Iraqi women sell sex for survival

Thousands of Iraqi refugees are prostituting themselves in Syria.

Published May 29, 2007 7:36PM (EDT)

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled -- here and elsewhere -- about the failure to protect the rights of Iraqi women during the U.S.-led invasion of their country. But usually, the focus is on women still living in Iraq. So what about the Iraqi women who have managed to escape the war zone?

Yeah -- they're not faring so well, either. Thousands of Iraqi refugees are working as prostitutes in Syria, reports the New York Times. Their stories follow that familiar prostitution paradigm: Some are forced into turning tricks; others have no other means of survival. The piece leads with the story of 16-year-old Hiba, once a "devout schoolgirl, modest in her dress and serious about her studies," who, at her mother's direction, now dances at a Syrian nightclub known for prostitution. She can hope to take home a paltry 500 lira ($10) for a night's work. "I'm angry," said her mother, Umm Hiba. "Do you think we're happy that these men from the gulf are seeing our daughters' naked bodies?"

Many of these refugees have suddenly become the head of their household and must support themselves and several children. Sometimes a mother or aunt will pimp out an entire family of girls, said a Syrian women's rights lawyer. "So many of the Iraqi women arriving now are living on their own with their children because the men in their families were killed or kidnapped," said Sister Marie-Claude Naddaf, whose convent in Damascus supports Iraqi refugees.

The best (or most realistic) thing to hope for is that the symbolism of these refugees' desperate cultural capitulation -- Hiba went from wearing a hijab to a skimpy silk dress as a girl for sale -- will be potent enough to grip the press, so that the issue keeps making headlines. "We Iraqis used to be a proud people," said Umm Hiba. "During the war we lost everything. We even lost our honor."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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