Cost Of Liberty
By Ariana Eunjung
28 June, 2004
The row of beauty salons had been ransacked and torched. Shards of glass,
dust and bottles leaking sweet-smelling liquid were all that was left,
creating an eerie mosaic in the afternoon light. Wrapped in a black
abaya, Halla Muhammad Maarouf stood in the middle of the street, staring
at the destruction and trying not to cry. There was no note, no graffiti
saying who had done it or why, but Halla knew the attack was a warning
meant for her.
Three months before,
in October, Halla had begun working as a prostitute to supplement the
income she earned helping out at her mother's salon. Her brother had
been killed in the U.S.-led invasion, and after her husband was killed
in the bloody chaos that followed, Halla suddenly found herself solely
responsible for supporting her two young children. The $5 or so a week
she earned at the salon was not enough.
She had tried to
be discreet, but word got out. Earlier that week, she says, a stranger
had shown up at her doorway with a copy of the Koran and asked her whether
she knew any women who sold their bodies and, if she did, to tell them
it was wrong. Neighbors inquired about the men coming and going from
her apartment, and potential clients had tracked her down at the salon.
When U.S. troops
marched into the capital on April 9 last year, they liberated a people
who, for decades, had lived under a government that controlled nearly
every aspect of their lives. In the later years of Saddam Hussein's
rule, getting caught trying to solicit meant life in prison or even
death. In a public ceremony in 2000, Hussein had 200 women beheaded
after accusing them of prostitution.
Today, under a justice
system largely overseen by foreigners, getting caught generally means
a slap on the wrist and 48 hours in a jail cell. That has made soliciting
a more inviting option for a new generation of women, especially in
a place where few employment opportunities exist and hundreds of thousands
of women have been left widows as a result of three successive wars.
But as the U.S.
occupation draws to an end, and more conservative Islamic clerics gain
power, the fate of prostitutes like Halla is uncertain. In recent months,
attacks on people and establishments accused of promoting vices have
escalated. Masked gunmen have shot at liquor vendors, according to Iraqi
police officials. Religious leaders have run renters of racy videotapes
out of town. And anonymous vigilantes have kidnapped, beaten and killed
prostitutes in several major cities. Women's rights groups, including
the Organization of Women's Freedom, have decried the killings, saying
the women are in need of help, not punishment.
is an order to kill all the prostitutes," Halla would recall thinking
that day. "If the Islamic parties arrive to power maybe even the
Americans can't stop them." As she made her way through the rubble,
Halla wondered what it would be like to have a real job, of being a
receptionist at a hotel, a laundry woman or maybe opening a boutique
for used clothes. She was 23 years old, healthy and a hard worker. There
was a chance she could start anew. Wasn't there?
Halla grew up in
one of the roughest neighborhoods in Baghdad, a strip of nondescript
apartment buildings a few blocks from the Palestine and Sheraton hotels
that became bunkers for foreign journalists during the U.S.-led invasion.
Her father was a carpenter, her mother a beauty stylist. She had three
younger brothers, and money was always a problem. After her parents
separated when she was 10 years old, she dropped out of school to work
alongside her mother. She washed hair and swept the floors.
The Loving Wife
She met her husband
at the salon years later. She had spied a tall, muscular man staring
at her. She was 15, barely five feet tall with bleached blond hair and
a sassy attitude. At 26, Walid Hameed was more serious and worked as
a security guard in Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad. He had
stopped by to pick up a friend who was getting her tresses set.
Within days they
went on their first date and within a few months he proposed. At first,
both families objected. Halla's mother had another, wealthier beau in
mind for her only daughter. Walid's parents thought Halla was too young.
But the two were in love, and in late 1996 they were married at the
swank Babylon Hotel. There were mounds of sweets, pretty shimmery clothes,
and family and friends from all over Iraq. When her new husband came
to their bedroom that night and tried to take her clothes off, she giggled.
She says she changed into a nightgown and insisted on keeping her flowing
white veil and her elbow-length white gloves. She ran out of the room
and back to the elevator, where she spent the entire night pressing
buttons and going up and down. It would be a week before she figured
out what it meant to lose her virginity.
