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.
At the downtown shelter , a teenage girl whose mother unsuccessfully tried to sell her to a brothel in Syria—sex trafficking has thrived since the U.S. invasion, according to reports by international aid groups and the U.S. State Department—is slumped on a tattered couch watching TV. Next to her sits a widow who spent four years in jail on charges of killing her husband (who was in another country at the time); the case was eventually dismissed, but her relatives still accuse her of disgracing them and threaten to kill her. On the floor by a broken window patched with plywood, the woman’s 14-year-old daughter is painting her fingernails sparkly purple; she is hiding from her grandparents, who conspired to marry her off while her mother was in jail. Another girl, 16 years old, whose parents married her at 12 to an older man who soon abandoned her, plays with her cell phone. A couple of other women shuffle in and out of the room.
The cheap apartment is all the organization can afford; Mohammed tells me that it costs about $60,000 a year to operate a shelter this size. That includes rent, security, utilities, and food and clothes for the women staying there. With the squalor comes anonymity and the inherent promise that, at last, the women are safe. Shelter workers believe that the shelter’s inconspicuous nature protects them from religious militias, which, Amnesty International reports, routinely target women’s rights advocates. Mohammed has received e-mailed death threats; she carries a Glock pistol in her leather purse, although she admits she’s not a very good shot. The shelter locations are kept secret from angry husbands and male extended family members.
The secrecy is working: Salma Jabou, an adviser on women’s issues to Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, assured me that outside Kurdistan “there are no shelters for girls who are raped.” Although the railroad has been operating since 2004, photojournalist Mimi Chakarova and I were the first reporters to have been allowed inside one of its shelters. As a precaution, Juma took us there after dark; we wore abayas and head scarves, trying not to stand out. Our female Iraqi translator was not allowed to come along.
Women learn about the shelter through word of mouth and OWFI’s quarterly newsletter; the only people who know its location are the women who run it and a thoroughly vetted handful of male security guards armed with handguns. One of these guards lives at the shelter with his young wife, an OWFI employee. As far as the landlord is concerned, the couple is renting the apartment and the other women are their relatives, in town for a visit. Just to be on the safe side, the organization pays $350 a month for the place, which would normally cost about $150. “Money for silence,” Juma explains.
Surprisingly, OWFI makes no attempt to disguise its official headquarters in Baghdad. In March, the white metal gate of its razor wire–fortified compound was adorned with two brightly colored posters depicting a woman screaming through prison bars, emblazoned with the words “Speak out and struggle for women’s freedom and equality.”
Samira, who asked that her real name not be used because she fears for her life, sought shelter at the Underground Railroad after enduring three months of near-daily sexual abuse at the hands of her employer and his brother. At the OWFI office, Samira can talk to a psychiatric nurse, who accompanies the women on their visits to physicians and gynecologists, and she can learn how to use a computer—a skill that would, ideally, help her find a job that will allow her to survive on her own. The activists are realistic about a woman’s prospects in wartime Iraq.
“If someone wants to marry her,” Juma says, “that’s good.”
For now, Samira spends most of her evenings cleaning the shelter: her safe haven, and her chance for a future without abuse.
“If it weren’t for this shelter I would have become a prostitute,” Samira says. “Now I feel I have a family around me.”
Anna Badkhen has reported extensively from Iraq since 2003. Her book, A War Reporter’s Pantry, will be published in January 2011 by Free Press. Excerpted from Ms. (Summer 2009), the oldest and preeminent feminist magazine, serving as a trusted source for feminist news, analysis, and politics. www.msmagazine.com