Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
The New York Times


June 27, 2004 Sunday
Correction Appended
Late Edition - Final


SECTION: Section 1; Column 3; Foreign Desk; THE REACH OF WAR: THE OCCUPATION; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 1768 words

HEADLINE: For Iraqi Girls, Changing Land Narrows Lives

BYLINE: By SOMINI SENGUPTA

DATELINE: BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 26

BODY:


To catch a glimpse of the future of this country, look for a moment through the eyes of teenage girls who are coming of age here in the capital.

In an air-conditioned bedroom with pink everything on the walls, Yosor Ali al-Qatan, 15, stares longingly at a hip-hugging pair of pink pinstriped pants. The new Iraq, her mother warns her, is far too dangerous for a 15-year-old girl to be seen in such pants.

Across town, at the end of an alley leaking sewage, Sali Ismail, 16, spends her days staring blankly at the television. A spate of kidnappings, combined with her working class Shiite family's ever-deepening poverty, has prompted her to drop out of high school.

In a hair salon where Baghdad's ladies of leisure come to put blond streaks in their hair, Beatrice Sirkis, 14, quietly sweeps the floor. Her father, a retired soldier who has fallen on hard times, had to choose between sending her, or her older brother, to school. Beatrice was chosen to work.

The perils and pressures bearing on the lives of teenage girls here offer a snapshot of the changes bedeviling Iraq. In the past several months, the new access to satellite dishes, Internet cafes and cellphones has given these young women a new window on the outside world. But creeping religious conservatism, lawlessness and economic uncertainty have also been conspiring against them in peculiar ways.

Parents are so rattled by reports of rapes and kidnappings that they keep their girls under closer watch than ever. Girls accustomed to pool outings and piano lessons during the crushingly hot summer vacation months are instead locked up at home. They quarrel with their mothers; they sleep too much; they grow cranky and dejected from mind-numbing boredom.

During the school year, young men claiming to represent new religious groups arrived at some schools, demanding that girls' heads be covered or long-sleeved shirts be required. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of the girls seem to be covering their heads -- as much out of fear as out of newfound conviction. Some have stopped going to school altogether, as much because of the threat of violence as because of the economic hardships facing their families. In Yosor's school, for example, 700 girls registered for classes this past year, compared with 850 the previous year.

What long-term effect any of this will have remains to be seen. In a country that was once singular in the Arab world for its ranks of educated, professional women, it is impossible to tell whether the fate of today's teenage girls will be any different from that of their mothers.

Still, the American invasion and occupation have wrought small, but profound, changes in the everyday lives of girls -- changes that serve as a weather vane of sorts for the social fabric of a sovereign Iraq.

Even though the last years of Saddam Hussein's rule had brought new restrictions on women's freedoms, the simultaneous collapse of the police state that had kept public order and the new leeway for religious clerics to demand stricter compliance with Islamic law have increasingly narrowed girls' lives.

''It's as if you're in prison,'' is how a disgruntled 15-year-old named Mariam Saeed described her predicament, sitting poolside one Wednesday morning inside a posh, well-guarded private club. It was her first outing to the pool all year.

For months, Mariam said, her parents have kept her under strict lock-down at home. She has read all the teen magazines she can stand, seen movie after movie. She has grown bored and glum. She has lost weight. Once she would stay out with her parents until midnight. She would hang out with her cousins every week. Now hardly anyone goes out. Everyone lives in fear.

''Me, through the winter, I suffered great depression,'' Mariam said.

Her brother, barely a year older, recently offered what to her was an audacious suggestion. He suggested that she start covering her head. '' 'I'm worried about you,' '' she recalled him saying. '' 'You're my sister.' ''

She said she snapped at him.

''Because we are girls,'' she said, ''they think we're aliens or something?''

In a city where the sight of a girl's uncovered head was, until recently, a common sight, the head scarf has become an urgent matter of debate. At Yosor's school, a group of men showed up, urging girls to cover their heads. The same happened at the school Sali's sister attends. Neither school yielded to the demands. But across Baghdad, even in wealthy cosmopolitan enclaves, head scarves are becoming increasingly common -- both, girls said, to fend off unwanted attention and to avoid the ire of conservative religious groups.

Although Mariam's brother has not pressed her, she is worried. With the transition to Iraqi sovereignty approaching, the prospect of more violence looms. ''The end of the month is coming -- I think things are going to get worse,'' she said. ''But I'm being optimistic. You always should be optimistic.''

Her cousin, Noor Muhammad, 14, piped up, ''It's a little bit scary.'' She looked down at her lap, fingered her gold ring nervously.

Fear eats at everyone here, but in a conservative society where daughters are already governed by stricter rules than sons, adolescent girls find themselves particularly vulnerable.

