MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Iraqis have fled Baghdad, Mosul and other parts of the country for many reasons - violence, threats, fear. Some women who fled to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon say they left because they have become targets. Iraqi militants had lashed out at them as a way of imposing a fundamentalist brand of Islam in the country.
NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
DEBORAH AMOS: Rema(ph), a 48-year-old mother of four, escaped to Syria a year ago. She doesn't want her family name broadcast because of relatives back home. In the kitchen, Rema seems a traditional Iraqi mother preparing food for her son and her three daughters, but when it came to education, her daughters have advanced college degrees just like her son. In Baghdad, Rema worked for a Western aid organization helping improve the lives of poor Iraqi women, until militants threatened to kill her.
REMA: So many times I went to places that poor women are living. They knew me. They knew my face.
AMOS: Rema acknowledges that from a distance, Baghdad seems safer now, but she says she needs guarantees that go beyond safety to take her daughters back there.
REMA: There is no freedom. Can't any girl, women, dressing as she like, going to jobs, going to colleges as before.
AMOS: There are women in college. There are some.
REMA: Yeah, yeah, but all of them are frightened.
AMOS: Historically, Iraqi women had more rights and freedoms than many in the Middle East. That status declined in the last years of Saddam's rule, deteriorated further still after the U.S. invasion. Religious conservatives swept to office in Iraq's elections. The new constitution reduced women's rights, and religious radicals directly threatened women, a story told by refugees across the Middle East.
AMOS: In Lebanon, 53-year-old Basima(ph) and her brother Firaz(ph) live in a low-rent neighborhood outside the capital. They fled Iraq's northern city of Mosul in June. Basima, the head librarian at Mosul University, was threatened, she says, because of her head scarf. Her university I.D. shows her blonde hair covered by a flowered scarf, a hijab.
BASIMA: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: But that wasn't good enough for Islamist militants in Mosul.
BASIMA: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: Basima, a dignified middle-aged woman, displays a wicked sense of humor when it comes to the young men who dictated her head gear. She drapes a long black garment over her hair, rolls her eyes at a can-you-believe-they-made-me-wear-this expression, and twirls across the living room.
Unidentified Female: They killed many Christians(ph). That's why she had to wear it.
AMOS: But even a proper head scarf was no protection in Basra. Just ask 35-year-old Alah(ph), the name she agrees to use for her family's safety. She worked as a translator for a Western aid organization delivering food and school supplies, a job she knew came with risks. But Alah says the bigger danger is the well-armed and powerful in Basra imposing an extreme form of Islam.
ALAH: What's happened? The whole change attract every wrong value - they say, this is the religion. God say that.
AMOS: Do you think it's more dangerous because you're a woman or because you were a translator?
ALAH: Woman. Woman, yeah.
AMOS: Alah now expresses her opinions in the relative safety of exile. She fled to neighboring Jordan last year. But as a refugee there are other dangers for women. Many have been trapped into prostitution, she says.
ALAH: Let me show you something.
AMOS: Alah takes a folded piece of paper from her wallet. She says a Jordanian man old enough to be her father handed it to her when she first arrived.
ALAH: Okay, and then he said just in case, my dear daughter, you need anything, anybody bother you in this country, call me anytime. And you will never believe what he gave me. Oh, my God.
AMOS: She smoothes out the paper, points to a phone number, and one Arabic word underlined, a code she understood.
(Soundbite of laughter)
AMOS: So he was actually proposing marriage to you.
ALAH: If that was his proposal. This is what they're using women here. Unfortunately, marriage is this gate or the knock for the door.
AMOS: And this is how the prostitution happens. You get a note like this.
ALAH: How many women actually show this note to this police?
AMOS: Alah has finally left Jordan, accepted for resettlement in the United States. Basima in Lebanon and Rema in Syria hope for resettlement too, because they believe they have no future in Iraq.
Deborah Amos, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.