Baghdad’s Underground Shelters Help Iraqi Women Escape Violence and Abuse

Baghdad’s underground railroad


| November-December 2009



Baghdad Underground Shelters

image by Mimi Chakarova / www.mclight.com

On a bullet-scarred  side street in Baghdad’s downtown, where U.S. Marines famously helped tear down the statue of Saddam Hussein in April of 2003, an inconspicuous entryway tucked between a steel-shuttered shop and a rickety candy stall leads to a flight of steep concrete stairs. Rusted water pipes run precariously over and across the poorly lit top step, tripping first-time visitors. The second-floor landing bottlenecks into a dark, empty hallway. Women in black abayas hurry across the buckled floor tiles in silence and quickly disappear through an unmarked plywood door on the right.

The decrepit two-bedroom apartment behind this unassuming portal is an essential junction of what activists in Iraq and their U.S. supporters call the Underground Railroad. This railroad is a small, clandestine network of several shelters, located mostly in Baghdad, for the countless but commonly overlooked victims of the war in Iraq: women who have been raped, battered, or forced into prostitution, and women who, accused of bringing dishonor to their families by having been abused, have been rejected or even threatened with death by their relatives.

These shelters serve women who have nowhere else to turn for help. Operated despite recurring death threats and lack of government support by a team of 35 Iraqi activists who call themselves the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), the shelters offer a glint of hope for civil society.

The Underground Railroad was founded in 2004 by Baghdad-born architect-turned-feminist-organizer Yanar Mohammed, head of OWFI, along with MADRE, an international women’s rights group based in New York. It provides the only sanctuaries for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence outside the quasi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, where the local government and nongovernment organizations operate several shelters. In addition to providing temporary asylum, it helps women resettle in places where their abusers cannot find them easily. Since its inception, says MADRE policy and communications director Yifat Susskind, the railroad has helped thousands of women. Several have been transferred to Turkey and at least two now live in the United States, but most of the rescued women have remained in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein’s regime persecuted political dissidents but allowed women personal rights and freedoms; assaults on women were rare. But when violence engulfed the country after the U.S. invasion, women became “the easiest targets,” says OWFI member Dalal Juma. Violence against women is now rampant and goes virtually unchecked by Iraq’s new legal system. Sexual violence is “severely under­reported,” Amnesty International wrote in March, and along with other crimes against women and girls, is usually committed with impunity.