When I speak before Western audiences about my years covering the war in Iraq as a journalist for McClatchy Newspapers, someone inevitably asks, “What was it like to be a woman over there?”
“Well, I’ve never been there as a man, so I’m not sure I can compare,” is the clever way some of my friends reply to the same question.
I remind myself to borrow the line, but I can never quite remember to use it because when I hear the question, I see faces. Ban. Shatha. Sahar. Faten. Huda. Alaa. Jinan. Raghad. I think of the slivers of Iraq that they and many other women showed me, spaces that were off-limits to my male colleagues. Kitchens where meals were prepared without electricity. A bedroom with a mortar crater in the ceiling. A beauty salon that banned political talk so customers could get their hair done in peace. “Ladies’ hours” at the Babylon Hotel swimming pool, where sunshine hit bare skin and the war lurked just over a tall concrete barrier.
Reporting on Iraq through the eyes of its women was illuminating, but, perhaps more important, it was more representative of the population as a whole. Years of bloodshed had left Iraq with a population that was more than half women, many of them heads of households because their men were dead or missing or exiled. When the “woman question” comes up at public talks, I explain the importance of covering women’s stories by evoking the grisly math of car bombings.
At the height of the sectarian war, in 2006, car bombings were so commonplace that we stopped reporting on them unless 20 or more people were killed. For a year I didn’t bother to set my alarm before going to sleep because I knew I’d be awakened every morning by a thunderous boom. It wasn’t unusual to record daily car bomb death tolls of 80 or more. Because the most frequent targets were government and police buildings, the vast majority of the casualties were men.
Consider those numbers for a moment: 80 dead men meant 80 new widows and dozens of newly fatherless children. Every day. That meant that each week, more than 500 Iraqi women suddenly became the sole providers for their families, setting their own devastation aside to keep their children fed and housed. They sold their wedding gold to buy bread. They felt like burdens on the extended families who took them in.
At their most desperate, some women entered into so-called temporary marriages that weren’t intended to last long. Essentially, these marriages were prostitution with a thin religious veneer: men with money to spare would pay the women in exchange for sex, but because the couple was technically “married,” however briefly, the arrangement was deemed legitimate according to some Shi’a Islamic rulings.Even though several women correspondents covered Iraq, there was an unspoken understanding that if you delved too deeply into women’s lives, you risked being labeled as soft, or missing the point.
A widow named Nisreen told me her hands shook and her face reddened with shame when she signed a temporary marriage contract in exchange for $15 a month plus groceries and clothes for her five children.
“My son calls me a bad woman, a prostitute. My children have no idea I did this for their sake,” Nisreen said.
Before I first traveled to Iraq in the summer of 2003, I read an article in Rolling Stone in which a U.S. military officer marveled at the toughness of Iraqi women and mused that the advance might not have been so easy had U.S. forces faced the country’s women.
It was a comment meant to emasculate the men as much as it praised the women, and I would hear many versions of it when I was around U.S. troops.
Even in the Middle East, where there is no shortage of heartache, Iraqi women are known to be particularly tough. The guttural Iraqi accent only underlines that reputation. Nelly, a chain-smoking, melodramatic Egyptian hairdresser in Baghdad, once whispered to me that Iraqi women were the region’s most beautiful—until they opened their mouths.
I observed that tough exterior in hundreds of Iraqi women I met over the years. The elderly women trudging through the southern marshes with heavy sacks of reeds strapped to bowed backs. The stoic mothers looking for their sons among the corpses strewn at the scene of a suicide bombing. The pregnant militant who put a gun to my head in a Sadr City alleyway, and my Iraqi female friend who calmly swatted it away and lectured the attacker about her terrible manners.
Those sorts of stories accumulated until they formed an archetype: the tragic yet resilient Iraqi woman, a metaphor for the country itself. In hindsight, it seems so facile to see Iraqi women only through the prism of their war-ravaged lives, but how else do you report a story where pain is etched on the face of every woman you interview?
