Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Baghdad Prostitutes Fall on Hard Times

After decades of semi-official tolerance, prostitutes are under attack from local residents’ groups and religious extremists.
By Hussein Ali

The disappearance of the protection that prostitutes once enjoyed under Saddam Hussein’s regime has led to a vigilante campaign against on the world’s oldest profession.


In the vacuum left by Iraq’s still undeveloped police service, local residents and Islamic vigilantes are taking the law into their own hands to close down brothels and drive prostitutes out of residential neighbourhoods.


Prostitution flourished largely unchecked under Saddam’s regime, and officials not only turned a blind eye to it but also made up a large part of the clientele. With members of the Baathist government and security agencies as regular customers, prostitutes in Baghdad were assured protection as well as payment for their services.


After the fall of the regime in 2003, that protection disappeared and angry residents across Baghdad took matters into their own hands, forcing prostitutes out of their neighbourhoods.


In summer last year, people in the Abu Ghraib district west of Baghdad destroyed homes in a nearby gypsy encampment, where they said prostitution had been rife under the Baathists.


"We finally managed to get rid of them. They disrupted our lives for years under Saddam with their wild all-night parties,” said Kareem Saad, a taxi driver from Abu Ghraib. “We’re an Islamic society and we want to protect our families.”


For Hamza Omar, who owns a drapery shop in Baghdad’s Karrada neighbourhood, business has picked up since the prostitutes who worked in his neighbourhood were made to leave.


"In Saddam's time, the women would stand outside my shop soliciting clients, and then have sex with them in their cars,” he said. “It was very embarrassing for families shopping in my store. Now they’ve gone. There aren’t even any prostitutes in residential areas anymore because the locals expelled them.”


While residents feel they are acting in the best interests of their community, the typical methods employed to deal with the issue are heavy handed.


“There was a prostitute working in our area who used to be protected by the Baathists,” said postal worker Azhar Anwar. “The local mosque sent an armed group to get rid of her and now she has gone.”


Tales of prostitutes being beaten or threatened with violence to get them to move away are commonplace.


In one of the most extreme cases that IWPR heard about, a group of residents in the al-Khaleej district of Baghdad called in the Mahdi Army, the militia force loyal to firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, to expel a family who were said to be prostituting their children.


“We went to the Zahraa mosque and asked men from the Mahdi Army to help us get rid of that family. Three days later, they were gone and our area is now clean,” recounted Haider Jabbar, a local supermarket owner.


But even with such negative attitudes towards prostitution, the basic principles of supply and demand mean that the trade still pays. After being moved on, most of the city’s sex workers have congregated in areas where it is still tolerated.


While Islamists vilify them as wanton and immoral, the majority of Baghdad’s prostitutes were driven to the work by necessity. Many say they were shunned by their families for having sex out of wedlock or some other social misdemeanour. Others were forced into it in an attempt to support themselves and their families.


Nadia Mahmood, a bleached blonde originally from the Kurdish region, works in the red light district of Bataween, where brothels are still in business.


"I have five children and I had to support them somehow. I got desperate under the [United Nations] sanctions and I begged store owners to give me credit. Instead, they offered to give me goods in exchange for sex,” she explained tearfully. “I had no alternative. I have to pay the rent and provide for my kids.”


Mahmood’s colleague, who introduced herself as Batta - or Swan - says she has grown inured to the job, "I had to leave my family after I had sex with my lover and he then refused to marry me. I’ve been here five years. I’ve got used to it. Anyway, no one else would employ me.”


While sex work has always involved risk, sex workers in Bataween now face an additional threat.


“I have to come here to get money to support my children, but it’s becoming more and more dangerous,” said Mahmood. “We are well aware that Islamic extremists might bomb this area at any time.”


Hussein Ali and Ali Marzook are IWPR trainees.


More IWPR's Global Voices