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Iraqi Shiite women wear the all-black abaya. (REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)

Rising above

“They accused me of being a loose woman with no morals”

By Zainab Salbi on December 15, 2015

Esraa, a 21-year-old woman from Iraq, arrived recently in the US and is asking for asylum. She wears the headscarf — in Iraq she had covered herself from head to toe with the black abaya — and her garments suggest that she is ultra conservative. One who fears Muslims might make assumptions about her based on her appearance, perpetuating stereotypes of the oppression of Muslim women. Worse, a fearful observer might associate her with terrorism of the sort that struck Paris on November 13.

Indeed, Esraa comes from a deeply conservative community ruled by the Mahdi army, a religious militia with an iron grip on many Shia’a areas in Iraq. And yet, she is an activist for religious tolerance and women’s rights. At age 12, her extended family wanted to marry her off. The objection of her own parents had little weight before a tribal community where uncles and other male relative’s voices impact the destiny of a child. With considerable struggle, she managed to convince the tribe to delay the marriage and allow her to continue her education. Aside from putting her energy into school, where she excelled, and getting into the best engineering program at the university of Baghdad, she also found her voice, advocating for religious tolerance and women’s rights.

“It is just not right that we enforce certain values of religion on each other. Look at me as an example, I took on the headscarf as a modest and observant Muslim woman. But that was not enough for my family and tribe. They enforced on me to wear the abaya.” She said, of the black fabric that covers a woman’s entire body. “I think it is not their business and that I am modest on my own. But when I debated them and argued with them, they accused me of being a loose woman with no morals.”

That is not the reason Esraa left Iraq and asked for asylum in America. When she began to be outspoken about religious tolerance, defending not only different religions but also different ways of observing any given religion, and connecting religious tolerance to women’s rights, she was seen as a threat. The Mahdi militia who controls her neighborhood “started accusing me as a threat to the stability of society — said when I am advocating for women’s rights, I by definition want to advocate for loose morality,” Esraa told me. “My family started getting threats. Militia members started threatening my father to control me, otherwise they have to take care of me personally. They started coming to our home with their guns and demanding that my family stop me from talking.”

Thankfully, Esraa’s parents were supportive of her voice. (This was not the case with her extended family and tribe.) With the help of her parents, Esraa managed to travel to the U.S. for a meeting in support of her women’s rights work. This resulted in threats to her family by local militia, as well as accusations she was a loose woman, for making the trip alone.

Her father was forced to publicly declare that he disowned his own daughter to save himself and the rest of Esraa’s family who stayed back in Iraq. When talking about her journey, Esraa explained, “We can’t be silent anymore. No one is going to bring us change. We are the ones who need to bring change to our lives. So I have to speak—the pressure on women is just too much. Had I not spoken and fought for my rights, I would have been married at 12 and with six children by now. But when my values and voice were seen as a threat and my family was in danger, I had to leave. So I am here in America, studying English and hoping to continue my engineering studies. And I hope they accept my asylum application.”

Esraa is like so many refugees whose situations are now being debated in the US. She was pushed out of her home for representing the very values that we all want to see in the Middle East and throughout the world: religious tolerance and women’s rights as essential elements of peace and stability. And yet some who see Esraa’s headscarf and dark skin and hear her heavy accent, see not a refugee but a symbol of terror.

The Paris attacks on November 13 exacerbated the refugee crisis, with the creation of doubt and fear over the identity of the refugees. Some politicians have clearly and correctly stated that the refugees are escaping from the very source of terror that was responsible for the Paris attack. But others have said that refugees should be barred from Europe or the US, as many could be terrorists themselves. That debate aside, it would be unrealistic to deny the doubt that is filling people’s hearts about the identities and motives of the refugees coming from the Middle East. In the midst of that undeniable doubt and fear comes this brave young woman who sees safety, respect and refuge in America. The question at hand is whether America can prove Esraa right — that it is indeed a safe country for all, with values that promote tolerance and celebrate diversity.

These days of terror are challenging all of us individually and collectively. How firmly do we stand by our values? Rising above the anxiety created by terrorists would be the greatest testament to the triumph of love over fear. The day we lose Esraa’s heart is the day of real fear, when hope disappears from the world.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work


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