Revisiting Iraq: A Sister On The Edge

It's been 10 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq. This week we're taking a look back, revisiting voices you first heard on NPR in 2007. We brought you the story of two sisters who had lost their parents. The older sister wore conservative clothes and recited poetry. The younger sister, just 13 at the time, appeared on the verge of becoming a prostitute.

Like so many stories in Iraq, especially sensitive ones involving shame and sex, this story has to be peeled away in layers, like an onion.

It starts with the older sister, Shahad. We recently found her in a dingy, two-room house in east Baghdad. Shahad's crippled grandmother lies on her stomach on the floor, smoking and sometimes moaning in pain.

Shahad says as bad as the situation is now, it's better than it was before.

"Before we only had that room," she says. "But then there was this charity league who built us [an] extra room."

Shahad says her mother abandoned the family years ago. The father went to prison for killing a man about a year after the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Shahad says her sister, Raghad, the one who was about to become a prostitute, has now been "set on the right path." The family arranged for her to get married. Now 18, Raghad has two children.

"I know she was different [in the past]," Shahad says. "She was overactive, and she still is. But now she focuses more on her life, on her children and on how to take care of her husband."

The longer we stay, though, and the more questions we ask, we realize Raghad hasn't totally changed.

Shahad closes the door and lowers her voice. Raghad still wears too much makeup, she says. Her jeans are still too tight. When she comes to visit, she likes to stand at the window and wave at men.

"She might talk to strangers and go out with them — maybe she would let him touch her hand [and] kiss her," she says.

This all might sound benign to us, but in Iraq it's downright dangerous, especially in a poor, conservative neighborhood where not only will neighbors and relatives shun the girls but Shiite militias sometimes impose religious law with violence.

In other words, this could get you killed.

Shahad says Raghad wanted something more even after she got married.

"She was dreaming of falling in love with someone and living all this passion and feelings like a romance — like what she saw on TV," she says.

At first, Shahad says her sister just needs to grow up. But eventually Shahad acknowledges that she doesn't even want her sister to come to the house anymore. It starts to become clear that Shahad isn't telling us everything. All she'll say is that perhaps it's poverty that made Raghad this way.

"Maybe our situation did affect Raghad in a way that she lacks attention and was looking for — as a way to escape from this bitter reality, she would seek attention outside the house," she says.

We try to contact Raghad for days. Everyone gives us a different story: Her husband won't let her out; she's busy with the kids. We decide to try to find her on our own.

We eventually go with Raghad's brother to the house where she lives with her husband's family. They say they have a story to tell.

Once inside, they tell us that Raghad has run away. Her brother, Noor, says she took her 2-year-old with her, left the baby behind and went north.

"I called her yesterday and I talked to her and said, 'Come back,' but she said, 'No,' " he says.

It's clear the brother wants to say more. In a low voice, Noor acknowledges that Raghad has run off to be with their mother.

"I'll tell you the story that no one knows," he whispers. "My mother was a prostitute."

The mother lives in the north. Noor says Raghad has gone to live with her — and to work with her. He says the mother, Raghad and some aunts are now running a prostitution ring.

At this point, Noor says he is out of options to get Raghad back home. He says he'll just have to wait until his father is out of prison and let him decide what to do.

Aid organizations that work with women in Iraq say the story of what happened to Raghad is all too common. In a society where religion has filled in the gaps for social practices that were shattered by war, women simply have fewer options. They are expected to get married very young. Education is less and less of a priority.

For girls like Raghad, aid workers say, choosing prostitution might be the only way they think they can be free.

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