By Fariba Nawa
June 11 – 17, 2003
BAGHDAD—Israa Sabah is supposed to be in her seventh-grade classroom finishing her annual exams. Instead, she’s sitting home drawing women’s fashion in her notebook and watching television.
The active 13-year-old is too scared to go to school. Like many Iraqi girls her age, she fears that armed gangs will snatch her on the way to school, or even while she’s in class.
“I miss my friends and teachers, but after the war, it’s not safe to go outside,” she said. “My parents prefer I stay home.”
The deteriorating security in Baghdad is heightening a sense of fear and paranoia among parents who worry that their daughters will be kidnapped. The city’s buzzing with rumors of kidnappings, and parents are taking extra precautions to protect their daughters. The little freedom schoolgirls had has been taken away from them.
Police and aid workers say there are no verified cases of girls being kidnapped, but the fear has spread rapidly.
Geoff Keele, a spokesman from the United Nations Children’s Fund says, the UN looked into the case of a 16-year-old missing girl, but the evidence pointed to a runaway case.
“With the fall of Baghdad, there were reports about children, particularly girls, being kidnapped, and although we don’t have any proof of these abductions having taken place, it’s a rumor that has managed to make its way through the community right across the country,” he said. “We have people who are petrified of sending their children to school.”
Iraqis say they heard from other people that girls are being kidnapped. They say the police have lost their authority, so families have to protect themselves.
Israa lives in a middle-class neighborhood building complex and plays in the courtyard with her neighbors. She could be a New York teenager in her cropped jeans and colorful shirt, her brunette locks tied back with shiny barrettes. Israa talks with a big smile and articulates with the confidence of a college student. She seems happy, but the sadness is clear in her eyes.
“I feel like I’m in prison sometimes,” she said.
She cannot go swimming or to her friends’ homes like she did during Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Many girls have gone back to school, but they don’t walk or take the bus anymore. Their parents take time off work to drive them. Schools in richer neighborhoods have hired guards.
At the premier Risala secondary school, only 70 percent of the 500 girls are attending classes a week before their yearly exams. They come despite their fears.
Wasan Adil, a junior at Risala, is furious at the increasing crime in Baghdad.
“When I’m in the car, I’m very afraid. When I’m walking with my friends, any car that passes by, we’re scared of,” she said, her voice rising with anger. “At any time, I’m waiting for someone to open the door and kidnap me. Do schoolgirls in America know what that feels like?”
The U.S.-led forces responsible for improving security are not getting involved in this issue.
Iraqis say the fear of girls being abducted is greater than boys because if they are raped, their family honor is at stake.
Educators complain that these fears are hindering girls’ schooling. One out of three girls attended school before the Americans occupied Iraq but now even that number has dwindled.
“We’re hopeful for change, but right now, safety has become more important than education. Our classes are half empty,” said Masriya Shaban Mehdi, the principal of one primary school.
It’s noon when school ends, and Faris Mamoo sits in his car in front of the Special Honors Secondary School, waiting for his 13-year-old daughter to come out. Before the U.S. came, he let his daughter take the bus. Now he picks her up daily.