Iraqi Refugees Serve Sex Trade in Syria & Iraqi Women the Worse for War

May 30th, 2007 - by admin

Katerine Zoeff / The New York Times & Kasia Anderson / Truthdig – 2007-05-30 23:23:25

Desperate Iraqi Refugees Turn to Sex Trade in Syria
Katerine Zoeff / The New York Times

“Sometimes you see whole families living this way, the girls pimped by the mother or aunt,” she said. “But prostitution isn’t the only problem. Our schools are overcrowded, and the prices of services, food and transportation have all risen. We don’t have the proper infrastructure to deal with this. We don’t have shelters or health centers that these women can go to. And because of the situation in Iraq, Syria is careful not to deport these women.”

MARABA, Syria (May 29, 2007) — Back home in Iraq, Umm Hiba’s daughter was a devout schoolgirl, modest in her dress and serious about her studies. Hiba, who is now 16, wore the hijab, or Islamic head scarf, and rose early each day to say the dawn prayer before classes.

But that was before militias began threatening their Baghdad neighborhood and Umm Hiba and her daughter fled to Syria last spring. There were no jobs, and Umm Hiba’s elderly father developed complications related to his diabetes.

Desperate, Umm Hiba followed the advice of an Iraqi acquaintance and took her daughter to work at a nightclub along a highway known for prostitution. “We Iraqis used to be a proud people,” she said over the frantic blare of the club’s speakers. She pointed out her daughter, dancing among about two dozen other girls on the stage, wearing a pink silk dress with spaghetti straps, her frail shoulders bathed in colored light.

As Umm Hiba watched, a middle-aged man climbed onto the platform and began to dance jerkily, arms flailing, among the girls.

“During the war we lost everything,” she said. “We even lost our honor.” She insisted on being identified by only part of her name — Umm Hiba means mother of Hiba.

For anyone living in Damascus these days, the fact that some Iraqi refugees are selling sex or working in sex clubs is difficult to ignore.
Even in central Damascus, men freely talk of being approached by pimps trawling for customers outside juice shops and shawarma sandwich stalls, and of women walking up to passing men, an act unthinkable in Arab culture, and asking in Iraqi-accented Arabic if the men would like to “have a cup of tea.”

By day the road that leads from Damascus to the historic convent at Saidnaya is often choked with Christian and Muslim pilgrims hoping for one of the miracles attributed to a portrait of the Virgin Mary at the convent. But as any Damascene taxi driver can tell you, the Maraba section of this fabled pilgrim road is fast becoming better known for its brisk trade in Iraqi prostitutes.

Many of these women and girls, including some barely in their teens, are recent refugees. Some are tricked or forced into prostitution, but most say they have no other means of supporting their families. As a group they represent one of the most visible symptoms of an Iraqi refugee crisis that has exploded in Syria in recent months.

According to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, about 1.2 million Iraqi refugees now live in Syria; the Syrian government puts the figure even higher.

Given the deteriorating economic situation of those refugees, a United Nations report found last year, many girls and women in “severe need” turn to prostitution, in secret or even with the knowledge or involvement of family members. In many cases, the report added, “the head of the family brings clients to the house.”

Aid workers say thousands of Iraqi women work as prostitutes in Syria, and point out that as violence in Iraq has increased, the refugee population has come to include more female-headed households and unaccompanied women.

“So many of the Iraqi women arriving now are living on their own with their children because the men in their families were killed or kidnapped,” said Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf, a Syrian nun at the Good Shepherd convent in Damascus, which helps Iraqi refugees.

She said the convent had surveyed Iraqi refugees living in Masaken Barzeh, on the outskirts of Damascus, and found 119 female-headed households in one small neighborhood. Some of the women, seeking work outside the home for the first time and living in a country with high unemployment, find that their only marketable asset is their bodies.

“I met three sisters-in-law recently who were living together and all prostituting themselves,” Sister Marie-Claude said. “They would go out on alternate nights — each woman took her turn — and then divide the money to feed all the children.”

