The plight of the widows of Anfal on the edge of Kurdish society

IRAQ: Women are still seen on the barren Germian plain as little more than chattels, Nicholas Birch was told in Iraqi Kurdistan…

IRAQ: Women are still seen on the barren Germian plain as little more than chattels, Nicholas Birch was told in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Until 1988 Amina Mohamad had never strayed further than 10 miles from Zerd-I Qadir, a tiny hamlet nestled in a stony valley on the edge of the barren Germian plain.

That April Iraqi troops began the third phase of their genocidal Anfal campaign, razing the region's villages and dispatching villagers to camps or firing squads in the southern desert.

"I spent six months at Nuqra Salman, watching people collapse and die of starvation," she said.


"They used tractors to dig mass graves, but the earth was sandy, and dogs would pull the bodies out again." She never saw her husband, daughter-in-law or four small grandchildren again.

As many as 100,000 Kurdish women are thought to have lost their husbands during Anfal. But whereas war in the west may have had the incidental effect of speeding women's emancipation, here in Germian genocide has only confirmed their marginal status.

If Amina Mohamad is now back in her village, it is thanks only to the fact that she was able to track down her son. One hundred and thirty widows still living in the dismal collective town of Smood did not have such good fortune. Instead, Anfal catapulted them into the precarious role of breadwinner and disputed family head.

"Because Saddam never confirmed that their husbands had been killed, the status of these women was ambiguous," explained Dilshad Ferez, assistant director of the office of humanitarian aid in nearby Kalar.

"Many found themselves living with their parents again, but receiving financial support from their in-laws."

With remarriage the only real option if widows were to be able to begin again, the Kurdish authorities passed a law in March 1999 confirming that the missing should be considered legally dead. But that has only solved the problem for a small minority of women.

Married in 1983, Shukria Rashid had just given birth to her second child when her husband was taken away. She has lived in Smood since, so destitute that her children were forced to begin work when they were 12.

"After the law came out, relations of mine told me that there was a man interested in marrying me", she said, sitting in the Smood women's centre where she now earns $35 a month working as a cleaner.

"But my former husband's family wanted both my dowry and my children. I turned the offer down," she said. "My son and my daughter are my flesh and blood."

"Widowers who have children do not have this problem," explained Dilshad Ferez. "But women are still seen here as little more than chattels, last on the list to take decisions which affect them personally."

Progress was being made, he added. A local radio station set up by the Women's Union in the district centre of Kalar is doing its best to persuade local people that their traditional belittlement of women is socially damaging.

And the office where he works acts as a mediator in disputes between widows and their extended families.

"We had an almost identical case to Shukria Rashid's just two weeks ago", he said. "A widow wanted to get married, and her former husband's family wanted to have her children, in essence because they were afraid her new husband would refuse to support them.

"We brought them all in, and the problem was resolved.

"But it's important to remember that this is a region where, because of Anfal, women vastly outnumber men," he added. "This is a society which puts a premium on a woman's virginity, and only a tiny minority of men here will accept a widow with children."

But as the head of Smood women's centre Shahzad Hussein knows only too well that the problems widows with children face often have little to do with any desire they may have to marry again.

"My husband was a peshmerga [Kurdish militiaman] and a deserter from the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq war," she said. "We were married by a local imam, but obviously we couldn't register with the civilian authorities. My daughter is 15 years old now, but officially she does not exist." She laughs. "Officially I am still a virgin."

"The bureaucracy here is terrible," she said. "But I cannot live with the thought that people could think ill of my daughter, or call her bad names."