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FEATURES | summer 2009

Baghdad Underground
A “railroad” of sorts helps Iraqi women escape servitude, abuse and even death

By Anna Badkhen

On a bullet-scarred side street in Baghdad’s downtown, where U.S. Marines famously helped tear down the statue of Saddam Hussein in April of 2003, an inconspicuous entryway tucked between a steel-shuttered shop and a rickety candy stall leads to a flight of steep concrete stairs. The second-floor landing bottlenecks into a dark, empty hallway. Women in black abayas hurry across the buckled floor tiles in silence and quickly disappear through an unmarked plywood door on the right.

The decrepit two-bedroom apartment behind this unassuming portal is an essential junction of what activists in Iraq and their U.S. supporters call the Underground Railroad. This Railroad is a small, clandestine network of several shelters, located mostly in Baghdad, for the countless but commonly overlooked victims of the war in Iraq: women who have been raped, battered or forced into prostitution, or women who, accused of bringing dishonor to their families by having been abused, have been rejected or even threatened with death by their relatives.

In a country ravaged by war and fractured along sectarian lines, these shelters serve women who have nowhere else to turn for help. Operated despite recurring threats and lack of government support by a team of 35 Iraqi activists who call themselves the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), the shelters offer a glint of hope for civil society.

The Underground Railroad was founded in 2004 by Baghdad-born architect-turned-feminist-organizer Yanar Mohammed, head of OWFI, along with MADRE, an international women’s rights group based in New York. It provides the only sanctuaries for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence outside the quasi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, where the local government and NGOs operate several similar shelters. In addition to providing temporary asylum, it helps women resettle in places where their abusers cannot find them easily.

The cheap apartment is all the organization can afford; it costs about $60,000 a year to operate a shelter this size. With the squalor comes anonymity, and the inherent promise that, at last, the women are safe. Shelter workers believe that the shelter’s inconspicuous nature protects them from religious militias, which, Amnesty International reports, routinely target women’s rights advocates. The Railroad’s shelter locations are kept secret from angry husbands and male extended family members.

Samira (not her real name), a Sunni widow from the restive eastern province of Diyala, will stay at the shelter for several months, until it’s safe for her to move on. She spends most of her evenings cleaning the shelter: her safe haven, and her chance for a future without abuse.

“If it weren’t for this shelter I would have become a prostitute,” Samira said. “Now I feel I have a family around me.”

Excerpted from the Summer 2009 issue of Ms. - join the ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.

ANNA BADKHEN has reported extensively from Iraq since 2003. She is writing a book about war and food. Her reporting trip to Baghdad this year was made possible by a grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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