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Iraq women learn to read in schooling against terror

Baghdad — About 20 Iraqi women, all dressed in traditional Muslim black abayas, were gathered in Baghdad repeating a sentence from a primary schoolbook.

"They are illiterate but had the courage to come here and learn," Alaa al-Mayali, the project director, explained proudly. "We have a twin goal: to fight illiteracy and terrorism."

The educational project, partly financed by the United States, has 20 such centers in Iraq’s capital.

"They learn to read, write and count," Mayali said.

"It’s a way to keep them occupied, stop them falling into the terrorists’ grip, and improve their everyday life," he said, noting most female suicide bombers are poor and illiterate, making it easier for Al-Qaeda to recruit them.

Last year witnessed a sharp rise in the number of suicide attacks committed by women who had concealed explosives around their waist.

An unusual feature of the six-month-old programme is that the women are paid four dollars each lesson they attend.

"We accept Iraqi women aged between 20 and 45, but older if they want to read the Koran. We can ask the education ministry for authorisation," said Samira Wahid Ibrahim, director of Nitaqain school in Dora, a district in southwest Baghdad.

The area was ravaged by violence orchestrated by Shiite militants and Sunni insurgents linked to Al-Qaeda.

The women study five days a week, between 3 pm and 5 pm, and the school has space for 100 students, split into five equal classes.

In Iraq, 25 percent of the population is illiterate but the figure is higher among women, reaching 35 percent, according to the UN educational fund UNICEF.

Traditional prejudices against women are to blame, as are wars — against Iran in the 1980s, the Gulf conflict after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and latterly the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam in 2003.

Three decades of conflict have set back Iraq’s once proud reputation as being one of the Middle East’s most educated countries.

"The women who come to classes did not even attend primary school because their families refused to send them, or because they were married very young," said Samira Ibrahim. "Now, many women marry older. Even their husbands ask them to come. They are very confident and are even asking about courses in English."

Nahiman Abbas, 33, arrived with one of her neighbours.

"I need money, it’s vital for my family’s survival. I did not like school when I was small and I stopped going. I regret it now," she said.

Iyam Adnan, a woman with a soft voice who nervously twiddled her fingers, was learning to read the Koran. "My son asks me questions and I feel ashamed that I cannot respond," she said.

Iyam’s parents cut short her education in 1981 when she was young because they did not approve of co-educational schools.

"I repeat in a loud voice the verses of the Koran which I hear on television," she said.

"When going to the doctor or pharmacy, I have to ask people to make sure I am on the right street … But I make mistakes when buying products because I cannot read the labels."

Dora is quiet now compared to when it was embroiled in insurgency in 2007, but there are still some attacks.

"We want to learn and have a normal life, like elsewhere," said Iyam. "We do not want the violence to return. We are tired of it."