Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Zeena's story

 Reality on the ground in Iraq (for women especially);

Zeena's story
by Zainab
[source unknown to me -- Nabil]

Dear Board of Directors,

I just returned from Baghdad two days ago. With the
recent beheading of Ken Bigley now more than 30 of
the 140 foreign nationals kidnapped in Iraq have
been killed. As you know, the situation there is
violent and chaotic and getting worse each day.

What you may not know about is the grave threat of
kidnapping and ransom that Iraqi’s are facing
everyday. While the kidnappers of Ken Bigley
demanded the release of Iraqi women detained by the
US-led command in Iraq, more and more Iraqi women
are being kidnapped and killed each day.

Women’s lives are being negotiated, sold and throw

This is the story of Zeena who was kidnapped and
murdered. You might think that I am used to
senseless violence in my line of work, but Zeena's
murder has touched a deep chord in my heart and I
wanted to share her story. She is symbol of what
Iraqi women are experiencing living in Iraq today.

In Peace,

I don’t know if it was Zeena’s blond hair that got
her death noticed by Western press agencies. I know
that very few of the hundreds, if not thousands, of
Iraqi victims of kidnapping and murder are ever
noticed in Western media. Zeena Al Qushtaini and
Dr. Reyad were found dead on October 3rd in the
middle of a highway between Baghdad and Haleh. Up
until their kidnapping, the two of them embodied a
beautiful aspect of Iraq rarely noticed outside the
country. And their deaths, as horrible as they are,
do not embody Iraqi attitudes about the future.

Zeena and Dr. Reyad were two pharmacists who had
been operating a joint business venture for years.
Zeena was a single mother of two teenage boys. She
divorced her husband twelve years ago immediately
after giving birth to her youngest. She had fallen
out of love with him and did not want to continue in
her marriage, and Iraqi law and culture granted
women the right to obtain a divorce. Although she
came from a middle class family, Zeena’s reality as
a woman was not so different from so many Iraqi
women from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Living in a female headed household, she was the
sole bread winner of her family that included her
sons and her mother. She had no choice but to hold
two jobs throughout the harsh years of economic
sanctions and the insecurity brought on in the
aftermath of the war. Up until her death, Zeena
held a daily job in an export/import company and a
nightly job running her pharmacy.

I first met Zeena in May of 2003, a few weeks after
the end of the war with Iraq. She was full of
optimism about the future of Iraqi women in the
aftermath of the war. I remember being stunned with
her energy, creativity, and optimism about the
future. Zeena, along with so many Iraqi women,
believed that the end of the war was about to usher
in a new era of active women’s participation in
building a new Iraq. And even though Zeena felt
disillusioned and disappointed with the limited
women’s participation allowed in ruling bodies
during the period of the Coalition Provisional
Authority (only three women were allowed in the
Iraqi Governing Council, only one woman was chosen
to be minister out of 25 ministries and no women
were represented in the constitutional drafting
committee) she never gave up her personal hope that
women would soon find fewer obstacles to their own
empowerment and would enjoy greater freedoms to
fulfill their personal potential.

As the security situation continued to rapidly
deteriorate, she kept on working even as other women
began retreating to the relative safety of their
homes. She continued her business partnership with a
single man who happened to be an Iraqi Christian,
continuing the tradition of love and friendship
between Iraqis regardless of their religious or
ethnic backgrounds. She kept on driving the
dangerous streets of Baghdad, even as most women
stopped out of fear of the daily kidnappings. And
she insisted on continuing to dress in her own
Western style even as most women were turning to the
traditional head scarf so as to reduce attention to
themselves during the on-going chaos.

At the end of the day, however, nearly a year and a
half after I first met Zeena, she joined the
thousands of unnamed Iraqi civilian causalities. At
9 PM, at a time when the streets were still active,
the stores were still open, and people were still on
the street, she was kidnapped. Eight men in
business suits (after all, kidnapping is an
expanding growth industry in Iraq today) entered her
pharmacy, handcuffed her and her business partner,
blindfolded them, and taped their mouths shut. We
know this because there were many witnesses, as
there are to most kidnappings, who could only watch
and thank God it was not them. They were dragged to
a waiting car and never seen again until last Sunday
when their bodies were found on a desert highway.
Zeena was found in traditional clothing and a head
scarf and had been executed with a bullet to her
head and her business partner had been decapitated.

Zeena is only the latest of a relatively new series
of targeted kidnappings aimed specifically at Iraqi
women. Alham, a women’s rights activist, is a
member of one of the municipal councils in Baghdad.
She was kidnapped just one week before Zeena. In
her briefcase were flyers announcing a women’s
conference in one of the women opportunity centers
in Baghdad. Suad, another women’s rights activist
in Baghdad, was targeted for killing a few months
ago. She managed to escape the 35 bullets fired
into her house but her husband didn’t. The killers
called her the next day and told her that she may
have escaped the bullets once but that if she stayed
in the country, her son would be their next target.
And recently a woman was killed in the southern city
of Al-Amaraa after nominating herself for the coming

Women have entered the sphere of political violence
in Iraq. And traditional notions of honor and shame
that had provided some protection for women are no
longer working. Zeena and other too many other women
are only the tip of the iceberg in the increased
violence women in Iraq face today. Bodies of dead
women are being found in isolated areas leading many
to believe that honor killings, domestic violence,
and political violence is only increasing in Iraq.
And as always, women casualties become the secret
statistic as silence becomes a greater protection
than speaking out.

Yet despite these conditions, and as surprising as
it may be, women are still optimistic about the
future. In a recent survey commissioned by Women
for Women International in the three main cities in
Iraq: Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, 90% of surveyed
women reported that they are hopeful for the future.
And this has more to do with the Iraqi character
than anything else. It is this concept of hope –
the very notion of it – that women like Zeena fought
for and held on to throughout their lives.

I just returned from Iraq where I had gone to visit
Women for Women International’s work to determine
whether we should close down our operations in
response to the increased insecurity on the ground.
During my trip, I heard a consistent message by our
Iraqi staff and the women we serve: “close our
office and you might as well kill us and kill the
dreams that we are fighting for… a hopeful future
for Iraqi women!”

Yet Zeena is dead in a headscarf she never wore
before. As I left Iraq, I wondered how many will be
willing to fight Zeena’s fight of keeping what they
knew of Iraq alive. I know few women who are still
hanging on and in their honor, we decided to keep
our work in Iraq and not close our offices despite
of the most intense insecurity the country has ever
witnessed. The question now is whether they will be
able to hold on to their dreams… to their hope?

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