Even though several women correspondents covered Iraq, there was an unspoken understanding that if you delved too deeply into women’s lives, you risked being labeled as soft, or missing the point. And the point, at least for many of our male colleagues, was the combat, the “bang-bang,” in the parlance of war photographers. I’ll never forget the sting when one of my male colleagues let out a deep sigh as I told him about a piece I was writing on civilians: “Oh, Hannah and her PIPS.” The acronym, he said, stood for “Poor Iraqi People Stories.”
The PIPS captured the gloomy reality of war, but not the women themselves, at least not in a three-dimensional way. Amid the nonstop carnage, I seldom got to write about how witty or sweet or vulnerable Iraqi women could be. Those were the private memories, written in my heart if not in my notebook, and the ones that I recall more easily than any I published under a Baghdad dateline.
Of course, Iraqi women were more than capable of telling their own stories, and did so whenever they had the chance. Our bureau for McClatchy Newspapers was unusual: it employed three consecutive Arab American women bureau chiefs and more Iraqi women reporters than any other Western news agency. When the local staff saw how rarely civilian life made it into news stories that focused on the bloodshed and political turmoil, they started a blog, Inside Iraq, for which they wrote pieces using their own experiences to illustrate the human impact of war and occupation. The blog gained a following of loyal readers from around the globe.
In 2007, the International Women’s Media Foundation awarded six Iraqi women from our bureau the prestigious Courage in Journalism Award. They were the first winners from Iraq in the history of the prize. The honorees included a woman who had to retrieve her nephew’s dismembered body from a morgue because militants would’ve killed any man who showed up; one who had nearly died in a bombing but returned to work a couple of days later, her hearing still impaired from the blast; and one who commandeered an ambulance to sneak into a hospital that was on lockdown because the Iraqi government was trying to hide the civilian deaths from a disastrous operation.As the years stretched on without the restoration of power, a popular joke was that a distraught boy runs up to his mom and sobs that his father had touched a wire and been electrocuted. The mother replies: “Thank God! There’s electricity!”
The women received their awards from Angelina Jolie and Meg Ryan at glitzy ceremonies in New York and Los Angeles. They basked in the moment, but knew their fairy tale would soon be over. There was still so much to do back home. Sahar, one of the honorees and a gifted writer with an unfailing moral compass, delivered the acceptance speech, explaining why she chose such dangerous work.
“It’s because I’m tired of being branded a terrorist; tired that a human life lost in my country is no loss at all,” she told the audience. “It is our responsibility to do our utmost to acquire the answers, to dig them up with our bare hands if we must.”
I wish I could convey how devilishly funny my Iraqi girlfriends were, but the problem with sharing such memories is context. Things people find hilarious in wartime come off as odd or in poor taste in normal life. And nobody does gallows humor like Iraqis. As the years stretched on without the restoration of power, a popular joke was that a distraught boy runs up to his mom and sobs that his father had touched a wire and been electrocuted. The mother replies: “Thank God! There’s electricity!”
To pass the time in traffic snarls, my friend and translator Ban, a literature buff who used to tell me Iraq was waiting for Godot, invented a game called Is That the One? We’d sit in the backseat and peer out the windows, looking for cars that sat a little too low. “There it is!” I’d yell, spotting a Mercedes that seemed suspiciously heavy, as if it were crammed with explosives. “Is that the one?” I’d ask Ban, meaning, “Is that the car bomb that’s about to blow us to smithereens?” “No! That’s the one!” she’d reply, pointing out a flatbed truck stacked with unmarked boxes. At the time, we found this endlessly entertaining and not the least bit macabre.
When your days hover so closely to death, the pursuit of fun becomes thrilling and a little reckless. It’s as if you know you’re on your way out, so why not really live it up? After the U.S. military imposed a curfew in 2003, Iraqi women friends would often crash in my room. We’d play music and dance our hearts out, twirling until we forgot that we were in a dingy hotel room with shatterproof tape on the windows and flak vests by the door. A few Iraqi women I knew swallowed blackmarket pain pills or smoked hashish mixed with tobacco. They got manicures even when insurgents began tossing Molotov cocktails through the salon windows. Some undergrads at Baghdad University wore tight skirts and left their hair uncovered in defiance of flyers promising death for girls who didn’t veil.
