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

Remarriage a Social Taboo for Widows

With little prospect of finding new partners, widows with children must taken on the dual role of carer and provider.
By Duraid Salman
The death of Jinan Sabri's husband last year set off a series of crises that tore her family apart.

Sabri, a 36-year-old mother of seven daughters, lost her husband to a stray bullet during a shoot-out between insurgents and US forces while he visited a Shia shrine in Baghdad's al-Kazimiyah district.

Sabri had never worked and became severely depressed following his death. Broke and incapable of caring for her children, she moved in with her brother and decided her husband's family should raise six of her daughters. Her brothers-in-law and the male members of her family give her financial support, and Sabri frequently visits her girls.

The men in her husband's family also have said she can remarry - a blessing not always given to Iraqi widows. But Sabri refuses.

"It is shameful for me to bring another man in my life after my late husband, even if I face a lot of difficulties," she said."If I wanted to get married in the future, nobody will want to choose me as a wife because of my seven daughters."

For Iraqi widows with children, the suffering rarely stops. They must not only deal with the emotional trauma of losing husbands as violence continues in the country, but they also have to take on the dual role of carer and provider.

That is no easy feat for many women who have never worked and therefore have few skills valued in the workplace.

"The widow is burden with a load that a camel could not carry," said Raghad Hassan Muhsin, a psychiatrist in Baghdad.

The ministry of labour estimated in July that 58 per cent of Iraq's population is female and indicated the number of widows is on the rise.

The fighting that started in April 2003 when US forces overthrew Saddam Hussein only exacerbated the problem that began years before when hundreds of thousands of women lost husbands during the Iran-Iraq war.

It is difficult for widows to remarry because remarriage is interpreted socially as disloyalty to dead husbands, said Sama Mandub, a social worker and women's activist. Widows are often dependent on their husbands' families but are treated as outsiders, particularly by their mothers-in-law, she maintained.

"The poor widows are victims of the society's bogus traditions," she said.

If their husband's families support these women, it is usually because of their children.

Abdul-Muhsin Sami's son was killed while on duty as a police officer in Baghdad last year. He left behind a widow and two children, whom Sami now supports.

"They are part of my flesh; they are the children of my late son. My love for his children is not less than my love for my son," he said.

Sami spoke of his son's wife, Rabab Ismail, respectfully, but without the love he has for his grandchildren.

"Their mother is free if she wants to get married or go back to her family," he said. "She is free to decide her future."

Like Sabri, Ismail, 29, does not work outside of her home and has no plans to remarry. "Losing a husband who was always next to me is a complete shock," she said.

Islamic teachings encourage widows to remarry, said Ali Abdulrahman, a sheikh from the Khatamlanbya mosque in Baghdad.

"The widow is a human being and has the right to enjoy her life and rights, including remarriage," he said.

Abdulrahman said that according to the Prophet Muhammad, those who marry widows are mujahid, or a person who fights for the sake of Allah.

"This maintains a woman's dignity," said Abdulrahman. "The social traditions and norms are wrong from the religious point of view."

But social traditions continue to dominate.

"I cannot accept that my mother remarries, because my friends and relatives would admonish me," said Haider Salm, 17, whose father was killed in the last stages of the Iraq-Iran war.

Though widows are often depressed and lonely, the few support programmes that are available concentrate on providing them with an income. Psychological support and education are treated as secondary to survival.

Azhar al-Sheikhly, minister of women's affairs, said the ministry has some projects to support widows and raise family incomes.

In Babil, for example, the government has set up sewing classes for women. Women in developing countries are frequently taught sewing because they can run their businesses from home and the skill is fairly easy to learn.

But Sheikhly admitted the initiatives are not moving forward because the ministry has not been given a budget for them. "They are only ink on paper," she said.

Ismail speaks for many Iraqi widows when she says she worries less about herself than her children.

"How long will this waterfall of bloodshed continue?" she asked. "What are the destinies of these innocent children, who grow up without their father's affections?"

Duraid Salman is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.

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