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

Men Rue Lifting of Female Travel Ban

Conservative male attitudes frustrate women’s desire to travel abroad.
By Wafaa Amir

A new era of freedom for Iraqi women has arrived with the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime - at least in theory.

For the first time in more than a decade, Iraqi women can legally travel overseas unaccompanied by a "muhram" - a non-marriageable male relative such as a father or brother.

But the elimination of this legal barrier may have exposed a much deeper and more complicated set of social constraints in the new Iraq.

"I would love to travel on a job contract to build my future without any support, but my family stands against my wish," said Muna, a civil servant.

She and thousands of other Iraqi women wanting to leave the country for work or higher education remain frustrated by firm opposition from within their own families.

The frustration comes from the large number of Iraqi men who see no problem with travel restrictions on women.

They argue that these are a logical necessity due to a long-standing Middle Eastern belief that women are ruled solely by their emotions.

"Woman is a passionate creature, who easily responds to her passions so that men will always try to exploit her," said Mazin Ali. "A man should always stay beside her and not leave her alone."

Ameen Sadi, who opposes his sister's desire for travel, said, "The eastern man still opposes the idea of women travelling alone because in eastern society the woman's behaviour is a criterion for judging the morality of the whole family."

But that view is not shared fully by all Iraqi men.

Ayad Tawfeek sees no harm in allowing his daughter to travel for work or studies. He does not see the need to have her accompanied by a male relative either.

"Her first time will be difficult for her when she is alone," Ayad said, adding that "once she is used to travelling, I will give her complete freedom".

Zakia Al Zaidi, head of Women's Renaissance, an independent women's rights organisation, calls the idea of limitations on women’s movement "a kind of humiliation".

"It was a harsh law imposed on society by the old regime," she said. "Even under feudalism, we did not have such restrictions. Our organisation called for the cancellation of this law, but we were chased and tortured by the old regime."

Even though the legal barriers have fallen, Al Zaidi nonetheless predicts that it will be years before the elimination of the societal prejudices that still limit many women.

"We will need a progressive outlook and enlightenment campaign together with solidarity among women's organisations to change the Iraqi mentality and grant women their natural rights," she said.

But for now, the gap between legal freedom and social constraints has created a potentially divisive situation within many families.

Women must decide whether to defy their own fathers, husbands or brothers in order to realise their dreams.

"My husband refuses to let me travel outside the country alone, and he's not willing to travel with me," said secondary school teacher Suad Amjad.

"We have not benefited from the cancellation [of the travel law] because society still does not believe in giving a woman her freedom."

Although many women are unlikely to defy the wishes of their families, others will certainly take advantage of their newfound freedoms regardless of the domestic fallout.

Amira Haidar finds herself trapped in a looming family crisis. Her two daughters are determined to travel despite the objections of her husband and sons.

"They keep asking me to help them to travel without the permission of their father, but I am afraid this rebellion might lead them to hurt themselves," Haidar said.

"I've thought of telling their father about their plans to run away, but I am afraid of the consequences."

A visit to the government passport office reveals many young women eager to travel for work or education without their family's permission.

A senior figure in Iraq's passport office says he has received many complaints from families regarding daughters who go abroad against their wishes.

"This reflects the danger of the situation," he said. "The end of travel restrictions is clashing with Iraqi societal views. It's encouraging some girls to run away."

One such passport applicant, who refused to give her name, said she has longed to get a foreign employment contract for years. Now, with the legal barriers removed, she is willing to risk alienating her family.

"I have to be courageous and travel without their approval," she said. "They tried to obstruct me from achieving my ambitions. They will pay the price for that, along with the society which restricted us."

Wafaa Amir is an IWPR trainee journalist.