RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One side of how safe a woman feels in parts of Iraq is makeup. In the southern city of Basra, more women are putting it on. That's new in just the last few weeks, ever since the Iraqi army launched an operation to gain control of its second-largest city. Before the troops arrived, Basra was in the grip of Shiite militias who had imposed on the people there a harsh brand of Islam.
Women, in particular, were at risk. Dozens were killed, targeted for not wearing a veil in public or for wearing makeup. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has this report from Basra.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nahla's(ph) pictures are in frames all around this house - frozen images that the family can hardly bear to look at. A large woman with dyed blonde hair, her images show a preference for bright clothes and red lipstick. Her photographs, though, are not the only spots of color here. Nahla's mother Samirah(ph) and her sister Iman still dress in black in mourning for her.
IMAN: (Through translator) They killed her. She worked at a bank. It's been two years now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iman says it began with threatening phone calls and notes. The family was terrified.
IMAN: (Through translator) They claimed that she was not wearing the head scarf as she was supposed to. She began to wear it, and she also began to wear long dresses to cover herself up. When she was killed, she was wearing the full veil.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She sobs as she remembers the day the militia came to kill her sister.
IMAN: (Through translator) Someone who saw the attack said a car stopped close to her and called her by name. Nahla, Nahla, they said. She turned, and then they opened fire. She was riddled with bullets, so many that they broke her bones. I tried to pick her up, but she was bleeding from head. It was a matter of minutes only. I wish she was alive. I wish they had done anything else but murder her.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The over a dozen women interviewed for this story in Basra from different backgrounds and classes all said essentially the same thing. After the 2003 invasion by U.S. and British forces, their lives got steadily worse and their basic freedoms were eroded.
The violence against women in Basra reached its peak last year when according to the local government, 140 women were killed here - the majority by Shiite militiamen intent on imposing their version of Islamic law on the population. Women were threatened or killed for dressing inappropriately, for playing musical instruments, for singing. Others were pursued because of their jobs.
Umnor(ph) is a plump hairdresser with arched brows and a dimpled smile. She's just returned to Basra after six months of exile in Iran and Syria. She talks as she plucks a client's eyebrows.
UMNOR (Hairdresser): (Through translator) It was Thursday at 3:30 in the afternoon. They stormed my salon, but I had run away seconds before because the neighborhood kids had warmed me that the militiamen were pointing at my store. They shot up the building, destroying everything.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Umnor said she's previously been warned in a letter that running her beauty shop was haraam, or forbidden.
UMNOR: (Through translator) It was not only me who was threatened. They threatened all us female hairdressers. Some of those girls fled. Others had their salons burned, but I was among those who stayed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she believed they wouldn't go after her. But they did, and she was lucky to escape with her life. After the Iraqi military operation began two months ago, she came back to Basra and started working again. There are now 40,000 Iraqi soldiers and police blanketing the city, and that is allowing women to feel safer.
(Soundbite of chanting and singing)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's graduation day at Basra's University. Young men in caps and gowns parade down a university road, chanting and singing. Women grads in makeup and long tight-fitting skirts take pictures of the festivities. Nearby, a group of female students from the music department sit together. Until the Iraqi army operation, security at the university was handled by the militias. A kind of morality police would make sure that the girls were appropriately dressed. Several female students were beaten up for not following the draconian rules. Twenty-one year old Suren Korene Hassan(ph) says that no one was brave enough to defy them.
Ms. SUREN KORENE HASSAN (Student, Basra University): (Through Translator) All the students and teachers were afraid of them. They tried to shut down the music department.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her friend, 22-year-old Amina Issan(ph), says the militiamen are no longer around.
Ms. AMINA ISSAN (Student, Basra University): (Through Translator) When I used to go out of my house, I was afraid to wear trousers, for example, because they would bother us and they would threaten to beat us. And now we have more freedom. I can wear trousers and I can do what I want.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, the young women admit that their families don't let them out at night or take any detours to and from school. The militias, they say, have only gone underground. Zianet(ph), who doesn't want her last name used for fear of reprisals, is a lawyer and a woman's rights activist in Basra. She says that during the worst of the violence here, there was complete apathy on the part of the Iraqi government and the British, who were supposed to be in control of security in Basra.
ZIANET (Lawyer, Woman's Rights Activist): (Through Translator) We spoke out to try and bring attention to the killings, threats and kidnappings, but nobody listened to us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says Basra also saw an upsurge of honor killings for the same simple reason.
ZIANET: (Through Translator) Any man was free to kill his sister or his wife because there was no fear of the law. He knew he would not be punished for his crimes. In fact, some groups actively encouraged these people.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Before the offensive, Zianet used to put makeup on at night and wash it off in the morning before heading into work. It allowed her, she says, to feel more feminine in the confines of her home. Now she's dressed in a white jacket and a form-fitting purple satin skirt. Her toenails are painted with silver glitter. Her makeup looks like it was applied with the giddiness of a teenager. Still, she's afraid.
ZIANET: (Through Translator) The stability is temporary. The problems in Basra won't end because all we did was cover these problems up. They did not attack the cause.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Zianet says there is simply no political will to protect women in Basra. Security is better for now, but she's worried about what will happen after the soldiers go. Back across town, Nahla's sister and mother are also pessimistic. When her sister was shot two years ago, Iman tried to get the police to help.
IMAN: (Through Translator) I yelled to them. You are the government. My sister has been killed. You must do something. They replied, we cannot even protect ourselves.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then they just drove away. She tried to bring the perpetrators to justice, but no one would even deign to listen to their story.
IMAN: (Through Translator) This is the first visit we have received. No one else has come here to talk to us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iman says it's as if her sister had no rights at all.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Basra.
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