A year ago, in the weeks after the invasion, hundreds of women marched in the streets outside this hotel in central Baghdad. The women were optimistic, most walked without veils and they made forceful speeches in front of the TV cameras.
Those days of mass protest are over. Today there are barely a dozen women present. Half are veiled and most have come with male relatives or colleagues for protection. It is a quiet indictment of the occupation and underscores the astonishing collapse in security, particularly for women, that it has brought. "Do you feel how threatening it is to go out in the streets? Can you guarantee that you are safe and alive by the end of the day?" asks Yanar Mohammad, the conference organizer and one of the most ardent women's rights activists in Iraq. "It is the insecurity that handicaps the organizing of women."
The few women there describe how things have changed for them since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent rise in Islamic parties. Many more cover their hair now, sometimes in belief, often through peer-group pressure or simply to protect themselves in anonymity. "Veils are imposed on young girls," says Nadam Moaeed. "What do girls understand from this veil? It will have a bad psychological effect. She will become a negative presence in society."
It was not always this way. In the 1950s, Iraq was the first Arab country to appoint a female government minister. Women worked freely in banks and government and administrative departments and were involved in a vibrant public debate. The changes came in the 1990s, when Saddam began to appease the tribes and the imams. He allowed men to take four wives and ruled there would no longer be any punishment for a man who killed a woman in his family if he suspected her of an "honor crime".
Incidentally, if you haven't seen Osama yet, I highly recommend it. It's an excellent film, but extraordinarily depressing. Like, Requiem for a Dream depressing.