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XI. Attacks on Women

Some insurgent groups have targeted women who are politicians, civil servants, journalists, women’s rights activists or who work as cleaners or translators for foreign governments or militaries. They have also attacked women for what they considered “immoral” or “un-Islamic” behavior, like dancing, socializing with men or not wearing a hijab, the Islamic headscarf. And some groups have abducted and at times killed foreign women to pressure governments or humanitarian organizations into leaving Iraq.

Not all of these attacks are on account of gender. Many of these attacks appear to have been motivated primarily by the victim’s perceived connection to the foreign military presence or the current Iraqi government, as described in the chapters in this report that cover those targeted groups. The attacks against women’s rights activists and women who exhibited behavior deemed “immoral” or “un-Islamic,” however, do seem motivated by the fact that the targets were women or were helping women.

In general, the violence and lack of security, as well as religious and cultural conservatism, are having a major impact on Iraqi women, who once enjoyed a prominent role in their country’s public life. The danger of kidnappings and assaults keeps many professional women at home, and limits their participation in the country’s evolving political institutions

According to a January 2005 report by Women for Women International, the violence is preventing Iraqi women from playing a role in civic life:

Women with Western dress and progressive ideas have been attacked. The abduction and murders of these prominent women have sent a ripple of fear through local communities. Though the press has covered the stories of high-profile foreign aid workers, Iraqi women have seen members of their own communities—pharmacists, lawyers, councilwomen —assassinated. The effect is chilling and threatens the participation of Iraq’s most educated women.295

The report continues, “Fear of violence, abduction and rape have emptied the streets of women and caused disruptions to education as children are also increasingly kept at home. Growing numbers of women are also leaving the country.”

The number of known attacks against women reflects only a fraction of the real figure. The majority of attacks remain unreported due to fear and social taboos, especially those involving crimes of sexual violence.296

Like many of the attacks on men documented in this report, there is a nexus between politics, religion and crime. Insurgent groups have not always claimed responsibility for attacks on women, so it is not always clear if a criminal or political group committed the attack. The abduction of women professionals is a common occurrence that often ends with a ransom being paid.297

At least four prominent women politicians and government officials have been targeted between March 2003 and July 2005—‘Aqila al-Hashimi, Salama al-Khafaji, Nasrin Barwari and Lamia Abid Khaduri al-Sagri (al-Hashimi and al-Sagri died)—although they were most likely attacked because of their political activity rather than gender (see chapter VI of this report, “Attacks on Government Officials and Politicians”). Attacks on lower-ranking women officials, however, seem to have been motivated by their work on behalf of women.

Text Box: Iraqi Governing Council member Salama al-Khafaji in her Baghdad home on May 28, 2004. The day before, unidentified assailants ambushed her convoy south of Baghdad, killing her bodyguard and eldest son. “It’s the women who have suffered the most under this occupation,” she told a journalist. “And that’s why it’s women who want peace the most.”
© 2004 Thaier Al-Sudan/REUTERS

On November 20, 2004, insurgents in Baghdad shot and killed an adviser at the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works and a women’s rights activist, Amal al-Ma’amalchi, together with her secretary, bodyguard and driver. According to press accounts, gunmen opened fire on Amal al-Ma’amalchi’s car as she went to work.298 “An Opel car with four masked passengers on board attacked another white car which was driving ahead, and which had three or four passengers inside,” a witness told al-Jazeera.299 Amal al-Ma’amalachi was co-founder of the Advisory Committee for Women’s Affairs in Iraq and the Independent Iraqi Women’s Assembly—an organization established after April 2003.300

Other female politicians and government employees have reported receiving threats on account of their work in defense of women’s rights. According to an Amnesty International report on women in Iraq, unidentified individuals threatened a female member of the Interim Governing Council, Dr. Raja Khuza`i, in early 2004 after she opposed amendments to the Personal Status Law (governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody), which would have replaced civil personal status laws with Shari`a, or Islamic law.301 “There was a proposal, Resolution 137, which was against women’s rights, insisting that marriages and family law and whatever had to be under the syariah [shari`a],” Khuza’i told an interviewer. “I succeeded in having this resolution cancelled in February. After that I received so many death threats, telephone calls, letters, to me and to my family.”302

Yanar Muhammad, who founded the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, said she received death threats in early 2004 after she defended women’s rights on Iraqi television. “Stop speaking out for women’s rights, or we will kill you,” an e-mail signed by the Jaysh al-Sahaba (Army of the Prophet’s Companions) reportedly said. “They said, because of my psychologically disturbed ideas, they would have to kill me and crucify me,” Yanar Muhammad told the press. “It sounded to me like a serious warning.”303

One woman who founded two arts and culture organizations in Baghdad said that she also received death threats by e-mail. “We will kill you all,” the e-mail warned, signed “Zarqawi.” She told Human Rights Watch: “The first day was terrible. I didn’t tell my family because I was afraid they would force me to leave the country.”304

