Iraq, as described by its women

The New York Times is running a five-part series of (wo)man-on-the-street interviews focusing on the female perspective of daily Iraqi life.

Published June 5, 2008 5:03PM (EDT)

This week, the New York Times' Baghdad Bureau Blog has been running a series of interviews with Iraqi women. (Here are links for parts 2, 3 and 4.)

The interviews focus on a variety topics -- the domestic details of their lives, their views toward Iraqi women in politics, education, security and women's rights, among others. Unfortunately, the interviews are quite short -- leaving me wishing that I could hear more of each woman's story. But as the series' author, Eric Owles, explains in the first segment, getting women to talk on camera was tough. As he explains the process:

"I was accompanied by Anwar J. Ali, a journalist working for The Times in Iraq. She acted as my interpreter, and also made the first contact with women. She would approach them, on the streets and in shops, while I hung a few feet back with my video equipment tucked inside a bag. Anwar would explain who we were and ask permission to film an interview.

"Most often the answer was no. Some women would agree to an interview only if their faces would not be shown ... Others did not want their names to be used. These women are identified as Um, which translates to 'the mother of.' Um Mustafa, for example, means 'the mother of Mustafa.'"

The women Owles did convince to participate express a depressing view of what their lives are like. "I quit school because of the security situation and because I was once kidnapped," says one woman. "So I left my education behind." When the interpreter asks another if having women in the Iraqi parliament changes anything for her, she responds, "No, nothing changed. Because our society does not let women make change ... Women are only used as propaganda to show the world how democratic we are to let women participate. That's all."

I can only hope that the women who chose to participate are a self-selecting group, particularly eager to vent their frustrations -- but when taken as a whole, the picture they paint is bleak. There's still one more day left in the series -- and you can use the Times' comment board to make suggestions for future Q&A topics (I assume it's too late to contribute to this one, since it ends tomorrow). I wish the Times had run longer excerpts of each woman's interview, but nonetheless, it's interesting -- if saddening -- to listen to comments from a group of people whose perspective we rarely get to hear.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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