Nadia Abou El-Magd / Associated Press – 2004-07-11 13:21:49
BAGHDAD (July 10, 2004) — Weeping broke the silence inside Iraq’s National Theater as people watched the drama of a woman pleading for five more minutes with her baby. Instead, her guards took her away to be executed for spying.
The play was part of a day of events intended to draw attention to an association for Iraqi female political prisoners. The group wants to document the crimes of the former regime — and highlight the crimes women suffered under Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Scores of women covered in black cloaks worn by religious Muslim women jammed the theater, along with their husbands, children and the children of some of the executed. They joined to demand the right to take part in decision-making in the new Iraq.
“Today, my faithful sisters, each one of us has to take role in society,” said Iman al-Mousawi, 43, a former prisoner and the director of the association. “Our chains have broken … we demand the right to help rebuild Iraq, which Saddam left — as he had promised — in ruins.”
Most Members Are Shiite Women
Almost all the group’s 1,000 members are Shiite women, said Anaam Ali, an engineer and former prisoner. Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime dealt brutally with dissidents, many of them Shiites, and offered little mercy even to women who fell under suspicion.
Saddam was always skeptical of the Shiites’ loyalty, particularly during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq’s predominantly Shiite neighbor, Iran. He crushed a 1991 Shiite uprising, killing thousands, and targeted Shiite leaders for assassination.
Men, women — sometimes even children — were arrested and tortured on suspicion of being members of banned Shiite groups. Just having a relative who lived in Iran was grounds for execution.
Portraits of women who were later executed hung on the walls leading to the theater, black ribbons draped across the frames. The pictures were intended to dispel some of the mystery behind those who simply vanished from the streets — to show that they, too, were average Iraqis, victimized by the system.
Overcoming the Stigma of Imprisonment
That’s also part of the group’s goal: to help women overcome the stigma of having been imprisoned. These women, who come from a traditional society where personal feelings are not often discussed, benefit from having a sense of community, Al-Mousawi said.
Just sharing the trauma can help women “not to be ashamed, but proud of their prison experience.”
The dramatic presentations Friday were also meant to help expose the suffering to others. The plays included “Immortality Station,” in which four women, two dressed in the red garment worn by those facing execution, are seen praying behind bars.
Amira, the lead character, tells the other three that she was sentenced to death five days after she gave birth in prison. Two guards at the prison let her see her 4-month-old daughter before execution.
Amira gets just 15 minutes.
“What can I do for you in 15 minutes?” Amira shrieks to her daughter, Fatma. “I don’t have milk to feed you! Shall I change you?”
When the guards came to take her away, she screams, “God! I entrust you with Fatma.”
“This is a true story, I knew this woman,” said Saadiya Uzaib, who had met Amira during a decade in prison on charges that she belonged to a banned Shiite Party.
Uzaib, 42, described herself as a “a pious veiled Shiite woman,” who was unfairly accused. Sentenced to 20 years after a perfunctory trial, she was released in an amnesty in 1991.
A New Political Force inside Iraq
Their experiences, however, and their efforts to organize themselves are transforming them into a political force. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq’s new interim vice president, attended Friday’s presentation to offer moral support.
“Saddam fell because of the sacrifices of Iraqi men and women,” he said. “The new Iraq will gain strength from you … you who withstood prison cells.”
Uzaib said that in a strange way, prison was actually liberating, largely because it deepened her faith. The Quran, the Islamic holy book, was the only book permitted in prison.
“We were imprisoned by Saddam, suffered from his suppression, but we remained free inside,” Uzaib said. “This is very important. They imprisoned our bodies, but our souls were closer to God than ever.”
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