Iraqi journalist, translator and human-rights activist Eman Ahmed Khamas arrived in the U.S. on March 5 with a delegation of Iraqi women, hosted by Global Exchange and CODEPINK, who are promoting a Women's Call for Peace to end the escalation of violence in Iraq. The full text is available at womensaynotowar.org
Khamas lives in Baghdad with her husband and two daughters and is a member of the Women's Will organization. She documents human-rights violations committed by U.S. and Iraqi forces, mobilizes emergency relief for victims of the war and publishes articles on conditions in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
What will you tell your family and friends about the United States?
I will tell them that America is the most beautiful country in the world as far as nature and cities are concerned. Everything here is clean and organized. The people are compassionate, sympathetic, and the majority of them are against the war. I have seen people who are pro-war, but they are very few.
Have pro-war people challenged you?
Some have. The thing that I noticed about people who are for the war is that they repeat ready sentences. "Do you want Saddam back? We liberated you from the tyranny. We helped you get democracy. Our soldiers are doing an honorable job. And if we leave Iraq it will descend into violence." Of course, I update their information. I tell them that this is not liberation; this is not democracy; we are not free; we are not liberated; we are actually occupied.
From an Iraqi perspective, why did the Americans invade Iraq?
The majority of Iraqis think that it was for American interests: economic, political and strategic. They think that the American government wants to control the world, and the first step to do that is to control the Middle East, and the first step to do that is to have a stronghold, which is Iraq. Many Iraqis think that it is to protect Israel. Many Iraqis think that they did it for oil, and also for the benefit of international corporations.
In your experience, do most Americans view the hejab (the Muslim women's head scarf) as oppressive?
Not only Americans, but Europeans and the Western world. This is a very big misunderstanding that has to be changed. Iraqi women are religious women. If you go to Baghdad and attend a meeting with 200 Iraqi women, you can find 2 or 3 without hejab and the rest are all covered. They don't have this problem with hejab. But at the same time, there are many women who wear the hejab now for security. There are political parties who want to impose their own understanding of Islam on women by force.
Has the invasion set back progress toward Iraqi women's rights?
Definitely. If it's dangerous to go to college, to walk in the streets or do any kind of activism, many women stay at home. Because of this situation, many girls no longer go to school. Thousands of women at Baghdad University alone have postponed their education until next year. My daughters are not going to school these days, because they have curfews and the schools are closed.
How are the basic infrastructure services in Baghdad?
Not only in Baghdad, but all through Iraq, they are destroyed. Baghdad is very ugly right now. All the major streets are full of barbed wires and blocked. The dust and plastic and paper sticks to the barbed wire, so the view is very ugly, apart from the tanks and the soldiers in the streets and the helicopters in the sky. Baghdad was once a most beautiful city. Many of my Arab and American friends who have come to Baghdad before cry when they see it now.
You have said that the occupation has created more division between the Sunnis and the Shiites. How so?
In the '60s and '70s and '80s, we were living in complete harmony. Maybe it is difficult for you to understand this, because we are so bombarded by the media about the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites, but this is the fact. During the eight-year Iranian War, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed. Iran is a Shiite country, but the Shiites and the Sunnis in Iraq refused this war. Still, the soldier who does not go to war is executed or his ear is cut, because they consider him a traitor or a coward. I think that in this period, the first seed of Shiite-Sunni discord began.
Then we had the 1991 [Gulf] War, which really, unimaginably destroyed Iraq. Cities and their infrastructure were flattened to the ground. We have many soldiers missing from 1991 till this moment. Then came 13 years of sanctions, and it was so cruel. You haven't seen such a situation, but if you lived it, you would understand why people would retreat to their own sects or groups: because they feel threatened. The whole atmosphere is hostile ... poverty, difficulty, a lack of many essential things. Everyone was affected by the sanctions ... women, men, girls, institutions, roads, buses and especially hospitals. Even the fetus in the womb of his mother was affected by the sanctions.
Saddam Hussein persecuted Shiite political parties, and of course, this also produces hatred. But he did not persecute the Shiites alone. Anyone who was against Saddam was executed.
You have said that Iraqi life was better under Saddam than it is under the American occupation. How was it better?
Saddam was torturing people, and he was a dictator. But more people are being tortured now, and we are still living under a dictatorship ... a dictatorship of guns. We did not have a wonderful life under Saddam Hussein, but he did not just hurt any Iraqi. Only those who were against him were persecuted. You had to say "yes" under Saddam. If you said yes you were free, you were safe. For example, Saddam did not persecute the Kurds because they are Kurds, but because they had militias that wanted separation. He bombed cities and killed people, which is no different from what the Americans are doing now.
Since the American invasion in 2003, there have been more killings, more destruction, and worse, no government. In addition to that, our country is occupied. You don't feel it because you haven't experienced it. You don't have this feeling when you open your eyes in the morning, go out of your bedroom, look in your streets and see American tanks and American soldiers walking with their boots on your land. It hurts! Even worse is the random shooting, the gangs, the absence of any authority. Everything around you is hostile. You don't know who to ask for help.
In this sense, it was 100 percent better before the war, because it was secure. We could move in the streets, we could drive our cars. If my neighbor did something against me, I could go to the police. Now we don't have any authority to go to.
What would you like to happen next?
I am not a politician, but I have my simple ideas, which is for the American president to announce immediately that the occupation is going to be ended in two months, three months, five months, and to put a plan in place to end it. And the plan should involve the Iraqis, the United Nations, the Arab League, the international community.
What are your hopes for your daughters in the next five to 10 years?
I hope that they live safely. I hope that they finish school, have their families, live in peace. I hope to get them out of Iraq for now, until the occupation ends, because I don't feel that they are safe. This is the dream of all Iraqis now: to leave until it is safe.