Iraq's Women and the Surge

The insurgents have been driven out of her southwest Baghdad neighborhood, but the 30-year-old shop assistant is still frightened. A year ago Al Qaeda in Iraq ruled the streets outside her home, and Mahdi Army militia units kept the area under relentless attack. Now the Iraqis who helped get rid of the killers are the ones who scare her. The Americans imposed order a few months ago by recruiting and paying local men to turn in the names of suspected jihadists. Similar armed groups have popped up all around the city. Each has its own bizarre rules; some threaten to kill women who don't wear veils in public. The shop assistant is in mourning for her brother, who was killed last May, but she's asking for trouble if she wears black more than three days running. According to the new enforcers in her neighborhood, anyone who dresses in mourning is committing blasphemy by questioning the will of God.

In the past year, militias like this one have transformed the war in Iraq. Americans call them Concerned Local Citizens (CLCs), or Sons of Iraq; Iraqis know them as Sahwa—Awakening—after the tribal council in Anbar province that launched a Sunni revolt against the tyranny of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The militias' vital role (and the uncomfortable fact that many members used to be insurgents themselves) will be a big part of the debate this week, as American lawmakers hear testimony on the war's progress from U.S. military commander Gen. David Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker. What's less likely to be discussed—and yet just as important in the long run—is the impact that tribal groups like the CLCs are having on Iraq's social fabric, and in particular on its women.

America's efforts to disengage from Iraq have led to some messy compromises. After years of trying without success to wrest Sunni areas from Qaeda control, U.S. ground commanders appear to have done it at last—but only by granting sweeping powers to sheiks and local leaders who can keep the peace. Now Iraq's Sunni areas have been chopped into fragments, each one run by a different tribal ruler with different views on law and society. In some parts of Baghdad the situation changes visibly from block to block. No one can say how many of these leaders abuse their powers, or if their little sectors can ever be put back under the purview of a centrally controlled government. "We are becoming like Afghanistan was in the '80s," says Zainab Salbi, the Iraq-born founder and CEO of the activist group Women for Women International.

Saddam's Iraq at least offered women the protection of enforced secularism; they were encouraged to study at universities and to pursue professional careers. That changed in the 1990s as the dictator began to rely on tribal sheiks to prop up his rule, while U.N. sanctions drove families into poverty and reduced opportunities for women. Americans arriving in 2003 hoped to make the new Iraq a showcase for gender equality. But women's advocates say that dream fell by the wayside as violence engulfed the country.

Some tribal leaders are more egalitarian than others. In Baghdad's Adhamiya district, the local women's college is bustling with students, even with the Sahwa in charge. Times are tougher in Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi, where tribal troops allow women to work but not to go without headscarves, and polygamy is reportedly on the rise. Women rarely venture out of their homes now in rural Sahwa areas like Arab Jabour, south of Baghdad.

In Anbar, the Sahwa movement's birthplace, tribal leaders have taken full control. "They have their own personal fiefdoms, and they answer to no one," says Isobel Coleman, a women's rights specialist for the Council on Foreign Relations. "The tribal groups may not be directly affiliated with Al Qaeda, but they're no less conservative." That may be an exaggeration: the jihadists forced girls into marriages, closed schools and killed indiscriminately. But tribal values are more medieval than those enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution—and this time the gunmen have the backing of the U.S. military. Some fear that worse is coming. "I can see in the eyes of some of them that they have something to say to us unveiled women," says Samara Ali, 27, a library worker at Baghdad University. "I think that they are waiting for a proper time to speak out."

Some women saw warning signs last year when the movement was young. Suhair Shakir says Al Qaeda never got a foothold in her upscale east Baghdad neighborhood. But Sahwa took over anyway, and it has grown steadily more aggressive. One day last spring, Shakir was flagged down in her car at a Sahwa checkpoint. A young man sidled up to her window and asked why she wasn't wearing a headscarf. He twirled a pistol as he spoke—"like a cowboy, spinning his pistol on his finger," Shakir says. After that, she wore a scarf.

A few months later she had another encounter; this time the checkpoint's head man warned her that women shouldn't drive. At last she convinced him that she needed her car to get to work, only to be told that she could pass the checkpoint only during working hours, and never after 5 p.m. The harassment continued. Sahwa guards at the local gas station began criticizing her for being out unescorted. "These are teenagers with no knowledge and no education," she says. "They get their power and their weapons, and they try to control the life of the people."

At the national level, some women are still fighting to open up Iraqi society. Women's Affairs Minister Narmin Othman, for instance, is waging a campaign against "honor killings." If a man kills a straying wife or a daughter suspected of engaging in sex before marriage, he faces a maximum of three years in jail under Iraqi law. "Killing is killing," says Othman, a Kurdish woman partial to blue jeans and Ralph Lauren reading glasses. If an Iraqi woman kills a cheating husband, the charge is murder. Othman says men should get the same treatment.

But she faces stiff resistance from the religious parties leading the government. They claim Othman's proposal is contrary to Islam (a point disputed by some respected scholars). The Justice Ministry has refused even to provide Othman with official statistics on how many honor killings come to court. So far she and her allies have collected only 70 signatures, far short of the number necessary to get the bill considered by Parliament. She's in no hurry to bring it to a vote. "I think we would lose," she says. "We have to try to have more discussion and do more lobbying." She's not giving up. A similar measure has been adopted by leaders of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Iraqi parliamentarian Samira Musawi worries that the Americans are sacrificing the possibility of a more liberal Iraq by putting too much trust in groups like the Sahwa. "There is a lot of respect for tribal sheiks, but a lot of them are not educated," she says. As she sees it, the less education they have, the more reactionary their views tend to be, especially on issues like women's rights. The Americans should be more cautious about building up the Sahwa, she says: "There have to be criteria."

But at present, U.S. forces are too pleased by the sharp drop in jihadist attacks to lose sleep over things like gender issues. "They're going to find their own level about what is acceptable," says Col. Martin Stanton, one of the Sahwa program's U.S. coordinators. "In terms of what they're doing within their own culture, I don't think we'd intervene in that." The Coalition has let Shiite groups impose their values across much of the south for years for the sake of stability; women there mostly go veiled now, and some have quit their jobs under pressure from Shiite militia members.

The fact is that Western views don't necessarily fit Iraqi situations. Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, went to Iraq in 2003 as a senior constitutional adviser with the fledgling Coalition Provisional Authority. He recalls how tribal sheiks approached U.S. envoy Paul Bremer that spring, offering to help calm their angry followers. "We told them, 'No, we're not going to take Iraq back to the Middle Ages'," says Feldman. U.S. commanders spent the next four years trying to fight the insurgents without help from the sheiks. "We tried other ways, and it didn't work," says Coleman. "Tribal leaders are cleaning things up. The question is, where does it cross the line? And we don't know." No one does. But some Iraqi women worry that the Sahwa has already won too much power—and that now there's no turning back.