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An Iraqi Woman's Struggle over Past Torture

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In Iraq, negotiators working on a new constitution are debating, among other things, wording, particularly of clauses that deal with women's participation in government. But for many Iraqi women, legalities are a far separate matter from the realities of life. NPR met a woman in Baghdad who was imprisoned during the regime of Saddam Hussein. She asked that her name not be used for security reasons. Calling her "Majda Mohammed(ph)," NPR's Philip Reeves reports that freedom has been a complex experience for a woman trapped by the stigmas of Iraq's conservative society.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

It's not been long since Majda Mohammed gained her freedom, and even then, it was incomplete. In all, she spent 23 years in jail after being imprisoned for her Communist activism by Saddam's regime. She fared better than her two brothers, whom she says Saddam's henchmen buried alive. After two turns behind bars, she finally stepped out into the sunlight when the dictator declared an amnesty in 2002. Majda, one of the Shiite majority whom the Baathists systematically repressed, looked forward to building a new life and finding someone with whom to share it.

Ms. "MAJDA MOHAMMED": (Through Translator) I'm a sociable person and I like social relations, and I'm active. Because of this, I had many male admirers.

REEVES: That, alas, was as far as it went. Saddam's jails were intensely brutal. In Iraq, any woman who's spent time in them is assumed to have been raped. Majda was.

Iraqi men regard women who've been raped as having lost their honor, even though the women involved are entirely blameless. Majda found her potential suitors just melted away.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) When they came to propose to me, they immediately changed their mind after knowing my past.

REEVES: At this point, a lot of people would have given up hope, but Majda, a small, feisty, curly-haired woman in her early 40s, is not the giving-up kind. She decided to write a letter. She addressed it to her comrades in the Communist Party, and in it she explained her dilemma.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) I remember I wrote, `For me, you represent a light, a window through which I can either enter or be pulled out by you to come to where light is. I place high hopes on you, a man who'll respect me as a woman, respect me for what I am and never one day remind me I was a prisoner, or never see this as a stigma and a shame.'

"AHMED": (Through Translator) I heard about the letter and tried to get a copy, but didn't succeed to get the full text.

REEVES: That's a man whom we shall call "Ahmed." He's asked for his true name to be withheld for security reasons. When Ahmed heard about Majda, he was intrigued.

AHMED: I like adventures. I am an adventurist--maybe this is right word to use. That's what keeps me alive, give me the sense of life.

REEVES: Ahmed, a journalist and writer, is also a member of the Communist Party. Majda had already heard of him. While she was in prison she used to read his columns in underground newspapers. Ahmed, who spend years overseas, is also different from other men Majda had met. He doesn't harbor the arcane view that a rape victim has automatically lost her honor.

AHMED: Since I was a young person, my idea about honor is, let's say, a bit different. Honor is not somewhere in the woman body. Honor is her mind.

REEVES: A rendezvous between the two was arranged through a friend. For Ahmed, meeting Majda was like being hit by a bombshell.

AHMED: From the first minutes, I decide. I took the decision. I put her--`Do you know why I am here?' She said, `No.' I told her that `I'm here just to get married to you.' So it was for her a shock. Well, I like adventures.

REEVES: That sounds like a fait accompli, but both of them say it wasn't as simple as that. Ahmed's in his 60s, a short, graying man some two decades older than Majda. From the start, they agreed if the relationship didn't work out, they'd accept that, and he'd remain a friend and help her find a more suitable partner. Majda, though, liked him from the start.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) When I first accompanied him home, he pulled off my head scarf, and that was a gesture that I loved very much. I really liked that, because I never felt that my identity or my ethics and morality were defined by this piece of cloth.

REEVES: In their elegantly decorated apartment in central Baghdad, now as man and wife, they tell the story of their unusual romance, a small, happy episode amid the city's otherwise unrelenting misery.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

REEVES: Their apartment's like a monument to pacifism. It's decorated with old army helmets and spent artillery shells, which they've turned into flowerpots and vases. Ahmed passes the time writing. Majda campaigns in broadcasts, hoping to save other Iraqi women from the constraints of social prejudice.

And the marriage? Ahmed says they're still working on it.

AHMED: I would be a liar if I say it was easy. It's not easy, especially probably first months, OK? Well, that happen even with young people.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) Frankly, I love this life, and I always wished to live this way. I always dreamt of marrying a man who had different ideas.

REEVES: Some dreams do come true, but nightmares also linger. Twenty-three years in prison can't just be forgotten. Maybe that's why in Majda's new home, workmen have been knocking down the walls.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) I hate walls very much. A barrier is a barrier in the end. It takes away some of my freedom, my character and my aspiration.

REEVES: For Majda, barriers are like rules: They're made to be broken. And so, she says, are social stigmas. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.