I knew one young woman, the daughter of a cherished friend and a recent dental school graduate, who refused to let “the situation”—Iraqis’ preferred euphemism for sectarian slaughter—deter her from pursuing her dream. She went door-to-door in Baghdad neighborhoods, offering free checkups and minor dental procedures. Her mother, who’d already lost a son to crossfire, was fearful but proud.
“This is madness!” I would tell her. “Who knocks on strangers’ doors in a civil war?”
“I do,” the young dentist replied.
It was the tiny, ordinary pleasures that were most missed: a shopping excursion without fear of kidnapping, sipping chai on a balcony without the crackle of sniper fire, going for a leisurely drive uninterrupted by checkpoints.
Ban’s husband, Selwan, the love of her life who later was gunned down by insurgents, bristled under the traditional customs of his homeland. He was proud that his wife earned the same salary he did, and he found it amusing that Ban and I would steal his car keys and go for joyrides at a time when many families thought it too risky for women to drive.
Our favorite route was along the Tigris River, looping back to the highway and then across Jadriyah Bridge. At a certain stretch, there was a big bump in the road, and if you hit it fast enough, the whole car would lift a little, like in action movies. We lived for that bump, for that fleeting feeling of being airborne and free, Thelma and Louise in Baghdad.
One beautiful spring day in 2004, Ban and I coasted along the bridge, belting at the top of our lungs a song we both loved by the Tunisian pop star Latifa. We whizzed past funeral banners, past the remnants of palm groves the Americans had chopped down to deter snipers, past a sand-colored mosque. The bump was coming up and we were excited for it, cranking the music up as high as it would go.
We barreled toward our favorite spot, ready for that familiar rush, when I saw a black flash out of the corner of my eye. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that we were being forced off the road by a massive, Blackwater-style American security convoy. The lead SUV was inches from ramming the back of our car. A man with an assault rifle angrily motioned for us to move, and it was clear the convoy had been trying to pass us for a while. We hadn’t heard the honking over our music.
My legs went to jelly and I swerved out of their way as fast as I could. I’d seen a convoy like this shoot an unarmed man right in front of me, and had heard dozens of similar stories from Iraqis. I have no idea why they didn’t shoot us; maybe they were close enough to see we were women.Once, a tiny mouse scurried across the floor where Huda and I lay. We shrieked, then burst out laughing at the absurdity of being startled by a mouse while bracing for a thousand-pound bomb.
Badly shaken, Ban and I drove home in silence, going so slowly that hitting the bump was anticlimactic. We made a pact not to tell Selwan for fear he wouldn’t let us take the car out again.
Later that evening, after our nerves had calmed, we started giggling about what a dumb move it was, nearly sacrificing our lives for a pop song and a bump in the road. But given all the gruesome deaths we had seen in Iraq, we agreed that rocking out with your best friend in a moment of sheer bliss wouldn’t have been such a bad way to go.
What was it like to be a woman in Iraq? The women I met worked tirelessly to keep day-to-day life functioning smoothly, even when they were living in the midst of a weeks-long battle, as was the case in the summer of 2004 inside the Imam Ali shrine.
The shrine is a shimmering monument of gold and peacock-blue mosaic topped with an onion-shaped dome that looks like the turban of a pasha from long ago. On calm days, pigeons mill about, looking for scraps of food from the Shi’a Muslim pilgrims who come to the Iraqi holy city of Najaf in droves.
