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June 19, 2008

Iraq's Widows Victims of Occupation, Social Codes

by Jim Lobe

BAQUBA - Just about everyone in Iraq is a loser as a result of the occupation, but none more than women. One of the more obvious signs of that is the very large number of widows.

The Asharq al-Awsat Arab media channel estimated in late 2007 there were 2.3 million widows in Iraq. These include widows from the 1980-1988 war with Iran in which half a million men were killed, from the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, and from "natural" causes. The news outlet cited the Iraqiyat (Iraqi women) group as a source for their figure.

For a widow, all things are the same: dark.

"Being a widow means being dead in Iraq today," a professor from Diyala University, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told IPS. "This is because of the tremendous responsibilities cast upon her."

The widows have become victims of the occupation, but also of social codes. Women are not supposed to commit mistakes, and when they do, their mistakes are rarely forgiven. Women are easily accused of doing "bad things," regardless of proof.

Widowed women have a tough struggle on their hands, beyond the loss they have had to live through. They are not easily allowed to work, or even to carry out normal daily activities.

"When a woman breaks these rules, she loses the respect of others, or might be spoken of badly," a local trader told IPS. "This is because much of rural Iraqi society is primitive and undereducated." Like most others, the trader did not want his name used, for fear of retribution.

"Islam gives respectable freedom to the woman when she loses her husband," a religious cleric told IPS. "But because of their ignorance, people place severe restrictions on the woman."

Millions of lives have been shattered during the occupation. Two groups, Just Foreign Policy in the U.S. and the Opinion Business Research group in Britain, estimate the total number of Iraqis who have died due to the occupation to be at least 1.2 million.

This has had devastating knock-on effects. The man is typically the one who earns the living. Death means his wife has to do a double job – to be responsible for earning a living, and to take care of her children and home as well. And she has to conduct herself as a widow is expected to.

A woman whose husband was killed told IPS of her "unimaginable" troubles.

"I have five children. The oldest one is 11 years old, and the youngest is two," she said. "They are a very big responsibility because I have no job, and there is no salary for my dead husband."

"Life is getting terribly hard, and in addition to the loss of my husband, there is this new suffering; being lonely, and responsible for a big family. The hours of joy are very few in the long years of grief. This occupation has brought a very heavy tax."

Another woman whose husband was killed two years ago at a militia checkpoint in the main street in Baquba (the capital city of Diyala province, 25 mi. northeast of Baghdad), says her life is hell.

"My husband was all my life. He was a prominent businessman in Baquba. The militants asked for 50,000 dollars to release him. I gave them the money but my husband did not return. I found him in the morgue. Now, after the luxurious life we had with my husband, we ask for help from relatives. But no one cares about me or my four children. We're forgotten."

A woman who loses her husband can live a life of begging and humiliation.

"When I need something, I have to go to my relatives for help," a widow with four children told IPS. She lost her husband to U.S. military gunfire. "They are fed up with my repeated needs. And I feel reluctant asking for anything.

"This being alone, fully responsible for the first time for a family is exhausting," she added. "My eldest son, 12 years old, will not listen to me, and I don't know how to deal with him. My husband was controlling everything at home. I find it hard to take on such a big task."

A local resident said the fear of death brings also the fear of what will happen to the family later. "I'm worried and full of fear that I may be killed and leave my family in this wild world. They're everything to me. I don't want them to suffer after me."

The government pays little attention to the plight of widows. "Every family is given a $2,000 donation if someone is killed in violence or random firing," an employee at the provincial office told IPS.

"This donation solves no problem," said an employee at the social care office, also speaking on terms of anonymity. "The real solution would be to give each of these families a monthly payment."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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