Lamis Munshed grew up in a house of music, filled with tambourines, lutes and newly carved guitars, and the scent of freshly cut timber hanging in the air like incense. But that was before the militias over-ran Basra, outlawing most sport and music and confining women like her to their homes.
“That was our livelihood,” the 26-year-old said of the vocation her father was ordered to abandon, leading to the family’s income being slashed. Although security has improved, her father is too fearful of the militias’ return to start up his business again — but Lamis, at least, has been able to restart her studies, walk down the streets and dare to dream again.
Even so, as British troops depart Basra, her life is far short of the utopia she had envisaged when Challenger tanks first rolled into town six years ago.
“When the British came first to Basra, the people’s reaction to them was fine,” she said. “Then it started to change, because of the different ideologies and the outsiders who came to Iraq to settle an account with America and the Iraqi people. We were the victims.”
Before the Saddam years and even during them, Iraq blazed a trail in the education of women, with highly qualified females earning prominent positions in many public roles as well as academia and medicine. It was hailed as a hub of learning across the region and a relatively progressive beacon which women in neighboring states could some day hope to emulate.
But it has never been easy to be a woman in Basra. Under Saddam’s rule, women in the southern city had a much more restricted life than their counterparts in other Iraqi regions.
Basran society had always lagged behind, in attitudes, as well as in tangibles. And when the British arrived in 2003, it seemed at first as though things might change for the better. “It was nice to know there was no longer a dictator looking over us,” said Basma al-Waili, an elderly Basran.
But within a couple of years, the British soldiers had retreated to their bases. Militias filled the void, bringing with them hardline Islamic teachings that made life insufferable for Basra women. Their city and the surrounding areas were ravaged by an insurgency that placed it high among the most violent enclaves in an impossibly brutal country. Many of the basic tenets of family life were simply put on hold. Ambition had to wait. Now, again, the possibility of improvement is beginning to seep into women’s minds.
“We suffered a lot,” said Nisrine Salem, 38, a physician at Basra hospital. “For 35 years we were too terrified to express our opinion. Since 2003, the change has been substantial, but we are still suffering. It’s like when a child is born, he comes from darkness to light. Now we are thinking of studying and traveling, and learning more from researchers and experts.”
Salem feels less opposition from society these days to her role as a professional.
“I think women enjoy around 80 percent to 90 percent more liberation than before,” she said. “Basra women have seized their freedom and in many ways we have broken the chains that once bound us ... The British gave us security. Now it’s up to us.”
But many other women are far less bullish, believing tribal customs and long-hated societal laws have been legitimized by the enforcement of four years of puritanical Islamic law.