The other day I was interviewing a young Iraqi woman I'll call K about the lack of services in Baghdad when the conversation veered off track and we began discussing her family's unusual background and the problems it's caused.
K's father is a Sunni Muslim from Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, and comes from the same tribe as the late dictator. Her mother is a Shiite Muslim from Baghdad. Religion -- including sect -- is typically passed down through the father in Islam, but the children in K's family were raised as practicing Shiites and the entire family still lives in a Shiite area of Baghdad that is now controlled by the feared Mahdi Army militia.
K said the family grew nervous in the past year as the Mahdi Army attacked five Sunni homes on their street and drove all the Sunnis from the neighborhood. Yet they refused to move even after K's sister saw one of their neighbors killed right before her eyes.
One day, her brother was chatting with some of the neighborhood militiamen when one of them whispered that they'd heard there was still a Tikriti family living in the area.
"Tikritis here among us!" K's brother replied, trying to mask his terror. "May God Himself kill them immediately!"
He quickly ran home and alerted the family. The father, the only actual Tikriti in the family, is extremely ill with a neurological disorder and never leaves the home, offering him a degree of protection. And even the Mahdi Army has been known to show mercy upon women, especially if they're Shiites, so the family decided that the mother and daughters probably were safe. The ideal target was K's brother, the only young man in the family and the one who has to leave home every day to fetch groceries and fuel.
The very same night, K and her sisters dressed their brother in an abaya, the flowing black traditional robe worn by many Iraqi women, and smuggled him out of the neighborhood to the safety of a relative's home in another area.
Now it's K, the self-described "manager" of the family, who's in charge of the household affairs.
There's only one problem. K is a practicing Muslim, but she adamantly refuses to cover her hair and she favors snug fashionable clothing. For example, she showed up to our interview in a tight pink satin blouse, a skirt that reached only mid-calf and pointy-toed high heels. Dark eyeliner and lip gloss highlighted her beautiful face, and her hair swung to and fro in a coquettish ponytail. She also drives alone in her own car to and from work every day, establishing a pattern that couldn't have gone unnoticed by the ever-watchful militants.
We veered off track in the interview because I couldn't repress my curiosity. How on earth, I asked her, does a Shiite Tikriti living under control of the Mahdi Army get away with dressing as she does when these days even Christian women have begun to cover their hair to deflect attention?
K replied that she is simply tired of the fundamentalists who now rule Iraq, both in the government and in the streets, both Shiite and Sunni. The Mahdi Army doesn't mind if she drives, K said, but she has been warned by "concerned friends" about her exposed hair. Before the sectarian cleansing of her neighborhood, it was actually Sunni militants who were worse in their targeting of women, K said.
The threats got so numerous that one day she stopped caring. She went on about her daily routine, driving and dressing and praying as she wished, crediting only God with allowing her to survive each day.
"Remember when Zarqawi wrote that if you see a woman driving, kill her? Well, they might kill two or three to teach a lesson, but they can't kill all the women," K said casually, popping a pistachio candy in her mouth. She began to laugh triumphantly.
"And now what?" she asked. "Zarqawi is dead and I'm alive. I'm still here."