TORONTO STAR
Saturday, May 3, 2003

Mitch Potter


p. A1.

Iraqi prostitute revels in freedom to ply trade

Saddam jailed, executed streetwalkers

BAGHDAD — With a long black abiya gown stretching shapelessly down to her ankles, there is little to suggest Nasreem Sothba walks the streets in search of men.

But when glances linger a fraction longer than usual, Sothba, 22, does something that hasn't been seen in the Iraqi capital in years. She hikes the gown to just below the knee, flashing bright floral leggings and the tiniest glimpse of calf.

Smiling through lips painted pale pink, Sothba's subtle message is clear now: Sex for hire.

The world's oldest profession is hardly unknown in the lands that gave rise to the world's earliest civilization. But in the latter years of Baathist rule, Iraqi prostitutes were subject to pogroms ordered by Saddam Hussein.

The trade continued behind closed doors, but streetwalkers faced prison or worse.

Now, Sothba and others like her are stepping back into the lawless streets of Baghdad, where the dangers of sporadic gunfire remain constant.

"I am happier now, to have this freedom. This is not a job I want to do forever, but until I can get something else I have no choice. We need the money," said Sothba under the watchful eye of her aunt, who declined to give her name.

Part chaperone, part pimp, Sothba's aunt has been using her apartment in the poverty-ravaged Saddam City neighbourhood as a one-woman brothel for the past three years, secretly summoning Nasreem each time a client calls for service.

The need for secrecy was twofold; to protect themselves from the government, and also from Sothba's husband, who remains unaware of her part-time work.

Sothba said the fact that she is married is precisely the reason she — as opposed to one of her four unmarried sisters — chose a life of prostitution to keep money coming in to the impoverished family.

She is not a virgin, the others are. In the eyes of Islam, she said, only she was able to do it.

"My husband still does not know what I am doing," she said. "So when I leave the house, I tell him I'm just going over to visit my aunt. And until now, that was what I did — to be with customers. But now, I am free to go outside."

Prostitution flourished in Iraq in the 1990s as U.N. sanctions, imposed after Saddam's troops invaded Kuwait in 1990, brought economic hardship, forcing many women to offer their bodies for cash.

Government officials in BMWs and Mercedes, with pistols strapped to their waists, used to come to see Um Jenan and about 30 other prostitutes in a drab "Saddam Complex" of sand-coloured apartment blocks where they lived.

But it was a risky business: In her 40s, Um Jenan used to wear gold jewelry, tight jeans and see-through blouses to attract VIP clients to her apartment in Baghdad — until the masked men in black packed her into a minibus, drove away and decapitated her in 1999.

When they laid out her body in front of her home the next day, Reuters reports, she was dressed in loose-fitting sweat pants and a T-shirt. A banner on the wall above said "God is greatest!"

Beside her lay her severed head.

Baghdad residents say such gruesome punishments were meted out on prostitutes across the capital that year in a sudden crackdown on an illegal trade that had been tacitly tolerated by Saddam's secular government.

Media restrictions meant Iraqis heard about the executions only by word of mouth, and estimates vary on how many people were killed — from dozens to hundreds.

Still, most agree on the cause of the crackdown: Foreign pornographic videos of Iraqi prostitutes wrapped in the black, white and red national flag and, according to many versions, dancing on top of a portrait of Saddam.

The insult sparked the attacks by Saddam's Fedayeen loyalist militia on prostitutes, pimps and particularly anyone who was suspected of selling girls abroad.

While Baghdad's prostitutes no longer fear attacks from the Fedayeen, the city is fraught with new dangers.

Sothba's aunt said she will continue accompanying her niece on the stroll, to handle the transactions — 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($7) is the going rate — and to ensure her safety.

But both hope for the emergence of larger brothels — they say no such venue yet exists as a more secure place to be in the future.

Iraqi men have a single derogatory term for women in Sothba's line of work — bitch. Much may change in this unreconstructed patriarchy in the months and years to come, but Sothba doubts such attitudes will alter significantly.

"For now, I do this so my family will stay alive. But to do so freely is actually an improvement over what it was like before," Sothba said.

"Two years ago the police caught one of my friends with a man. They took her to prison and she was executed by sword," she said. "She was just 20 years old.

"I believe our lives will get better. But for now, at least I do not have to worry about this happening to me."

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Created: May 9, 2003
Last modified: May 9, 2003
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