda came with the occupation. If the foreign troops leave, the main reason for the violence will leave and perhaps we will have the chance to rebuild the country. This is the only solution for Iraq, America and the stability of the region.
Crofts: What role are the nongovernmental agencies playing in Iraq today?
Zangana: Most of the organizations are dealing from a distance, almost by remote control, from Syria, Jordan and even Egypt. Many pulled out after the explosion at the United Nations (U.N. headquarters in Baghdad’s Canal Hotel in August 2003). They are not really in touch except for Oxfam and the International Red Cross.
The Iraqi Red Crescent is doing a fantastic job, but doctors are targeted too. We have lost 80 percent of our medical staff. We are left with whoever has no choice but to stay.
“City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance” is published by Seven Stories Press (150 pages, $20).
(Dale Crofts is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)