Married life suited
Halla and Walid. They both kept their jobs, lived in a small one-bedroom
apartment and shared the chores. On hot evenings, they used to get ice
cream and sit on the sidewalk staring at the passersby. She affectionately
called him "bald man" because his hair was thinning. He called
her "baga," or bug, because she was so tiny. The couple had
two boys, Iaad and Saif, in quick succession.
with the war. Her middle brother, Ali Muhammad Maarouf, 20, a soldier,
was shot and killed in the first few days of the fighting in the southern
port city of Basra. And a few weeks later, after major combat was declared
over but when law and order had yet to be established, her husband was
shot in the head one night by a business associate. Halla said that
her husband was still alive when she arrived at the hospital and that
he managed to tell her, "Halla, be a good girl," before he
died. Halla insisted on spending the night at the morgue, hugging Walid's
body and weeping. At daybreak, one of her brothers came and gently carried
Halla says she did
not leave her mother's house for a month. When she finally ventured
out and started thinking about her situation, she knew it was dire.
Shortly after Walid's death, his family took all of the couple's possessions
and stopped talking to her. She had already used up their modest savings
and knew her wages from the salon would not be enough to support her
sons and her younger brothers, who had had trouble finding work.
As a distraction,
some girlfriends offered to treat her to a trip up north, to the resort
town of Sulaymaniyah for a mini-vacation. They spent the days wandering
around the marketplaces, staring at the blocks of honeycomb, hand-woven
carpets, the children's clothes and toys. She had no money but as she
touched the beautiful things she said she somehow felt more alive and
One night at dinner,
she was introduced to an older man who said he was a car salesman. He
had a big potbelly, thin legs, and wore glasses but was otherwise quite
cheerful looking. She said she told him about her husband and her worries
about money. He took out four $100 bills and told her he would give
them to her -- if she would spend the night with him. Halla says she
shook her head when he made the advance, but he persisted and she followed
him to a hotel.
She remembers that
he gave her the money as soon as they walked into the room, and she
put it on the table, ready to bolt. He picked it up and handed it to
her again, telling her not to be afraid. She took a cigarette and a
drink and they talked for a few hours before he took her to the bed
and lay on top of her. She began to scream: "I can't breathe! I
can't breathe!" She pushed him away and ran out, she says. But
the next day he invited her to lunch, and a few hours later they were
back in the hotel room. This time she gave in.
"I had a shock
with that man, but I thought that with $400 I could buy everything,"
she says. She imagined the honeycomb, the carpets, the children's clothes
and toys. "After that it became easier."
Her subsequent clients,
maybe 40 to 50 in all, are a blur. The government officials from the
Anbar province out west. The skinny young man who looked like a chicken.
The wealthy former military official. The money flowed -- $100 to $300
for each night, as much as $2,500 some months, plenty to support herself,
her sons, her brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins.
No one in her family
asked where the money was coming from, but they soon found out. She
says that by the winter, they were talking about prostitution openly,
as if it were just another 9 to 5 desk job.
On a recent afternoon,
Halla was holding court in her ground-floor apartment, a place that
has become a salon of sorts for the destitute in the new Iraq. More
than a dozen people rotated in and out of the room. There were small-time
criminals, pimps and other prostitutes. Halla's brothers, Omar, 22,
and Maarouf, 18, who act as her bodyguards, were also there. So was
Halla's most regular customer, Shamil.
Shamil, an engineer
who is a subcontractor for a U.S. company, visits Halla several times
a week, three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner that she
cooks for him. He says he liked her because she is "frank"
and "pure of heart." He has a wife, with whom he lives in
a big house in the ritzy Mansour district of Baghdad, but he spends
most of his free time with Halla. He has even helped her brothers by
providing them with odd jobs in his company.
In Iraq, there are
no red-light districts, and Halla and other prostitutes don't walk the
streets. They typically meet their clients through friends. Aya Abbas
Latif, 22, talks about being "married" three times to customers.
Another friend, Nada Baqr, 31, refers to being in love with one of her
"boyfriends." Halla and Shamil quarrel like husband and wife
and he treats her children -- now 4 and 2 years old, like his own, buying
them presents and playing with them when he is in the apartment. He
has prohibited Halla from seeing other men. (She does, though, behind
Sometimes the conversation
at Halla's place is mundane and practical, about repairing the electricity
generator or favorite restaurants. Sometimes the conversation is racy.
