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

A Dangerous Trade

Once protected by Saddam's regime, prostitutes now fear for their lives.
By Basim al-Sharie
Salima Jabar dresses as a peasant when she goes to the market near Baghdad Gate to sell produce. But the prices she charges for fruits and vegetables are shockingly high.

A kilogramme of tomatoes goes costs 20,000 dinars (about 13 US dollars) she told this reporter. "A kilo of apples," she said cooly, "goes for 25,000."

She then turned towards three young women, aged 18 to 25, who work with her at the market. The produce is her cover, and they are her actual product.

It’s not known how many prostitutes work in Baghdad or how many have been killed or threatened. But prostitutes, community leaders and police reported that prostitution has significantly changed in the capital. Once an open secret, the business is now run as an underground operation.

Jabar, a 50-year-old madam who has worked as a prostitute for a decade, has not always run her ring covertly.

During Saddam's time, she said, she and her women serviced - and were protected by - Ba'athists. She described it as "a paradise. We played with money".

Today, the fees have significantly declined and the threats have risen. The deteriorating security situation and the increasing power of Islamists have forced Jabar and other prostitutes to move their businesses from areas like Kamalia and Abu Ghraib outside of Baghdad to busy residential neighbourhoods, particularly the Baghdad Gate area.

In one day during the Saddam era, prostitutes, she said, could rake in as much as 700 dollars, but now they struggle to earn 100 dollars for seven customers, because security is poor and incomes have declined. The "most beautiful", she said, sought opportunities in the Gulf and Syria because they can make more money or at least work under safer conditions.

Jabar left the Kamalia area after she received two death threats and heard about other prostitutes being killed. She still fears that an Islamist will kill her or one of her women.

"They regard themselves as God," she said. "They have no mercy."

A source in the ministry of justice who asked to remain anonymous said the government is not investigating the killing of prostitutes. He said that authorities believe fundamentalist groups and militias are threatening prostitutes but officials are unwilling to confront them about the issue.

Omar Jasim, a 45-year-old police officer who patrols the Baghdad Gate area, said he and his colleagues "knew all of the prostitutes in every area" under Saddam.

He is aware that prostitutes, under threat from Islamists, now pose as vegetable sellers or day labourers. But he does not track them, arguing that police have bigger problems. "We protect ourselves rather than going after prostitutes," he said.

He and others expressed concern that by moving into residential areas, pimps are introducing women desperate to make some money to the trade.

A ministry of labour report released in July estimated that 58 per cent of Iraq's population is female, and that women have had to carry heavy financial burdens as a result. Iraq's male population began declining during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and has continued due to fighting and terrorism.

Even women from respectable families are turning to prostitution, according to Suad Khalaf, a 30-year-old social worker in Baghdad. "The social structure is crumbling" under war and worsening economic conditions, she said.

Fadhila Jasim, 45, has been a prostitute for 18 years. She works in the Battaween region in downtown Baghdad, a slum known for its gangs and prostitutes since Saddam’s rule.

She said some women today have no choice but to sell their bodies.

"They will either die of hunger or become prostitutes," she said.

She tries to protect herself by relying on a small circle of clients whom she trusts and usually goes to their homes rather than brothels or hotels. She refuses new clients, even if they are recommended by current customers.

Opinions vary on how to address prostitution, which many fear will only increase if Iraq does not stabilise.

Khalaf argued that the government should allow polygamy so that women have providers, with men who marry two widows provided a state benefits.

Najih al-Kanani, a sheikh with the Shia al-Ansari mosque in Baghdad's al-Huriyah neighbourhood, argued that if women became more religious they would not become prostitutes, saying that he has had some success in persuading the latter to lead more respectable lives. "We were able to guide many prostitutes to the right path," he said.

At the other extreme, Sufian Sa'ad, a 28-year-old lawyer who is concerned about the safety of prostitutes in Iraq, said prostitution should be legalised as was the case under the monarchy in the early part of the last century. He argued that this is safer because prostitutes are checked for diseases. "They are human beings, not animals," he said. "They have rights."

Basim al-Sharie is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.

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