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The New Arab

Knives and guns: How Iraqi women handle street harassers

Many women in Iraq fear the consequences of reporting harassment [Getty illustrative photo]

Date of publication: 5 December, 2017

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Women and girls in Iraq face harassment on the streets every time they leave their houses. They tell The New Arab of the different ways they deal with their abusers.
Sexual harassment poses a real threat for women in Iraq, preventing many from working, studying or simply going out.

While some women reported harassment to authorities or relatives, many fear the consequences of reporting it.

Ali al-Obiedi, an official in the interior ministry tells The New Arab that women who report the cases to their male relatives end up seeing them in prisons after their relatives would confront the harassers, often leaving them with serious injuries or possibly killing them.

It is thus no surprise that some women refrain from reporting harassment, both for fear of implicating their male relatives in fights and to avoid placing strains on their desire to continue their studies, pursue employment or to simply enjoy public social life.

But other women choose to take matters into their own hands, by pursuing different strategies to fend off harassers.

Nabaa Ahmed mostly depended on company when she went out. Since she was in high school, one of her parents would always accompany her to and back from school every day until her graduation.

"I was a high school student during the occupation of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003," she tells The New Arab.

"The situation back then was very scary as there was no security in place, so my parents were very concerned over my wellbeing whenever I went out, particularly over sexual harassment," Nabaa says.

"Back then, there were no police officers to enforce law and order, which opened the doors for many men to harass women and girls in an awful way."

Now, married and a mother, she remains afraid to go out alone and only does so when it is necessary.

"The eventual redeployment of security officers on the streets has not deterred harassers - in fact the situation seemed to only worsen," she says. "I still fear going out alone and only do so when it is absolutely necessary!"

"I fear that if I got out and get harassed, my husband or brothers would want to retaliate and would eventually land themselves in prison."

Like many Iraqi women, she fears for her male relatives who may react violently against the harassers.

"I fear that if I got out and get harassed, my husband or brothers would want to retaliate and would eventually land themselves in prison."

There are plenty of women in Iraq with the same fears as Ahmad's, but some refuse to be held back and defy the harassers by going out alone.

Rabab Zaidan, 27, faces verbal harassment every time she goes out alone. Most of the time, she chooses not to respond, thereby defining her abusers as non-existent.

"They do not scare me and I will not let them stand in my way," she tells The New Arab. "On a few occasions, I was very bold and yelled back at them with threats."

"Most of these men fear being confronted by strong bold women," Rabab says, "They look for vulnerable targets and steer clear of women who appear confident."

35-year-old Lamia Hussein has been practicing using her recently-purchased pistol to ward off harassers

Carrying weapons

Meanwhile, 35-year-old Lamia Hussein has been practicing using her recently-purchased pistol to ward off harassers.

She started carrying a gun two years ago, after she found herself a victim of harassment when she was returning from the hair salon where she works.

"I was forced to carry a gun after I was harassed by four men when I was going back home from work one evening," Lamia tells The New Arab. "The street was empty so they tried to grab me and when they failed, they verbally assaulted me."

"I gathered all my strength and started screaming from the top of my lungs, while breaking myself free from their grip," she says, "They ran off as soon as they noticed people were staring to come out of their houses because of my cries."

She maintains that harassers and rapists can only be warded off if faced with force, and so she has since been carrying a gun in her handbag.

Although she has never had to fire the pistol, she says she has used it a few times to threaten a harasser.

"He ran away as soon as I took the gun out of my bag," she tells The New Arab, "When I saw this reaction, I realised that I will never actually have to fire the arm or kill someone to defend myself, but I can use the gun to scare them off."

It is common in Iraq to find women carrying pistols and other types of weapons.

It is common in Iraq to find women carrying pistols and other types of weapons.

Shaimaa al-Sheikhali carries a knife as her weapon of self defence when she leaves the house. The widow and mother-of-four says she began working after her husband passed away in a car accident in 2011.

During her journey to work, she says she faced a lot of harassment and was since advised by many of her friends to carry a weapon to defend herself.

"I have used the knife as a threatening tool against harassers on two separate occasions," Shaimaa tells The New Arab.

"I used it once to threaten someone harrassing me," she says.

"The second time I used the knife was when I saw a man following three teenage girls. He started to verbally abuse them, and I could see they were scared, so I took out the knife against him and he quickly ran away."

Meanwhile, younger Iraqi girls have resorted to material arts to help protect themselves against harassers.

Seventeen-year-old Sally Ridha began training in Kung Fu two years ago.

"My trainer is the brother of a friend of mine," she tells The New Arab. "My friends and I agreed to train with him to master martial arts and to be able to defend ourselves against harassers."

"We are no longer afraid of confronting anyone!"

Sally says one of her friends used her skills against three men, landing them all on the ground.

"We were together, and one of the men started to verbally harass us, so she turned to him and threatened to hit him," she says, "The men started laughing at her, so she attacked them and within seconds they were all on the ground."

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