20. IRAQI WOMEN: PROSTITUTING OURSELVES TO FEED OUR CHILDREN ( IRAQ )
By Arwa Damon, CNN
Friday 17 August 2007
Baghdad, Iraq – The women are too afraid and ashamed to show their faces or have their real names used. They have been driven to sell their bodies to put food on the table for their children – for as little as $8 a day.
“People shouldn’t criticize women, or talk badly about them,” says 37-year-old Suha as she adjusts the light colored scarf she wears these days to avoid extremists who insist women cover themselves. “They all say we have lost our way, but they never ask why we had to take this path.”
A mother of three, she wears light makeup, a gold pendant of Iraq around her neck, and an unexpected air of elegance about her.
“I don’t have money to take my kid to the doctor. I have to do anything that I can to preserve my child, because I am a mother,” she says, explaining why she prostitutes herself.
Anger and frustration rise in her voice as she speaks.
“No matter what else I may be, no matter how off the path I may be, I am a mother!”
Her clasped hands clench and unclench nervously. Suha’s husband thinks that she is cleaning houses when she goes away.
So does Karima’s family.
“At the start I was cleaning homes, but I wasn’t making much. No matter how hard I worked it just wasn’t enough,” she says.
Karima, clad in all black, adds, “My husband died of lung cancer nine months ago and left me with nothing.”
She has five children, ages 8 to 17. Her eldest son could work, but she’s too afraid for his life to let him go into the streets, preferring to sacrifice herself than risk her child.
She was solicited the first time when she was cleaning an office.
“They took advantage of me,” she says softly. “At first I rejected it, but then I realized I have to do it.”
Both Suha and Karima have clients that call them a couple times a week. Other women resort to trips to the market to find potential clients. Or they flag down vehicles.
Prostitution is a choice more and more Iraqi women are making just to survive.
“It’s increasing,” Suha says. “I found this ‘thing’ through my friend, and I have another friend in the same predicament as mine. Because of the circumstance, she is forced to do such things.”
Violence, increased cost of living, and lack of any sort of government aid leave women like these with few other options, according to humanitarian workers.
“At this point there is a population of women who have to sell their bodies in order to keep their children alive,” says Yanar Mohammed, head and founder of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq . “It’s a taboo that no one is speaking about.”
She adds, “There is a huge population of women who were the victims of war who had to sell their bodies, their souls and they lost it all. It crushes us to see them, but we have to work on it and that’s why we started our team of women activists.”
Her team pounds the streets of Baghdad looking for these victims often too humiliated to come forward.
“Most of the women that we find at hospitals [who] have tried to commit suicide” have been involved in prostitution, said Basma Rahim, a member of Mohammed’s team.
The team’s aim is to compile information on specific cases and present it to Iraq’s political parties – to have them, as Mohammed puts it, “come tell us what [they] are … going to do about this.”
Rahim tells the heartbreaking story of one woman they found who lives in a room with three of her children: “She has sex while her three children are in the room, but she makes them stand in separate corners.”
According to Rahim and Mohammed, most of the women they encounter say they are driven to prostitution by a desperate desire for survival in the dangerously violent and unforgiving circumstances in Iraq .
“They took this path but they are not pleased,” Rahim says.
Karima says when she sees her children with food on the table, she is able to convince herself that it’s worth it. “Everything is for the children. They are the beauty in life and, without them, we cannot live.”
But she says, “I would never allow my daughter to do this. I would rather marry her off at 13 than have her go through this.”
Karima’s last happy memory is of her late husband, when they were a family and able to shoulder the hardships of life in today’s Iraq together.
Suha says as a young girl she dreamed of being a doctor, with her mom boasting about her potential in that career. Life couldn’t have taken her further from that dream.
“It’s not like we were born into this, nor was it ever in my blood,” she says.
What she does for her family to survive now eats away at her. “I lay on my pillow and my brain is spinning, and it all comes back to me as if I am watching a movie.”
this was a crazy weekend. we had friends from out of town who came for the prenc welcoming committee. and once again we talked alot about organizations, privilege, rights, oppression, etc.
and i started to wonder again if the reformist: changing the institution from the inside is ever effective.
i cannot think of a time when people from the inside of an unjust institution have changed the power relations in the institution significantly. i mean more than a reshuffling of chairs but a paradigmatic transformation of power from the haves to the havenots. i mean a successful revolution.
my partner says that the only successful transformations have occurred when people inside the institution were working with people outside the institution to transform the institution. maybe.
i keep thinking of our friends in tuwani who said that it didnt matter who became president in palestine, because it wasn’t the person that was the problem but the chair. (imagine a chair) whoever sits in the chair becomes corrupt and we have to get rid of the chair. that community gave me so many glimpses of what revolutionary anarchist society would look like. it turns out that it looks a lot like sheep. (they were shepherds)
so one of the women who visited us was studying to be a nurse midwife. another friend wanted to be teacher. both of them are counting the years of school before they reach their goals. both of them consider themselves to be revolutionary. and very committed to destroying the exploitative system currently in place.