For more than three years after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi prostitution in Syria, like any prostitution, was a forbidden topic for Syria’s government. Like drug abuse, the sex trade tends to be referred to in the local news media as acts against public decency. But Dietrun Günther, an official at the United Nations refugee agency’s Damascus office, said the government was finally breaking its silence.

“We’re especially concerned that there are young girls involved, and that they’re being forced, even smuggled into Syria in some cases,” Ms. Günther said. “We’ve had special talks with the Syrian government about prostitution.” She called the officials’ new openness “a great step.”

Mouna Asaad, a Syrian women’s rights lawyer, said the government had been blindsided by the scale of the arriving Iraqi refugee population. Syria does not require visas for citizens of Arab countries, and its government had pledged to assist needy Iraqis. But this country of 19 million was ill equipped to cope with the sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of them, Ms. Asaad said.

“Sometimes you see whole families living this way, the girls pimped by the mother or aunt,” she said. “But prostitution isn’t the only problem. Our schools are overcrowded, and the prices of services, food and transportation have all risen. We don’t have the proper infrastructure to deal with this. We don’t have shelters or health centers that these women can go to. And because of the situation in Iraq, Syria is careful not to deport these women.”

Most of the semi-organized prostitution takes place on the outskirts of the capital, in nightclubs known as casinos — a local euphemism, because no gambling occurs.

At Al Rawabi, an expensive nightclub in Al Hami, there is even a floor show with an Iraqi theme. One recent evening, waiters brought out trays of snacks: French fries and grilled chicken hearts wrapped in foil folded into diamond shapes. A 10-piece band warmed up, and an M.C. gave the traditionally overwrought introduction in Arabic: “I give you the honey of all stages, the stealer of all hearts, the most golden throat, the glamorous artist: Maria!”

Maria, a buxom young woman, climbed onto the stage and began an anguished-sounding ballad. “After Iraq I have no homeland,” she sang. “I’m ready to go crawling on my knees back to Iraq.” Four other women, all wearing variations on leopard print, gyrated on stage, swinging their hair in wild circles. The stage lights had been fitted with colored gel filters that lent the women’s skin a greenish cast.

Al Rawabi’s customers watched Maria calmly, leaning back in their chairs and drinking Johnnie Walker Black. The large room smelled strongly of sweat mingled with the apple tobacco from scores of water pipes. When Maria finished singing, no one clapped.

She picked up the microphone again and began what she called a salute to Iraq, naming many of the Iraqi women in the club and, indicating one of the women in leopard print who had danced with her, “most especially my best friend, Sahar.”

After the dancers filed offstage and scattered around the room to talk to customers, Sahar told a visitor she was from the Dora district of Baghdad but had left “because of the troubles.” Now, she said she would leave the club with him for $200.

Aid workers say $50 to $70 is considered a good night’s wage for an Iraqi prostitute working in Damascus. And some of the Iraqi dancers in the crowded casinos of Damascus suburbs earn much less.

In Maraba, Umm Hiba would not say how much money her daughter took home at the end of a night. Noticing her reluctance, the club’s manager, who introduced himself as Hassan, broke in proudly.

“We make sure that each girl has a minimum of 500 lira at the end of each night, no matter how bad business is,” he said, mentioning a sum of about $10. “We are sympathetic to the situation of the Iraqi people. And we try to give some extra help to the girls whose families are in special difficulties.”

Umm Hiba shook her head. “It’s true that the managers here are good, that they’re helping us and not stealing the girls’ money,” she said. “But I’m so angry. Do you think we’re happy that these men from the gulf are seeing our daughters’ naked bodies?”

Most so-called casinos do not appear to directly broker arrangements between prostitutes and their customers. Zafer, a waiter at the club where Hiba works, said that the club earned money through sales of food and alcohol and that the dancers were encouraged to sit with male customers and order drinks to increase revenues.

Zafer, who spoke on condition that only his first name be used, refused to discuss specific women and girls at the club, but said that most of them did sell sexual favors. “They have an hourly rate,” he said. “And they have regular customers.”

Inexpensive Iraqi prostitutes have helped to make Syria a popular destination for sex tourists from wealthier countries in the Middle East. In the club’s parking lot, nearly half of the cars had Saudi license plates.