But in the awful summer of 2004, the U.S. military surrounded the compound in an attempt to drive out Mahdi Army insurgents who were camping out inside. The pigeons had flown away—nature’s early warning system—and most Western reporters had left the shrine. Only a handful remained inside with the Mahdi Army guerrillas, including me, along with dozens of Iraqi civilians seeking refuge; they were hoping that even if the Americans flattened the city, they wouldn’t dare violate the sanctity of one of Islam’s most revered sites. One night, when U.S. bombing raids shook the compound so violently that it felt as if our skeletons would push through our skin, I feared they had bet wrong.
In my memories of that August, heat and fear are intertwined, each making the other worse. Even in wartime, women in Najaf wear abayas, long billowy robes that leave only their faces, hands, and feet exposed. I remember sweat trickling down my back as I crouched in the courtyard listening to gunfire. Running in an abaya was a special skill that we honed each time we had to take cover: you use your left hand to hold the silky fabric under your chin to keep it in place and your right hand to hike up the bottom to free your feet. Then you run in a zigzag pattern to avoid giving a clear shot to the snipers.
There wasn’t much food, but everyone was too hot and terrified to eat anyway. At night, I locked arms with my dear friend and translator Huda, and we debated which was more horrifying: the actual groundshaking impact of an air strike or the dread of waiting for the next one. Once, a tiny mouse scurried across the floor where Huda and I lay. We shrieked, then burst out laughing at the absurdity of being startled by a mouse while bracing for a thousand-pound bomb.
Most of the men were outside fighting the U.S. troops, so it was the women who kept the compound in order, cooking, cleaning, and helping care for the wounded men brought in by comrades who then rushed back to battle. Women’s voices were the ones I heard praying aloud each time the name of a new “martyr,” a Mahdi Army casualty, was announced over the compound’s loudspeaker.
The only respite from the war was the washroom, where cool water—a precious commodity at the time—still flowed from taps that were built for worshippers to make ablutions before prayer. Following the example set by the Iraqi women, I learned to take off my headscarf and hold it under the faucet before putting it back on my head still soaking wet—a miracle antidote to the heat.
One day I grew so hot I began hallucinating. I sat in the washroom, dizzy, as the mosaic tiles faded away, and found myself in my mother’s kitchen in Oklahoma, the smell of her pancakes so vivid that I expected a plate to appear before me.
The spell ended when I heard someone whispering prayers from another corner. A middle-aged cook named Saleema was cleaning out her ringing ears with a matchstick. She was crying. “Don’t worry, Auntie,” I told her in Arabic. It wasn’t her own safety she was thinking about. She said she couldn’t take seeing any more mangled bodies of young Najafi men coming through the doors of the shrine.
She was also troubled by the U.S. casualties, refusing to think of them as faceless enemies. “And what about the poor American boys out there?” she asked. “Don’t they also have mothers who want them home?” I was moved by her empathy and jotted down notes from our encounter so that I could include the scene in my report from the shrine, if we ever made it out.
After dawn the next morning, Huda and I fled the compound during a lull in the fighting. We stumbled through the old city’s labyrinthine streets, finding a corpse lying in one alley, an American armored vehicle in another. We flagged down the only car that was out, a red sedan carrying two Iraqi women who were on a dangerous ride to check on their relatives after the overnight air strikes.
The driver, Leila, was surveying the smoldering, zombie-movie ruins of her city and wondering aloud how long Iraqis would suffer.
“It’s a calamity beyond all calamities,” she said. “Every day I tell myself it’ll end and we can be happy. But it won’t end and we won’t be happy.”
Leila dropped us off at a hotel, and their red sedan continued on its grim mission. I thought a lot then, and have since, about how Leila was simultaneously heartbroken and resolute, a combination I saw again and again in the women I met in the decade I covered Iraq. The women at the shrine that bloody summer. The women on staff in our Baghdad bureau. The mothers and sisters and aunties who quietly fought to retain a measure of humanity on the margins of a grinding war.
Their experiences were woven into the stories I filed, but I never wrote the truth as plainly as this: Every time Iraq began to unravel, it was women who worked the hardest to stitch it back together.
From Our Women on the Ground edited by Zahra Hankir, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Hannah Allam.