so their plan seems to be to gain more institutional power (degree, title, expertise, education, money, etc) in order to deconstruct that power. well, i cant help but wonder why do they need that level of security. and if i can trust ´leaders´who need institutional power to feel as if they can lead. maybe the people should decide their leaders and not just the institutions.
right now i am reading the revolution will not be funded. and while i am not sure if i am ready to give up on the ngo model completely ai m more and more questions the activist-for-a-living model that i once aspired to. i met paola rojas at the incite conference (she wrote the article are the cops in our heads or in our hearts that i posted earlier) and she said that she was walking away from the activistforaliving model after being really successful at it and wanted to work as a doula.
but then who will fund the revolution? and why is ist when we talk about ´resources´it is always a euphemism for cold hard cash? what are our resources? what do our communities have in abundane that can sustain us just as well or better than money? what about open spaces, does someone have a home that we could use as an office while they are at work (this was a great idea over a drink at a poetry reading that just opened up my directions i hadnt thought of before) who would be willing to cook a meal or give a massage or teach salsa or found a bunch of printer paper that just ´fell´off a truck? maybe rather than putting our energy primarily in getting the insitutional power, could we see ´people power´and `power to the people` as more than just membership numbers and dues…and stop using the– non profit as a vanguard for the people– model.
and eliminate the radical vs reformist dichotomy…inside the system vs outside the system. stop seeing the ´system´as central and start seeing the everyday peopel who are fighting against violence as central. stop seeing the institutional prestige as our ticket to being radical and see the all the places that people already daily are organizing outside of the nonprofit model as the places that we need to learn form and support.
angry arab: More Arab women are killed annually by Israeli occupation forces than those who die from FGM and “honor” crimes combined. Yet, Western feminists don’t seem to care for the victims of Israeli violence. If you set up an organization in the Arab world to advocate against FGM, millions in US/Europe/UN aid will come your way. And if you set up an organization to advocate against Israeli killing of Palestinian women and children, the organization will be immediately added to the list of terrorist organizations.
wow i didnt know this statistics. although it is definitely true that the west is obsessed with seeing arab women as victims. i mean people act as if we went to afghanistan to liberate the women from burkas. ‘those poor women’. how does the israeli occupation effect the west bank women? affect palestinian women?
so yeah…this post is really late and there is plenty i can write about from the past month. right now i am in san cristobal , chiapas. which is sunny and colorful eclectic patterns of decoration, an old colonial city. i am sitting in the computer lab with a cd playing that must be an ode to marijuana. but it was a long trip before i got here and i want to share some of the highlights and insights.
the incite conference in denver:
such an incredible healing space to be in. strong conscious women of color envisioning empowering inspiring each other to continue the work against violence. i need to go to conferences more often that inspire and touch me in such deep and open places. the best workshop was the last one i went to : revolutionary motherhood. sitting in a room of women and children brainstorming en-visioning imagining what a revolutionary motherhood looks like. diverse ideas came acrosss: all motherhood is revolutionary, to have more faith in your intuition than the enemies plan for your body and your children…and my favorite from an 11yearold boy: my mother is revolutionary when she shows me affection in public. (YEAH my heart melted a little. i kinda fell in love with that kid) we ended by talking about women of color as midwives and doulas and how important to stop the violence and sexual assault that happens daily in birth rooms. how to become doulas and be a network of revolutionary doulas.
i also heard from red women power: first nations women speaking from their heart as they posit themselves in the intersection between the ancestors the spirit and the future generations. sharing their life stories of being in american indian movement –all of these women were mothers as well–and lovers and grandmothers—
and i began the conference struggling with transfolk on what does incite! an organization for women color who identify as women of color 24-7, mean to gender queer and trans community. how does incite! hold itself as a woman of color space and be trans-inclusive…well i can say that after they have been struggling with this question with transcommunity some of the practical changes i can see in the organization: all of incite! literature includes transfolk as well as woc…workshop on transidentity and community…a working document on incite! relationship with transfolk…and an organizational acknowledgement that one of the areas that definitely overlap for woc and trans antiviolence movement is REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE…
but i still wonder if ´woman´as a social category has more privilege than ´trans´ can incite ethically consider itself a social justice organization if it is centered around a privileged ´woman´identity…i would like to see incite! engage this question more. i need it to.
i also want to give props to young women united who drove to denver from albuquerque with lots of babies and children and mamas and filled the atmosphere of the conference with the sweet mamam milk and hugs and laughter and chaos of a revolucion dulce. they were whom i identified most at the conference. especially when the organizers of the conference decided that one of the receptions should be in a bar that does not allow children…i hope that the next conference is organized around mama na toto as the center and not see mamas and their children and the youth as marginal to the conference. especially since we are the ones who take on the brunt of the antiwoman violence…
this conference though reaffirmed for me the central role that reproductive justice and childbirth must play in any radical revolutionary movement. and plus i picked up a hot tshirt…i agree with mandisa (n.o. incite!) it is time that we brought sexy back to activism.