Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi woman is reflected in the mirror of her car as U.S. soldiers search another driver at a checkpoint south of Baghdad in 2005. Bad traffic, aggressive convoys and insurgents have led many Iraqis to decide driving isn't worth the risk.
An Iraqi woman is reflected in the mirror of her car as U.S. soldiers search another driver at a checkpoint south of Baghdad in 2005. Bad traffic, aggressive convoys and insurgents have led many Iraqis to decide driving isn't worth the risk. Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
When Saddam Hussein was still in power in Iraq, the streets were full of female drivers. In fact, to hear Iraqis tell it, they had one of the highest proportions of female drivers in the Middle East.
But the U.S. invasion of Iraq changed all that. Between bad traffic, aggressive convoys and radical insurgents, the streets are not for the faint-hearted. This has led many Iraqis to decide that driving isn't worth the risk.
One woman still braving the roads is Azhar Abbas, who has been taking children to school for the past 28 years. Her bright yellow van is a fixture in Al-Andalus district, a prosperous neighborhood of two-story houses on the southeast side of Baghdad.
Abbas says she has been doing this so long she is actually driving some of the children and grandchildren of kids she drove years ago. Parents pay $17 a month for her to ferry their children to and from school. She is so popular her nickname is "Dollar;" she says that is because everyone is chasing her to drive their children.
Abbas is a big woman — both tall and round. She has long, wild red hair and is partial to tight-fitting, leopard-skin tops and oversized gold costume jewelry. She is the kind of woman who lights up a cigarette and offers to read the fortunes revealed from the grounds in coffee cups. In this country where nearly every woman on the street is either veiled or in a long, black abaya, Abbas stands out. The only time she wears a headscarf, she says, is when she buys gas.
"All the gas stations here are controlled by the Mehdi Army and special guards, so to get gas I have to wear a headscarf," she says, holding it up and laughing.
"The other day I went to the petrol station without my headscarf on and they told me next time I better start wearing it," she says.
When her young sons told her it was just too dangerous for her to keep driving, Abbas told them it was impossible for her to stop. Driving was in her blood.
'The Streets Are Not as They Used to Be'
To be sure, driving in Baghdad is tough going. The streets are chaotic. Traffic circles are a continuous snarl. Electricity isn't reliable, so traffic cops hold up red and green plastic discs at intersections — like human traffic lights.
Convoys are a constant worry. American vehicles are topped with gunners on swiveling turrets. The way they spin around when the vehicles take a corner is reminiscent of that spinning teacup ride at Disneyland — except, of course, the gunners all have their fingers on the trigger of a .50-caliber machine gun.
The Iraqi police travel around in trucks with their big guns mounted on the truck beds. From long experience, civilian drivers have learned to just pull over as soon as they spot them.
With all that to deal with, it isn't surprising that many Iraqis have decided not to get behind the wheel.
Ayida Habbu, a 50-year-old engineer, had been an avid driver for 25 years. She rarely drives now and has become nostalgic about it.
"I remember when we used to go to Mansour or to other places in the springtime. It was really fun. You could smell blossoming flowers in the breeze," she says. "We used to go as a group of women to shop or eat at restaurants. Because of the turmoil today, we only drive in our own neighborhoods."
Ammeera Hadi Ibraheem, who owns a fashion boutique in Baghdad, agrees.
"The streets are not as they used to be," she says. "And when I drive, I just don't feel comfortable. I find myself expecting that something bad will happen."
Ibraheem says she bunches her errands together so she has to drive only a limited amount of time on a single day.
Waiting for a Return to Normal
College student Samar Nihad lives in Dora in south Baghdad, where the main problem is insurgents.
"They have stopped women in the streets and warned them not to drive again because, as far as they were concerned, it was forbidden by the Quran. They also distributed leaflets that women were not allowed to drive. In fact, they have deprived women of everything. So we're afraid," she says.
Ahlam al-Wakeel, an Iraqi doctor, says she hasn't driven since she was shot by soldiers in an American convoy for driving too close to them. Today she won't even drive to the market in broad daylight.
"Iraq won't be back to life again until I can drive without fear — until I can stop at a red traffic light and can drive away when it turns green. Only then I can say that everything is back to normal," al-Wakeel says.
Until then, al-Wakeel and many women like her will wait to get back behind the wheel.