Sat, May 13, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Life for women in Iraq is getting worse

Iraqi women are living a nightmare that is hidden from the West. Now one has turned filmmaker to open a window on what they endure.

By Natasha Walter  /  THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

Raya Osseilly is an Iraqi doctor who cares for other women in the beleaguered city of Qaim. Unsurprisingly, her tale is not a happy one.

"I never feel that today is better than yesterday," she said. "It always seems that yesterday was better than today."

Looking at the bombed-out remains of the hospital where she works, it is clear she is struggling against the odds.

It is unusual to see at close quarters what is going on for women in cities like Qaim, which last year came under heavy attack from US troops. Access for the Western media is restricted.

Now, though, we have a window on to Qaim thanks to another Iraqi woman, a filmmaker who has travelled through the country speaking to widows and children, to doctors and students, in pursuit of the reality of her fellow country-women's lives.

The filmmaker, who lives in Baghdad, wants to keep her identity secret because she fears reprisals, so I'll call her Zeina.

When I spoke to her by telephone, the first first thing I asked her was why it is that she feels she has to hide her identity, and in her answer she does not distinguish between the government and the insurgents, in the way that we are taught to do here.

"I feel the threat from the Iraqi government and from the sectarian militias," she said. "The danger in Iraq comes from the Americans, from the sectarian militias -- and, of course, it also comes from the crime, the gangs, the random kidnappings."

She decided she wanted to make this film because the things she saw every day were not being seen by the outside world.

"No one sees what we are going through. Iraqis are psychologically traumatized by what is happening. I have seen an eight-year-old child who has involuntary tremors, whenever she hears an airplane or sees soldiers. I have seen families displaced. I have seen women forced into prostitution because of the poverty of their families," Zeina said.

Zeina was not a supporter of former president Saddam Hussein's regime. During his rule, she worked as a journalist and a translator of literary criticism.

"Politically, before the war, I was not happy," she said.

"So many things were not right. We had no freedom of speech, no freedom of expression. But I never imagined the change would be this way, so bad. I never imagined that at all," she said.

From the very start of making her film, this 50-something writer knew she would be taking risks.

"We travelled just two or three of us, in an ordinary car. It was dangerous. When we went into Qaim we had to travel across the desert because the Americans had blocked the road. It was dark when we got to Qaim, and we could see a cloud of dust ahead of us, and then there was a flash of light in the dust. We were driving right towards the guns. The driver moved so fast off the road that the car almost overturned," she said.

"Then another time we were filming the hospital that had been bombed. We went to the roof of the hospital and the Americans began shooting at us. They didn't want to kill us, I think, but they wanted to threaten us, they wanted to show us who was in control," she said.

That footage -- of the filmmakers taking refuge from gunfire in a ruined hospital -- is in the finished film. Indeed, the film that has resulted from Zeina's journey is not a polished product, but more like a filmed blog, a series of telling observations that dip in and out of women's lives. Often you are left frustrated, eager for more context in which to slot these moments. But given that Western journalists are so constrained by the security situation that most of the country has simply become invisible to us, you can forgive the film's limitations.

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