At other times, it's reflective.
Halla's friend Nada
fell into prostitution when she could not pay her rent and her landlord
said he'd let it go if she came to a party and danced. "My first
reaction was that I felt sad and ashamed," she recalls. She told
her husband the money came from her new job as a cleaning lady. Nada
says one day she and her sister were driven to an office building near
the Baghdad airport and were introduced to two American soldiers. She
was afraid, she says, but they were gentle and nice and made jokes and
slipped them an extra $100 each. She was so giddy from the encounter
that she hardly cared that the pimp's profit, Nada says, was $700.
Aya, who goes by
the nickname Hiba, says she had to give her son to a distant relative
because she could not support him. She took a job as a dental assistant
but the monthly salary of $64 was not enough. She says she sends most
of the money she makes to her family and is occasionally allowed to
see her son. "I go to kiss him and tell him I love him but I don't
tell him I am his mother because I don't want the other children to
know he is the son of a prostitute," she says.
Halla and her friends
say they worry about pregnancy and disease and have sought advice from
each other about how to protect themselves. Before they became prostitutes,
they say, they didn't know very much about sexual health. But those
are relatively minor concerns when compared with how to reconcile their
jobs with their religion. Halla is Muslim but acknowledges that she
doesn't believe her job conforms to Islamic law. Still she is more afraid
of being judged by other Iraqis and being hurt than of a higher being
in the afterlife. Allah, she says, will understand why she is doing
what she is doing.
and brothers say they feel guilty about letting Halla work as a prostitute
but have little choice. Her mother doesn't have the money to reopen
her beauty salon and her father is now too old to work. Her brothers
have had short stints as construction workers but say there are few
steady jobs for people their age and with their junior high school education.
"I hate it, but without her doing this we could not survive,"
Omar says. They sleep on the floor in her apartment and do what they
can to keep her safe from the beatings that other prostitutes have suffered.
One night a few months ago, a drunken man came to Halla's apartment
and began shouting for Halla, she says. Omar told him to go away. The
man fired two bullets into Omar's leg, cracking the bones. Doctors said
he will have to wear a brace on that leg for a full year.
The attack on the
salons in October badly shook Halla, her family and friends. When U.S.
soldiers arrived to help extinguish the flames, she says they told her
they thought the attackers were Islamic extremists and warned her to
be careful. She was -- for a while. Halla says she made inquiries about
other jobs through friends, but her attempts were cursory and she discovered
that they often paid $30 or less a month, a tiny fraction of what she
made as a prostitute. As the days passed without another attack, the
fears started to fade and she went back to her old life.
One day in February,
she woke up on a cold stone floor, confused. Her head was resting on
her purse and she was covered by a blanket. She was still in her red
flannel pajamas but was also wearing an abaya robe on top of them. The
left sleeve was ripped. Then Halla noticed that the walls of the room
were sky blue, the trademark color of the Iraqi police. She was at a
Her head spun as
she recalled the events of the night. She had been out with a friend,
Asaad Abdul Razak, 22, and they had gotten into an argument. He criticized
her for being a prostitute, but what really set her off was that he
had said her late husband, Walid, was no good and had chastised her
for being so stuck on him. She hit him and he hit her. Then somehow
her brother Maarouf showed up, stabbed Asaad in the stomach and ran
from the scene.
The police arrived
but found only Halla and the wounded young man. She was arrested and
locked up in an office in the local police station. All she did that
day was cry, she says, so hard that at one point she had an asthma attack
and the police had to rush her to the hospital.
But by morning,
she says, things didn't seem as gloomy. Shamil had brought chicken and
rice from her favorite restaurant and had talked the police into visiting
Asaad in the hospital to clear things up. Asaad signed a statement saying
Halla wasn't involved and told police some random gangsters had attacked
him. After reviewing all the reports, a U.S. Army captain signed Halla's
release papers, Halla says, and smiled as he wished her well.
That gave Halla
an idea. Images of money flashed through her mind. She scribbled down
her phone number and slipped it to the interpreter to give to the soldier.
She was disappointed
when he didn't call.
Shereen Jerjes contributed to this report.
© 2004 The
Washington Post Company