Anchor Katy Clark speaks with reporter Anna Badkhen about her article “Baghdad Underground,” which chronicles a secret network of shelters for abused women in Iraq.
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KATY CLARK: I’m Katy Clark, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Journalist Anna Badkhen recently came back from Iraq. While there, she witnessed all the chaos and destruction of a country at war. She also visited a shelter for abused women in Baghdad. The shelter is part of an underground secret network known as the “underground railroad”. It serves women who are victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse. In Iraqi society, abused women are often shunned by their own families, or worse. The shelters also protect the women from the threat of so-called “honor killings”. Anna Badkhen writes about all this in “Baghdad Underground”, an article in the August issue of Ms. Magazine. She and a photojournalist were allowed to visit one of the shelters.
ANNA BADKHEN: We covered up. We were wearing our black abaya cloaks. We were wearing our scarves. We were put in a car. We got out of the car in this really back alley with an auto repair shop and some candy stalls. It’s like a typical decrepit Baghdad neighborhood. And up two flights of stairs and through a unmarked plywood door, and there’s this shelter with rats and a lot of women – some of them with children. I think there were 6 adult women and maybe 4 children.
CLARK: Tell us about Samir, one of the women you met.
BADKHEN: She was a young woman. She had just married her sweetheart. He was a police officer and she was pregnant with her first child in Baklava, the capital of Dialla province, which at that point was so dangerous in 2006 because of the violence between Sunni and Shiia militias that local residents had dubbed it “The city of death”. In a span of a month, gunmen had killed all of the men in her family – all three of her brothers and her husband. And all of a sudden, this woman finds herself alone and without the protection of a male and also without a job. She miscarried after her husband was killed. She said that she was grieving, and as is the custom, she beat herself during the grieving. She thinks that caused the miscarriage, or maybe it was the stress. And she found herself homeless. She was a Sunni woman, found herself in a house of fairly wealthy Shiite family in Baghdad, which took her in in exchange for cooking and cleaning the house. But also, whenever the woman of the house was out of the house, the husband and the woman’s brother would rape her. And so Samir endured three months of rape, until one day the husband, the brother, and there was another brother – all three of them gang-raped her.
CLARK: When was this?
BADKHEN: That was several months prior to [INDISCERNIBLE]. And she then went from the family – she went to a mosque.
CLARK: And how many of these shelters are there – and you’re describing it as a network around the city.
BADKHEN: The number varies, so between four and six, from what I understand. And I think most of them were – I think there were four in Baghdad and one someplace else. But again, that’s not a number set in stone. And they will close shelters if they don’t have money, and they will open shelters if they find themselves flush with money.
CLARK: Where are they getting money?
BADKHEN: It’s all grants – international grants. Nothing comes from the US government, I can say, but a lot of it comes from Madre, the international women’s organization that’s based in New York.
CLARK: Have they asked the US government for it? Is that an important distinction?
BADKHEN: Well, I mean, definitely. The woman who runs the shelters, Yannar Mohamed, she’s an Iraqi comedian. She definitely holds the US responsible for this. I mean, had there not been a war, there would not have been this dire situation of 72,000 at least, widows, and who knows how many young women who are left without protection of their males and therefore become free-for-all. Every war comes with rape, but the women who are raped usually are the more protected women.
CLARK: Is there any kind of record prior to the US invasion in 2003 with regard to violence?
BADKHEN: I’m sure there was violence against women, like in any country, and I’m sure there was rape like in any country. But also, from what I understand, the proportions were comparable to what happens in any country. Probably there will be more domestic violence but probably less, you know, a woman walking home gets raped by somebody on the street because it’s a different culture.
CLARK: What do these shelters do for women? Is it a temporary stopping place?
BADKHEN: Some stay a couple weeks. Some stay months. They obviously want them to not stay there forever. What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to not just provide them with a safe place to stay, but they’re trying to teach them something. Because you have to remember, these women are there because they are alone, because they have no man to support them. So they need to get them out of the system and be able to function on their own. So they’re trying to teach them basic skills, like computer literacy or statistics so they can use so they can become a secretary or a teacher, or even – you know, some of them are so young. There was one woman, she was 16 years old. She was forcibly married when she was 12. So she had 4 ½ years of school – that’s all. So she has no future in any country unless she marries somebody. So she’s going to go back to school. So that’s what Yannar is doing. She’s trying to teach them something. You know, sometimes it helps them get jobs after they’re out, after they feel like they can live on their own. Sometimes they work there once they’re out of this network or this railroad. They get out of the train and they sort of stay in this station. They don’t venture very far.
CLARK: I would imagine all the problems that Iraqis are facing, this is something they couldn’t shove aside for other priorities. I’m curious about the kids that are in the shelter, staying there with their mothers. How did they seem?
BADKHEN: the shelter had 3 rooms. Two bedrooms, one small, one moderately small, and the third one was a living room where 2 or 3 sets of women slept. And one of the children at the shelter was a 14-year-old girl whose mother had been accused – falsely accused of killing her husband, spent 2 ½ years in jail where she was repeatedly raped by her investigator and jailers. During which time, the 14 year old, she was living with her grandparents, who decided they needed to marry her off. So they tried to marry her off to a much older man who she didn’t know and she obviously couldn’t have loved – very young girl. And when her mother returned having been acquitted, the adult woman’s parents basically said, “No, you’re not our daughter. We don’t believe that you didn’t kill your husband. Get out.” So she took her daughter. She had another daughter, a much younger daughter – I think the other girl was 6 or 7 years old. And so this woman and her two daughters were at the shelter.
CLARK: I’m curious if what you saw there was better or worse than what you were expecting?
BADKHEN: The conditions were horrendous. The rats – every night, the rats came out. The rats were in our bed – because we stayed – spent the night at the shelter.
CLARK: Oh, you did.
BADKHEN: At the shelter, and the rats were in our bed. They have a shower that’s basically a hose. They have a one burner or two-burner stove. Instead of glass, they have plywood and cardboard windows. And they have to constantly be very quiet, because they can’t let the neighbors know there are women and children there. But at the same time, there was this moment when there was this bad TV on, and the TV was blaring Arabic pop music. And the women were dancing and they were laughing. And there’s even a photograph in the magazine of them dancing, these two young women dancing. And they were all dancing. They were all laughing and emulating and whistling and talking to each other. And we were thinking, ‘How little does a person need to feel happy for even a moment?” So that was heartwarming because you could tell that not everything has been lost.
CLARK: Journalist Anna Badkhen is just back from Baghdad. Her story about the underground railroad there appears in the summer issue of News Magazine in August. Thanks, Anna.
BADKHEN: Thank you.
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