Women in Baghdad live every day in fear of rape or abduction, many shut away in their homes.

The few women in the crumbling streets of the capital are hastening about on errands clad in the abaya, a long black garment which covers the entire body except the face.

“I can’t do anything anymore. I’m scared of everything. There are demonstrations everyday in Baghdad, kidnappers who sell girls abroad. I don’t dare go out in the street, or take a taxi on my own,” said Ala Hasan, 26, who works with the French charity Doctors of the World.

In August, a Baghdad women’s rights organisation reported that more than 400 Iraqi women had been “kidnapped, raped and occasionally sold” since 9 April, the day US tanks rolled into the Iraqi capital.

“They live like they are in a cage,” said Salma Kamal of the League of Iraqi Women. Many have stopped going to school or university or have even quit going to work, she said. Instead, they are forced to lock themselves away in the relative safety of their homes.

One step back

Mervat Mahmud, a young Kurdish woman who has been kidnapped twice, considers herself to be liberal. But when the 23-year-old is outside her home, she covers up.

“For the first time in my life I have to wear an abaya. This is a huge step back for me,” she said bitterly.

Iraqi women finding protection
in wearing an abaya

Mahmud used to go out alone, wearing a skirt, a long-sleeved shirt and nothing on her head. But when she hailed a taxi, she received disapproving stares from men who considered her to be indecent.

Political front

The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council had three women among its 25 members until Akila al-Hashimi was assassinated last month.

As Iraq slowly moves towards a new constitution, a process which could take more than a year, women are clamouring to be heard.

Women’s associations have demanded they should be represented in the committee tasked with drawing up the constitution, but that has so far fallen on deaf ears.

They have also called for a women’s ministry, a law enshrining women’s rights - especially regarding widespread violence against married women - employment guarantees for women forced to quit their jobs in recent years and equal rights.