According to Amnesty International’s 2005 report on women in Iraq, several women’s centers established with U.S. government funds had to reduce their activities after threats and attacks, although it is not clear if armed groups threatened them because of their activity with women or because they received funding from the United States. Amira Salih, manager of the Zainab al-Hawra’ center in Karbala, which gave women classes in computers, catering and sewing, said she resigned after getting death threats.305 On March 9, 2004, gunmen opened fire on a car carrying center staffers and killed two of the women who helped found the center, an Iraqi and an American, together with an American male press officer from the CPA. Fern Holland, a women’s rights coordinator for the CPA who was the driving force behind the center, and her assistant Salwa Oumashi were driving with Bob Zangas from Karbala to Baghdad when armed gunmen attacked. “I pulled them out of the car with my hands,” said the al-Hilla police chief, Brigadier Qaed al-Ma’muri, who knew Holland. “Fern had been driving,” he said, “and most of the bullets targeted her. The man was shot in the head, but the bullets were fired 360 degrees around the car. Probably thirty or more.”306

Armed groups have attacked women because of behavior deemed immoral or contrary to Islamic codes. On March 8, 2005, for example, unknown gunmen reportedly shot and killed three women as they stood on a street corner in Baghdad’s Sadr City. According to Iraqi police, an unspecified religious movement had accused them of being prostitutes.307

According to Newsweek magazine, armed groups killed twenty women in Mosul and a dozen more in Baghdad between March 2003 and mid-January 2005. One example the article gives, confirmed by other press accounts, is the abduction and death of Zina al-Qushtaini, a divorced mother in her late thirties who ran a pharmacy in Baghdad and had many women activist friends. Gunmen burst into her pharmacy last year, abducting al-Qushtaini and her business partner Dr. Ziad Bahu. Their bodies appeared ten days later near a highway south of Baghdad. Bahu was beheaded and al-Qushtaini, shot in the head, was wearing a long black `abaya and a headscarf, which she did not normally wear.308

[295] Women for Women International, Windows of Opportunity: The Pursuit of Gender Equality in Post-War Iraq, January 2005. For a media account of the threats women receive, see Sahar al-Haideri and Wa'ad Ibraheem, “Insurgents Impose Curbs on Women,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, July 5, 2005.

[296] Many women and girls do not report sexual violence because they fear doing so may provoke “honor” killings and social stigmatization. For others, the obstacles to filing and pursuing a police complaint or obtaining a forensic examination that would provide legal proof of sexual violence hamper them from receiving medical attention and pursuing justice. See Human Rights Watch report, Climate of Fear: Sexual Violence and Abduction of Women and Girls in Baghdad, July 2003.

[297] See Hala Jaber, “Rebels Kill Iraqi Women as ‘Betrayers’ of Islam,” The Times (London), March 20, 2005. See also James Glanz, “Rings That Kidnap Iraqis Thrive on Big Threats and Bigger Profits,” New York Times, March 28, 2005. According to the article, up to 5,000 Iraqi men and women have been kidnapped in the last year and a half, mostly for money.

[298] Anthony Shadid, “Baghdad Suffers a Day of Attacks, Assassinations,” Washington Post, November 21, 2004, BBC Monitoring Middle East, Iraqi Press Highlights 21 November, 2004, al-Dustur Newspaper, “Woman Civil Servant, Three Aides Assassinated in Baghdad,” Agence France-Presse, November 20, 2004, Babak Dehghanpisheh, Eve Conant and Rod Nordland, “Iraq’s Hidden War; Extremists Have Shot Women Activists in the Streets and Killed Them in Private,” Newsweek, March 7, 2005, and “Gunmen Kill Iraqi Government Official in Baghdad,” Reuters, November 20, 2004. The articles spelled the victim’s name different ways, including: Amal al-Damarji, Amal Abdel Hamid, Amal Mamalchi and Amal Abdel-Hamid al-Maamalji.

[299] BBC Monitoring Middle East, Al-Jazeera Television, “Gunmen Kill Iraqi Official, Three Policemen in Baghdad,” November 20 2004.

[300] Amnesty International, Iraq: Decades of Suffering, Now Women Deserve Better, February 22, 2005, and Aaron D. Pina, Women in Iraq: Background and Issues for U.S. Policy, Congressional Research Service, June 23, 2005.

[301] Amnesty International, Iraq: Decades of Suffering, Now Women Deserve Better, February 22, 2005.

[302] Anthony Paul, “Grandmother Lends Voice to Iraq’s Women” Straights Times, August 23, 2004. See also BBC Monitoring Middle East, Iraqi Press Highlights 29 February 2004, Al-Dustur Newspaper, and Iraqi Press Highlights 16 March 2004, Al-Dustur Newspaper.

[303] “Women’s Groups Under Threat in the New Iraq,” IRIN News, March 24, 2004. See, accessed March 28, 2005. See also Annia Ciezadlo, “After an Advocate’s Killing, Iraqi Women Try to Stay the Course,” Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 2004.

[304] Human Rights Watch interview with woman, Sulaimaniyya, Iraq, February 2, 2005.

[305] Annia Ciezadlo, “After an Advocate’s Killing, Iraqi Women Try to Stay the Course,” Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 2004.

[306] Elizabeth Rubin, “Fern Holland’s War,” New York Times Magazine, September 19, 2004.

[307]“Iraqi Women Shot Dead in Baghdad,” BBC, March 8, 2005,, accessed August 17, 2005. See also Hussein Ali and Ali Marzook, “Baghdad Prostitutes Fall on Hard Times,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Iraqi Crisis Report 92, November 29, 2004,, accessed August 17, 2005.

[308] Babak Dehghanpisheh, Eve Conant and Rod Nordland, “Iraq’s Hidden War; Extremists Have Shot Women Activists in the Streets and Killed Them in Private,” Newsweek, March 7, 2005, and Robin Fields, “Women on Iraq Ballot Lie Low,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 2005.

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