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

Women Back In The Driver's Seat

As Baghdad security improves, more women are plucking up the courage to drive around the capital’s once treacherous roads.
By Duraed Salman
Samira Hussein, 36, walks out of the supermarket and slips behind the wheel of her car in the Karrada Maryam area of Baghdad near the heavily protected Green Zone.



It is a scene that is played out day after day in countries all around the world, but in Iraq, even simple tasks for women such as running errands and driving are deeply significant. Hussein, a mother of four, stopped driving in late 2003 as security in Baghdad deteriorated – but got behind the wheel again earlier this year.



“A car driven by a woman was like a goat chased by wolves,” she said. “The gangs who kidnapped and car jacked [citizens] were running everything.”



"[Now] I’m comfortable driving my car because I have more freedom. The streets are well protected and security forces are deployed everywhere.”



In the last few years in Baghdad, women have feared leaving their homes – let alone getting in a car alone – as militias struggled for power in the city.



While Baghdad still faces serious security concerns, signs of normalcy have returned to the capital, including women getting behind the wheel. While there are continuing threats and attacks, Baghdad has lately witnessed its lowest levels of violence since 2004.



The improved security situation and the government's control over Baghdad have alleviated some of the hardships women have suffered over the past few years.



Many now feel freer to go about their daily tasks. Heading to work, shopping or attending doctor's appointment may be difficult in the capital because of checkpoints, but the fear that gripped the city has dissipated somewhat, say experts.



As well as feeling more comfortable driving, women are also more confident about going around unveiled and walking in the streets, according to Jenan Mubarak, director of the Iraqi Centre for Women's Rehabilitation and Employment.



But the sight of growing numbers of women behind the wheel is arguably the most visible sign that times are changing.



“Driving is very important for women, especially these days because it is difficult for woman to use taxis and buses” due to security concerns, said Hana Edward, a women’s activist and head of the Al-Amal humanitarian organisation in Baghdad.



Driving “gives women independence", said former women’s affairs minister Azhar Al-Sheikli.



“It’s important for women to drive a car,” said Hussein. "I have to depend on myself when my husband isn’t around.”



Islamic extremists who believe that it’s shameful and un Islamic for women to drive scared them off the roads,

according to women’s activists.



Edward recalled the experience of one of her friends who was stopped by gunmen at a checkpoint in Baghdad and ordered never to drive again.



Now many female and male drivers consider checkpoints more of a nuisance than a threat. Security forces may stop and harass women drivers, but most of the time they can pass more easily than men.



If they are harassed, it has less to do with religious puritanism than sexism, according to women drivers and women activists.



Nisrin Hadi, a 41-year-old doctor, said men in Baghdad often hold “uncivilised” views about women drivers.



"They consider women incapable of driving, but they can’t stop us,” she said. “They can’t monopolise driving”.



Nazik Razak, who began driving in 1993 after her husband was killed in the first Gulf War, said she stopped in 2004. Feeling like she was “a hen locked in a cage”, Razak got behind the wheel again in early 2008.



On a warm July day, while searching for a doctor for her sick 18-year-old daughter, Razak said that she was glad she had taken up driving once more.



Sheikhli said despite the progress, there aren’t enough women drivers back on the road yet.



"The number is still small compared with the time of the former regime," agreed Edward.



Indeed, outside Baghdad some women are still facing problems driving in the more conservative regions of the country.



An IWPR-trained reporter who visited Najaf recently said she drew stares of disapproval when she got in the driver's seat of a male relative's car to wind up the window.



Duraed Salman is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. Nasir Kadhim, also an IWPR-trained journalist in the capital, contributed to this report.