The Baghdad Underground Railroad is a clandestine network of several shelters, located mostly in Baghdad, for the large numbers of women victims of the war in Iraq. These are women who have been raped, forced into prostitution, battered, or who have been accused of bringing dishonor to their families precisely because they have been victimized.
A group of 35 Iraqi activists who call themselves the Organization of Women’s Freedom (OWFI), operate these shelters. They operate under an umbrella of threats and little government support. According to an article by Anna Badkhen in Ms. Magazine, the source for this blog, the shelters offer a ray of hope.
The Underground Railroad was founded in 2004 by Yanar Mohammed, head of OWFI, along with MADRE, an international women’s rights group based in New York. This Railroad gives sanctuaries for victims of sexual and domestic violence. It also helps the women to resettle in places where they cannot be easily found by their abusers. MADRE Policy and Communications Director Yifat Susskind says that the Railroad has helped thousands of women.
Under Saddam Hussein’s regime political dissidents were persecuted, but women had personal rights and freedoms, and assaults on women were rare. After the U.S. invasion, women became the “easiest targets,” according to OWFI member Dalal Juma. Anna Badkhen says, “Violence against women is rampant and goes virtually unchecked by Iraq’s new legal system, which is influenced by conservative clerics now dominating the country’s politics, and which follows tribal and Islamic Sharia law more closely than it ever had during Hussein’s harsh but secular rule.”
Once again we see that in the matter of rape, women can be killed by their rapists or their own relatives. Yanar Mohammed estimates that a third of rape survivors are killed by their relatives who have the belief that these women have disgraced their families. These so called honor killings go practically unpunished, according to Amnesty International. A typical sentence for an honor killing may be six months.
The Underground Railroad operates on a shoestring budget, and Mohammed has received death threats in her email.