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

Violence Causes Gender Role Swap

In a society where men are the traditional breadwinners, women are increasingly forced to take on that role.
By an IWPR
The violence in Baghdad has forced some Iraqi families to shift gender roles, as men are stuck at home while women bear increasing responsibilities.

Because many men in Baghdad are now afraid to go out to work or even to leave the house, women are earning the money, doing the shopping and handling the bills – duties that were traditionally carried out by men.

Men say they feel trapped at home, while women say they are left with too much work.

Dhiya Salman, 36, has not gone more than 100 metres from his house in six months because an armed militia is in control in the neighbourhood.

A former army sergeant, Salman became a taxi driver after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003. Although he is Sunni, he used to feel comfortable driving into Shia-dominated parts of Baghdad such as Shuala and Sadr City. That changed when the bombing of the Samarra shrine bombing in February 2006 led to an explosion of fighting between Sunni and Shia militias.

"I'm fed up because I used to go out all the time, and now I spend all day at home," he said. "My elderly mother is taking care of everything."

The family opened a small shop selling household goods outside their home. Salman and his brothers work at the store, but his 55-year-old mother has to shop for the supplies. Salman's mother complains that she is tired of taking care of the house and buying things for the shop, but she refuses to let her sons go to the market for fear that they will be kidnapped or killed.

Baghdad residents say the threat against men has increased since last year’s attack on Samarra.

A 2006 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet found that men accounted for 91 per cent of the 302 violence-related deaths that researchers looked at from May to July that year.

Many people believe that women are shielded from targeted sectarian attacks. Several Baghdad residents told IWPR that it was extremely unusual for women to be killed simply because their identification card reveals them to be of the “wrong” sect.

Saif Ali, 35, a pastry shop owner in the capital's al-Bayya district, said women are rarely targeted in his area even if their identity is plainly visible because they are dressed in Sunni or Shia style. He believes women have some protection because it is men who define a family's religious affiliation.

"Men always decide the beliefs of their sons, who naturally follow their faith," he said.

Some men have given their wives or female relatives power of attorney to avoid the violence. Alia Muhsin, 45, picks up her husband's pension at an office on Haifa Street. "Many kidnappings and killings based on IDs have happened there," she explained.

The process usually takes a long time, Muhsin said, particularly because her husband is not present in person at the office.

"But I thank God that my husband is safe," she said.

For many men in Baghdad who are relegated to their homes, the inability to provide for their families or go out of the house is a demeaning experience.

Rabiha al-Azawi, a psychology professor at the University of Mustansiriyah in Baghdad, expressed concern that family breakups and domestic violence were on the increase in homes where the power balance has shifted.

"We live in an Oriental society where a man who doesn’t work is not deserving of respect," she said.

Thamir Hassan, 55, is a resident of Baghdad's Jihad neighbourhood. He quit his job because of safety concerns, and his wife, a teacher, became the sole breadwinner.

Hassan said he was depressed and no longer had authority over his children, who turned to their mother instead.

"It’s an early death, because I feel useless at home," he said. "I don't know what [the children] are doing, and their mother tries to hide their secrets so that I won't worry."

Dawood al-Jubori, 58, is a retired man living a similarly restricted life in Baghdad's al-Elam district. He has to rely on his wife to shop and handle the household bills, which are often paid at ministries.

"It is difficult to have the woman doing everything, but my three sons and I have no other choice," he said. "I want things to get back to normal."

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