In a scrappy, hard-core Shiite neighborhood on the fringes of the city, the kidnapping of a young girl from the gates of the neighborhood primary school has so shaken Sali Ismail that she seldom leaves her family's two-room apartment. Chubby and shy, with the face of a girl half her age, Sali, 16, left school two months after the invasion began. Hope of the high school diploma that her mother, Mendab Abdulhalaq, 39, had been accustomed to calling Sali's weapon against poverty slipped away.

Cloaked in a mountain of black nylon, Mrs. Abdulhalaq wiped the sweat from her brow. A bomb went off in the distance. Sali sat on a daybed staring at the television: on the screen, women in skin-tight clothes and frosty lipstick pranced around improbably to Egyptian love songs. Then, the electricity went out, shutting off the fan, darkening the television and turning the family's small sitting room into a bathhouse.

In a way, the family confessed, Sali's dropping out came as a relief. Her father, a day laborer at a pickle factory, earns less than he used to. Some days, a car bomb makes it impossible to get to work. On other days, the factory does not open. Financially, Mrs. Abdulhalaq said, the family is barely hanging on. Sali's two brothers are in school. Her eldest sister, Jwan, 20, attends a teachers' training college. Her middle sister, Susan, 18, has just finished high school final exams, though it is unlikely that the family will be able to afford college. Susan knows it too. ''I have to make sacrifices,'' she said.

At 14, Beatrice Sirkis already knows something about sacrifices. On a Friday afternoon last June, her father, Adisan Gharib Sirkis, sat her down for an honest and -- from his point of view -- a shamefully sad talk. They sat in the one-room apartment to which they had just moved, and he told her the bitter truth: he was jobless, he was injured, and paying for her schooling was turning out to be unbearably difficult.

If she really wanted to continue, he told her, he would try his best to help her. Her brother Johnson would carry on in school; so too their sister, Mariam, age 8. In the meantime, there was the job at the nearby hair salon, owned by a family friend.

Until that afternoon, it had been Beatrice's dream to become a teacher. Since then, it has become her fate to fold towels and sweep the salon floor six days a week.

''I knew then I wouldn't continue my studies,'' she said.

The new reality seems to have hit her parents harder than it has her. Mr. Sirkis worked as a truck driver until the war began, when he had to sign up to fight. He lost his job. He was evicted from his apartment. Sure, he had predicted that violence would follow the invasion, but not in his wildest dreams, he said, did he think his family would come to this: Beatrice, at 14, working all day and coming home so tired that she collapses on the sofa and falls asleep.

''La la la la la,'' Mr. Sirkis and his wife said in unison, clicking their tongues, shaking their heads. La is Arabic for no.

''To quit school and work in that shop, never,'' he said.

He lighted one cigarette after another. Beatrice sat quietly on the sofa. His wife, Florin Benjamin Mikhail Israel, tried to sound hopeful. Maybe one day, Beatrice can go back to school, she said, ''If things becomes more secure, God willing.''

For Yosor, as for other teenage girls, how they dress when they leave their homes and where they can go has become a subject of great anxiety because of the kidnappings.

She went to a neighbor's house one afternoon dressed in hot pink: a tight hot pink T-shirt under a pink flowered shirt, pink sequined sandals, a pink fluffy hair band holding back a pony tail.

''I'm trying to convince her just to alter her way of dressing,'' her mother, Atat Majid al-Chalabi, whispered. Wear something that doesn't attract attention, she told her daughter. Put a scarf over your head, even if it's not a formal hijab, she said. ''Sometimes, she wants to wear tight clothes, I come and put on something very loose on top,'' Mrs. Chalabi said. ''She's always complaining, 'Why so much pressure?' ''

Yosor smirked knowingly. Two months ago, she bought that pair of pinstriped pants: snug and black, with hot pink pinstripes and a matching hot-pink plastic belt. She thought they were gorgeous. Now they collect dust in her closet. Her mother will not let her leave the house in those pants. Besides, there is nowhere to go. No picnics at the park, no parties, no restaurants. She is stuck at home. She watches movies every day, one after the other. ''It's so boring,'' she said.

Everything now depends on whether the violence subsides. If it does not, she worries that her parents will keep her from going to the college of her choice, to study pharmacy, all the way across town. Already, a group of men have come to her school demanding that the girls wear long-sleeved shirts and head scarves. In every school, in every neighborhood, there are children who are known to have been kidnapped in this new chaotic atmosphere. Nearly everyone seems to have heard about girls who have been raped.

''The most important thing is security,'' Yosor said, ''so I can go out of my house and come back.''

Her mother puts it more starkly. ''This is not a holiday,'' she said. ''You have to keep her in the house. Because she's a girl.''



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