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I’m lost. I know what I want and I don’t know what I want. I have hope that I can change something. I feel I can start something. I have a light of hope of a new life, of going to London or anywhere else. The question is will changing country change anything?
These questions may at first glance sound naïve but they are dilemmas that I have to face up to. I understand they are not unique, that many of us as men and women have to ask and answer these questions at some point in our lives. I am pleased that I am growing up and daring to go beyond the boundaries set for me, by my family and my culture but the process is painful, very painful.
I was born in Iraq in nineteen seventy six. In my early years I travelled the world with my father who was a diplomat and lived in Germany, Finland, Poland and Tanzania. In my teens we lived in Iraq where I went to university and studied English Literature.
The Iraq I grew up in was fashionable. The people I grew up with, in particular the boys, were humorous, had lots to talk about and ideas about life. We were trendy and grew up dressing up, wearing jeans, T-shirt, both boys and girls.
In that Iraq, before the second American invasion in two thousand and three, Sunni’s and Shias lived side by side. There were tensions but they were under control. There were a lot more Sunnis in power but because Sadaam Hussein was not religious, religion was not an issue. The educated class did not care. The Shias were controlled in general and their traditions banned and Sadaam Hussein systemically assassinated or got rid off influential leaders. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Sunnis are the elite and the Shias are the poor people and this is a pattern throughout the Middle East. But Sunni’s also suffered under him. Sunnis who threatened him were given the same treatment.
There are two types of Iraqis – the modern (open and free from religions dogma) and the religious. We even have religious towns. I am from Baghdad where people go to clubs, parties, bingo, eat out. We lived in the best area of Baghdad– the diplomatic quarter. I had dreams about the life my parents had. My father was an ambassador and before my mother died they had a wonderful social life. We still have the photos of my mother in the wonderful dresses she used to wear, including mini skirts. Even under Sadaam Hussein, the Iraqi woman was very strong and had relative freedom over the way she dressed.
After I finished university, in my early twenties, I began to feel that I did not want to live in Iraq anymore. I was approaching the end of my golden years – which is from eighteen to nineteen years old to about twenty three, twenty fours year old. When she graduates from university, like I did at 22, an Iraqi girl typically develops an obsession with getting married. Why? If you don’t get married people will begin to ask why not – are you not beautiful enough? Marrying is highly recommended if you want to abide by your religion. If you don’t get married people pity you and embarrass you.
When I was growing up, I was encouraged to study very hard, to go to university so that I could graduate, earn good money, have a good job and be independent. My father seemed very modern. When I graduated, however, I wanted to work in the foreign ministry of Iraq just like him. I had graduated in English, my father had contacts – and two of my friends were already working there. I then found out that my father was very conservative when it came to his daughter and was very worried about my reputation if I worked in the ministry.
My father who had appeared to be modern was now the opposite. It was fine for my two brothers and even girls who wore the hijab. What is more, I have just found out that my brother has even asked for the hand of a girl who works for the ministry. My open minded father also considered girls who speak to guys as loose. I think my father was concerned for me; that I could end up talking to men and as a result there would be lots of questions about me. I feel this is why my step mother started wearing the hijab recently. My father did not want her wearing a hijab but in moments of insecurity he will insist she puts it on.
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This is where my disappointment started. The girls who went to work for the ministry, who lacked the contacts I had, are living different lives. One got married to someone in the service, has her own salary and now lives in New York where she is working for the Iraqi embassy. I was very good looking, had a good education and their parents did not come from the diplomatic service, and yet look at where I ended up.
In this sense, my father has directly affected my life. As a result of my father’s choices for me, I could only work as a teacher and I did not want to work as a teacher. I could not work as a secretary because, as he put it, secretaries end up having a relationship with their boss. It did not help that my older brother encouraged the restrictions, always ‘burning my movies’ i.e. undermining me in front of my father – from basic things like having long nails. “Dad look at her nails. They’re like a prostitute’s.” And yet, from what I later gathered from a friend, this brother used to bring whores home although my father did not know about it.
So when my husband came to ask for me, via a woman who is a friend of his sister, who was a relative of my father, I was happy to be given the opportunity to leave the country. He was looking for someone tall, good looking and open minded – no one with a hijab. I liked him. He was very smart. You knew he was from outside – his style, his clothes. He was gentle. The only problem was the age. I was happy because I was going to have a new opportunity but had issues with the age. I married him in two thousand. I was twenty three, he was forty five.