A workman is pinning a banner to the wall as a chilling draft swirls through the nearly empty ballroom at the Palestine Hotel. "An equal, secular constitution is the first step to total fairness," the sign says in Arabic. This is supposed to be one in a series of pioneering public meetings to address the growing inequalities of women in the new Iraq. A year ago, in the weeks after the invasion, hundreds of women marched in the streets outside this hotel in central Baghdad. The women were optimistic, most walked without veils and they made forceful speeches in front of the TV cameras.
Those days of mass protest are over. Today there are barely a dozen women present. Half are veiled and most have come with male relatives or colleagues for protection. It is a quiet indictment of the occupation and underscores the astonishing collapse in security, particularly for women, that it has brought. "Do you feel how threatening it is to go out in the streets? Can you guarantee that you are safe and alive by the end of the day?" asks Yanar Mohammad, the conference organizer and one of the most ardent women's rights activists in Iraq. "It is the insecurity that handicaps the organizing of women."
The few women there describe how things have changed for them since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent rise in Islamic parties. Many more cover their hair now, sometimes in belief, often through peer-group pressure or simply to protect themselves in anonymity. "Veils are imposed on young girls," says Nadam Moaeed. "What do girls understand from this veil? It will have a bad psychological effect. She will become a negative presence in society."
She describes the new pressures on children in schools and the pervasive influence of the religious parties, particularly the conservative Shiite groups, which are certain to dominate the new parliament after this weekend's elections. "Political parties come and take a room in the school building, and they impose on every female student veils and even gloves," she says. "Where is the humanity in that? They are always putting up Islamic pictures in the school, and the children don't understand it at all. We heard of one school where Christian girls were made to wear the veil."
Thiqra Faisal, a student, has traveled up from Basra, a city regarded as more liberal than most. "Even in the universities, women can't wear what they want," she says. "If you see a woman without a scarf in the street, everyone will be surprised. You have to be fully covered."
It was not always this way. In the 1950s, Iraq was the first Arab country to appoint a female government minister. Women worked freely in banks and government and administrative departments and were involved in a vibrant public debate. The changes came in the 1990s, when Saddam began to appease the tribes and the imams. He allowed men to take four wives and ruled there would no longer be any punishment for a man who killed a woman in his family if he suspected her of an "honor crime"
These conservative rulings have been inherited and tacitly endorsed by the major religious parties. At one stage a year ago, hard-liners in the U.S.-appointed governing council tried to pass Article 137, which would impose Islamic Sharia law over rights of personal status, drastically diluting the legal protection for women. After a series of vocal protests the article was dropped, but it was a clear warning of the conservative political program that lies ahead. These are the public problems. In private there is so much more that remains unspoken.
The conference organizer, Yanar Mohammed, 44, runs the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, an outspoken campaign movement. She is rare among Iraqi women: avowedly secular and unafraid to stand up in public and pugnaciously condemn the failings of the male-dominated establishment. She dresses as she might in the West -- today she is wearing a smart trouser suit, and her long dark hair is, as always, uncovered. Her views are so radical in today's Iraq that she has twice had death threats, always travels with a guard and has a small silver pistol hidden in her purse.
Her group has already established two women's shelters -- in Baghdad and Kirkuk. In the past year perhaps a dozen women have been taken in, and many more have asked for help, telling stories of brutality and oppression rarely acknowledged in public. They found one woman from a strict Islamic family in the Kurdish north who had been raped before she was married. "After her husband found out, he decided she was filthy and not allowed to touch her newborn child. It was bad, daily beatings. We found her on the street weeping," says Mohammed. Now the woman, 23, is back at school, living in the shelter and planning to go to university.
The group's campaigning and shelters are largely down to the energy of Mohammed herself. An architecture graduate from Baghdad University, she lived abroad for 10 years before the war, mostly in Toronto. There she met socialist feminists and decided to return to Iraq to campaign after the fall of the regime. She sold her house and left her husband and 17-year-old son behind in Canada.
"I became obsessed with the shelter. It had to be done," she says. Now, a year on, she is worried that many people's frustration at the failures of the occupation are being channeled into hard-line Islamic movements. "The liberation should happen through a civil and secular alternative."
She makes her case in an unrepentant way. The latest copy of her group's newspaper, al-Musawat, or Equality, shows a photo of her burning a veil. "They should be afraid of us," she writes. She refuses to take part in the elections this Sunday, even though rules are in place to ensure that each party includes 25 percent women among its candidates. She argues that the overwhelming influence of the Islamists has unfairly tipped the balance and says her group would be unlikely to win a seat. Instead she will continue campaigning from outside government.
"There are thousands of secular people supporting me. With short, certain steps we will get somewhere," she says. "But it will take time."