From Damascus it is only about six hours by car, passing through Jordan, to the Saudi border. Syria, where it is relatively easy to buy alcohol and dance with women, is popular as a low-cost weekend destination for groups of Saudi men.

And though some women of other nationalities, including Russians and Moroccans, still work as prostitutes in Damascus, Abeer, a 23-year-old from Baghdad working at the same club as Hiba, explained that the arriving Iraqis had pushed many of them out of business.

“From what I’ve seen, 70 percent to 80 percent of the girls working this business in Damascus today are Iraqis,” she said. “The rents here in Syria are too expensive for their families. If they go back to Iraq they’ll be slaughtered, and this is the only work available.”

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercail, educational pursposes.

Iraqi Women the Worse for War
Kasia Anderson / Truthdig

(May 28, 2007) — Remember those photos of Iraqi women triumphantly raising freshly inked fingers for Western cameras after voting in their new “democracy”? They were presented to the world by the US government as an indication of a policy that would liberate Iraqi women and men. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way, according to Iraqi women’s rights activist Yanar Mohammed, who argues that the situation for women in her country has significantly worsened since the American invasion in 2003.

Despite his immense failings and unforgivable atrocities, Saddam Hussein ran an essentially secular government that gave women more educational, professional and social freedoms than does the current regime. This is a source of chagrin to people like Mohammed who detested the dictatorship but fear that the future will only bring new restrictions and greater oppression for Iraq’s women under the guise of “democracy.”

On April 14, Yanar Mohammed was honored by the Feminist Majority Foundation, an organization that warned the world about what the Taliban was doing to women and girls in Afghanistan long before the US decided to take military action. As one of four special guests at the foundation’s Global Women’s Rights Awards, she was able to speak out about the many battles that she and other members of her activist group, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, are fighting on behalf of women in their country, risking their lives on a daily basis for their cause.

Mohammed tells Kasia Anderson about her mission and explains how the current state of affairs for Iraqi women differs from the picture painted by many Western media outlets.

Kasia Anderson: Can you tell us in your own words about your work [with the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq], how you started and what issues are most important to your cause right now?

Yanar Mohammed: After this war started on Iraq I immediately decided to go back to set up an organization and to be the voice for free women there, and since the beginning, in my organization, we decided to do demonstrations, to do campaigns, to make petitions, and to see whatever is needed. And it started with speaking out against the human trafficking of women, and we were the first to demonstrate. It was a few months after the [March 2003] beginning of the war — in August 2003 — we started that.

But later on, our work was mainly on sheltering women from honor killings, and also on seeking out the reports of women’s trafficking, and later on in the last two years we found out — especially after the breakout of the scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison, we found out that it is very important to have a presence in all the women’s prisons and see what’s happening there. So, we managed to become regular visitors to the central prison — it’s called Khadamiyah, a women’s prison, and we interviewed all the women in there, and we found out terrible things happening before they reached the prison.

Six of them, actually, spoke out about being assaulted, about being raped, some of them serially raped by the staff of the police station before they reached the prison. So, we decided: This is a program that we will have to pursue immediately. And the surprise here is that most of this work we do with very minimal funding — mostly depending on volunteer work.

Anderson: How did the onset of the Iraq war change things for Iraqi women, specifically? I would imagine that there would be an increase in particular forms of oppression and violence once things became more volatile and uncertain. …

Mohammed: Well, although people on this part of the world think that Iraqi women are liberated, actually, we have lost all of the achievements or all the status that we used to have. It is no longer safe to leave your house and get groceries. We’re not speaking here about a young woman trying to reach the university, because that is beginning to get too difficult. We’re not speaking here about women who are trying to go back and forth to work and even those of my friends who do that already because they have to — many of the police at work are being killed for sectarian reasons.

So, you have to witness all sorts of atrocities just going back and forth to work, and if there is this new [policy] of Sunni and Shiite, checking all the IDs of people, you leave the house and you do not guarantee that you come back safe.

Anderson: And I know that the markets are one particular target for bombers — repeated targets for bombers — when people are just trying to shop and go about their business.

