In Najaf, the Holy city of Shi’ite muslims, war has killed thousands of people and left many widowed. At the front of Najaf’s cemetery there is a special space dedicated to radical Shi’tes who died during the uprising against American troops in 2004.
Dijla’s husband was killed in the crossfire. He was a taxi driver. To survive and bring up her 4 children, Dijla – which means tigress – has had to fight against prejudice. With the help of Al Amal association, she set up a small beauty salon in her home, but not without difficulties. She doesn’t usually wear a veil at home; but didn’t want to show her face or her children’s faces on television, for fear of compromising years of work.
Dijla explained: “Even just talking about my salon creates problems. When you want to go and buy products for the shop, you have to go to the wholesale market. And there you find only men, there’s no space dedicated to women. My customers ask for products which I have to go and find in places where the sales assistants are men, and our society doesn’t like this kind of thing.”
Dijla’s in-laws also disapprove. “I wanted my daughters to keep studying, and they wanted me to stop them. They told me to stop working, and said that they would take care of us. But I refused.”
Dijla can’t afford to draw attention to herself by advertising her salon. But the word has spread amongst women, and business is brisk. She would like to expand.
Dijla said: “Each time I take a step forward, I take a risk. But I don’t see it as a risk. It’s a statement, and my subborness carries me forward. When men die, they can rest in peace. But widows then have to carry a huge burden. The men leave them behind with the children. They have to support the family on their own. And I’m not the only one.”
40 years of war and sectarian violence have left over a million widows in Iraq. Most struggle to provide for their children. A minority get a small pension from the State.
Not Rashida. She lost her husband four years go in a fight between rival tribes over land rights. She and her two sons live with her brothers and sisters in law. She relies on them, and sells clay ovens which take days to make, for 5 euros a piece.
Rashida can’t get any help from the State because, brought up and married according to tribal rules, she has no paperwork to prove her identity or status as a widow. Her wedding certificate was lost in 2005 when the family had to flee sectarian violence in Mahmoudia, near Baghdad. She has lost hope of ever sending her boys to school: “They won’t enrol them at school because they have no IDs. I hoped they would study and learn things like the others. It’s better than staying here like this. I want them to learn a trade. But without school, they can’t read or write. They know nothing of life, what hope can they have? For their future, for their life, for anything? I wish them the best, but I don’t think it will ever happen.”
Faithful to her husband’s memory, she refuses to remarry. She says the war has destroyed her life: “I hate war. It is because of war that we had to leave our homes. Because of war we became nothing. Because of these problems which never end. The government doesn’t want to let us settle down or build a house. They always come to harass us and tell us we don’t own this place. And why do we have all these problems? Because of the war.”
To make a few extra pennies, Rashida sometimes works in one of the nearby brick factories. She doesn’t want to be a burden to her brothers. She just wants a less physically exhausting job and to live in peace: “The most important thing is having stability. I want peace of mind, and I want to stop being less than nothing until death. I wish we could live in our own house, buy clothes, go out like everybody else, and not just spend life between the factory and the clay…”
They are simple dreams, which with her children, give her the strength to keep going. “My courage comes from my ignorance. I’ve always lived in obscurity. I’ve suffered. Everything closed up on me. I had to be the way I am. I have never known anything good in my life, I’ve always had to face misery and hunger. Everything closed up on me, I had to fight, and even more than that.
Men make war, and women bear the consequences. Women stay behind them with their ignorance, and their suffering.”