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

Passport Misery Highlights Iraqi Women's Plight

Female IWPR journalist planning to go abroad experiences extent of gender inequality in her country.
By Abeer Mohammed

Abeer Mohammed

Abeer Mohammed
IWPR Senior Editor in Baghdad

Iraq might be heading towards a new era of democracy, but I recently learnt a shocking fact about my country: being an Iraqi female does not give me the automatic right to receive proof of my citizenship.

I am a 29-year-old journalist who had not travelled abroad since the fall of Saddam, and I needed a passport to report on World Press Freedom Day ceremonies in the United States.

So I embarked on a two-week-long journey through Baghdad’s government offices in order to secure this document.

The experience left me deeply disappointed that under the system in my country, Iraqi women clearly do not enjoy the same rights as men to obtain our own identification papers.

In order to obtain any ID, a woman needs a reference from a man: her father, brother, husband, whatever male-relative, even her son.

In order to get a passport, you need other documents including a certificated civilian ID, a food ration card and a residence identification card. None of these documents can be granted to an Iraqi female unless she has a male relative to vouch for her.

Iraqi government offices are notoriously bureaucratic. It took several days to just submit the paperwork for my passport. I kept getting sent from one desk to another, and all the officials refused to even look at my application unless I was accompanied by a man.

My fingerprints, my signature and my documents all needed to be presented alongside those of my male sponsor.

Eventually, my passport was ready to be collected.

Looking at it in the official’s hand when I went to pick it up, I felt a whole range of feelings.

I was so happy to see that my passport was finally being issued but at the same time I was impatient to hold it, worried I still might not get it, frustrated by this fear.

I had never imagined that something so apparently straightforward could make me feel so many different emotions at the same time.

The officer went through the dates in my documents, looked at my father’s details and those of my husband’s, over and over again. He checked my fingerprints. Finally, he looked up at me and said I could not collect my passport unless I was accompanied by a male relative.

With that one sentence of his, anger flamed up inside me. I said firmly that I had been accompanied by a male relative all through the procedure and they could not afford to take any more time off work.

“Any male relative - even an uncle, cousin, or nephew - can come with you,” he replied, in his own way trying to make it easier for me.

But my patience, which I had held on to so carefully through this long process, was finally at an end.

“Look,” I told him. “I am 29 years old. I am a journalist. I can’t imagine why you can hold my passport in your hand and yet I can’t receive it. Check whatever you want. You can even call my parents. Here are their numbers. I want my passport.

He hesitated, then with not one word more he handed me my documents.

But my victory was not complete. I still needed to get the written permission of a male relative to be allowed to travel outside the country.

The whole thing left me confused about the new, democratic Iraq that is supposed to uphold human rights. Is this real – or is it just a slogan?

If we are not treated as the equal of men, then women will not be able to contribute to the rebuilding of our country. And this will be bad for Iraq.

This nation needs its female citizens just as much as the male ones. If it excludes us – and makes it harder for us to get our rights, dependant on our male relatives and generally positions us as second-class citizens– the ultimate loser will be the country itself.

Abeer Mohammed is an IWPR senior editor in Baghdad.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

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