Mohammed: Well, all the districts of Baghdad have witnessed bombing, and it’s like the bombings move from one neighborhood to the other every month, so … I moved my residence from one place to another, but I found out they’re all unsafe.

Anderson: What is your hope now for your organization — to move into new areas of social and political concern? Or are you going to keep building up what you’re working on now?

Mohammed: Actually, we always try to be ahead of the atrocities happening. It started with sheltering; then, it extended to the matter of the trafficking of women. The third thing is that we went into the prisons and we are watching for women’s self-esteem to be respected in there. And finally we found out that if you do not put women’s rights in context, you have done nothing.

So, we have started a youth initiative where we are inviting youth from the Sunni and the Shiite areas and making poetry events where we tell them: “The subject matter of the event is about women, is about love, is about hope,” and we are witnessing very good results — that the youth do not want to be recruited for a civil war, do not want to kill each other, but there are very few alternatives for them out there, and the few democrat, seculars and outspoken women aren’t really supported.

This is the reason that I visit L.A. and speak to our friends at the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. Magazine, trying to seek support so we can survive as a project and as a voice, because, surprisingly, this war on Iraq brought all the support for the fundamentalists, for the extremists, who are new in the country, who are not the original people of the country, and they made them strong against us — the women and the freedom-loving people of Iraq.

Anderson: Besides the mistaken notion that women in Iraq are enjoying more freedom now than before the beginning of the current war, which tends to be a party line over here, what other misconceptions about what’s going on in actuality in Iraq do you feel you could disabuse us of on this end?

Mohammed: Well, the myth of democracy has killed already half a million Iraqis, and if it were giving us real democracy, where people are represented according to their political affiliations or their economic understanding or their social justice affiliations, that would have been understood.

But the way Iraqis are represented is according to their religion and their ethnicities. It is as if the U.S. administration is trying to tell the whole world that Iraqis are not entitled to political understanding or political activity.

The political formula that was forwarded to us is a total insult for a part of the world where the politics are very much thriving and all kinds of politics — with the dawn of the war, thousands of political parties have registered. And they all wanted to be competing, or let’s say running into democracy, but who was empowered, who was supported? It’s mostly the religious and mostly the ethnic groups, and the women’s groups?

The U.S. administration wasn’t really interested to speak to, let’s say, free women’s groups. They preferred to bring decorative factors to the parliament, where they look like women, but they all voted for a constitution that is against women. And the constitution at this moment has imposed Shariah law upon us, when in the times before the war we had more of a secular constitution that respected women’s rights. So, it’s one more thing lost for this war.

Anderson: Can you respond to the claims made by U.S. politicians talking about how well the reconstruction efforts in Iraq are going?

Mohammed: Well, you know, the billions of dollars that we hear should have reached Iraq and been spent for the reconstruction — well, we don’t see any reconstruction. Whatever they have tried to construct, like the electricity generators and water supply and all of that — they have been blown away by the resistance over and over again, so they stopped doing those.

Anderson: Those are particular targets for the resistance?

Mohammed: Yes, yes, because they do not like to see the country run in the American way. So, the answer here is that it cannot be solved by money. There is a political issue to be solved, and later on the reconstruction follows.

We’re not saying that money should not be spent on the reconstruction, but the political issues have really stopped, and there is absolutely no communication, and all of the solutions are reaching a dead end. So, all talk of reconstruction is nonsense at this point. We have not seen any buildings reconstructed in Iraq. I wonder what they’re talking about.

Anderson: And the utilities are, at this point, shot?

Mohammed: Nothing! We get electricity one hour in the morning and one hour at night, and in the last two days there was no electricity. We did not see any new buildings built, unless they are inside the Green Zone, where we cannot see them.

Anderson: And there was a wall being constructed in April. …

Mohammed: Not one wall — there are 10 layers of concrete walls that we have to be searched over and over until we reach the Green Zone. So, maybe there is some reconstruction in there, but I’ve been there and I haven’t seen really much. So where are these billions going? I have no answer, but I think they are going somewhere else.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.