Iraqi Women Strive for Freedom

Felicia Whatley

For two Iraqi woman in their forties, “Maggie” and “Summer” (their identities have been masked to protect the safety of themselves and their families) have lived a lifetime of war and oppression in Iraq. Both have college degrees and work for the U.S. Coalition Forces being paid minimum wage in hopes of working toward obtaining a visa so they can emigrate to the U.S. or Jordan in the wake of Iraq’s invasion and occupation.

“Now I feel like I am I’m in prison, because we avoid going outside so we don’t run into the militias or violence. There was a time when we lived a normal life in Iraq,” said Summer, a Sunni Muslim. She remembers how Al-Qaeda moved into their neighborhoods instilling laws for the dress, appearance and lifestyle of Muslim women in Iraq.

In Maggie and Summer’s lifetime, they have lived through a full scale war in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, a 1967 war with Israel, and a military coup d’etat by Arab officials.

“I am a Shiite Muslim, but it does not matter because Shiite and Sunni are brothers. Do you know that there was no such thing before the war? We did not say we were Sunni or Shiite; we used to say we are Muslim,” said Maggie.

“National Reconciliation will unite Iraqis and establish peace in our country. All Iraqis will know their real enemy is al-Qaeda and the extremists,” said Maggie.

In secrecy from her Iraqi neighbors, Summer is cosmetologist with a degree in Graphic Design. She cuts hair, does nails, facials, and massages for State Department officials and Coalition Troops at a little shop in and the International Zone at Union 3 Camp.

“It’s harder living here now, but I don’t blame the Coalition Forces for that because it’s our politicians’ fall of the Iraqi government, which couldn’t prevent us from sectarianism,” said Summer.

In 2005 Summer’s nephew was shot and paralyzed at a fake check point, and in the same year her niece was randomly killed by gunfire while sleeping on top of her own roof.

“I do trust Americans, because I am sure they are here to help us. I don’t trust the Iraqi government,” said Summer.

After the Gulf War, women and girls were affected specifically by the economic consequences of the U.N. sanctions. Females lacked access to food, health care, and education. This continued to get worse when changes in the law restricted women’s ability to move and access the formal sector in an effort to ensure jobs to men, appeasing religious and tribal groups.

“I am an Iraqi woman, have my own family and job but feel unsafe in my country. I am planning to live in the States, not only to live in a safe place but to have a good future too for me and my family,” said Maggie.

They have seen relations between Iraq and Iran dissolve and a Safar intifada movement occurred where 30,000 Iraqis led an anti-government protest. Up until the 1990s, Iraqi women had played an active role in the political and economic development in Iraq; then the coup d’etat changed all that. The Ba’ath Party dissolved most of these civil society programs.

“Life in general became harder after the war. Two years ago I obliged to put a veil to cover my hair when I go out to avoid extremists. I can not go out in the evenings, not any more,” said Maggie.

Maggie grew up dreaming of becoming a doctor but became a translator for U.S. troops because of her love for the English language.

Summer had been dreaming of getting out of Iraq since the attacks on her family in 2005. She also had another nephew, a proud Iraqi Policeman, escape an assassination attempt when a bomb detonated in his police vehicle.

“If the situation was like it was before the war, I would have chosen to stay in Iraq. But now, I’ll choose any safer place,” said Summer.

These women have seen the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime as he was sworn in as President in 1979 and hung in 2007.

They watched as over 40,000 Shi’a were expelled to Iran in 1980 and Ayatollah al Sadr and his sister executed.

The qualifications for falling under the special immigrant status includes, being a national of Iraq or Afghanistan and having worked as a translator or interpreter for the U.S. Armed Troops for at least 12 months. The special immigrant status applicants must obtain a favorable letter of recommendation from as U.S. military officer and pass all the biometrics and background checks.

“If she [Maggie] wants out of here, we are here to help. I hate to see her go but she will continue to work harder and have a better future in America,” said a U.S. Army Iraqi Media Engagement Team leader.

Maggie and Summer witnessed Iran recapture most of its territory, the Ba’ath Party resuming power and then being destroyed.

“Growing up I wanted to be an actress or dancing designer, even though these jobs were unacceptable in our society,” said Summer.

The number of translators or interpreters who may receive special immigrant status in 2007 and 2008 cannot exceed 500. The maximum number for all other fiscal years is 50, only counting the translator or interpreter, their spouses and children do not count toward that limit. This means the amount of visas given is capped for this year and will dramatically be reduced to only 50 for next year.

Becoming a translator is one way other than refugee status to receive their visas and emigrate out of Iraq. Special immigrant status is available under section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2006 for Afghan and Iraqi nationals, working directly for the United States Armed Forces as a translator or interpreter and their spouses and children.

Iraqi women are honest, sincere, kind, protective, full of life, open minded and good mothers. We just want a safe place to live,” said Maggie.

Summer and Maggie lived through the escalation of the Gulf war, end of Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and the Desert Storm war where allied forces liberated Kuwait.

“Being an Iraqi woman means a lot of social obstacles, a lot of responsibilities with less care and happiness. I would like to free Iraqi women from these social obstacles. Women should get more out of the society and the Iraqi government,” said Maggie.

The Iraqi Police Forces are corrupt and not trusted by the locals. A month ago Maggie came to work crying. I hugged her and asked what happened. Someone had broken into her and her husband’s house and took all of their money and valuables, everything he had worked for as an Iraqi journalist, a very dangerous job, and her as an interpreter risking her life everyday she drove to work, praying her neighbors wouldn’t know she works for the Occupying Forces.

“I have lost five of my nephews because of violence in Iraq. Some were killed by al-Qaeda or unknown gangs or IED explosions. Some were kidnapped and then killed after getting the ransom money, but not even that would help, because they were already dead,” said Maggie.

Her murdered family members were young men 17 to 25 years old and as she put it, “full of life, having their own dreams and families.”

Since the new reductions of visas for special immigrant status, I have scrambled to get Summer an interview with the Iraqi Media Engagement Team to translate Iraqi broadcast news, newspapers and press releases into English. It is a very important job because Generals at the White House can keep tabs on what is happening in Iraq according to a local Iraqi perspective.

“It is unfortunate to see Iraq’s educated intellectuals leaving the rebuilding of their nation, but Baghdad University is still producing future leaders for Iraq. The Iraqis are choosing to make Iraq better,” said a U.S. Soldier.

“The Coalition Forces are not occupying our homeland. They are here to achieve a goal and make Iraq open to the world by helping Iraqi people get rid of a dictator regime, start a new life. We are open to new horizons, to build new and bright futures for our children, that is why I am working for the Coalition Forces and I believe in what I am doing,” said Maggie.

There is no happily ever after for either of these women. If they receive their visas, they will be leaving behind large families and a lifetime of memories in hopes for a better future in the United States or Ireland. They have to worry if their new countries will welcome them and if they can make it in a turbulent economy on their Iraqi credentials. They are sad to leave Iraq, but are hopeful life will be better elsewhere.

“Iraqis are good and most love Americans and all the people helping in Iraq’s freedom. Please do not consider them as terrorists or insurgents. They are simple, generous and kind. They faced hard times during the Saddamregime and are looking for good lives,” said Maggie.