“Before 2003, everyone used to come to us, state officials, senior staff and ordinary people, seeking to spend red nights and have fun with us. But after they take their pleasures from us, they swear at us, curse us and distance themselves from us. They do not want us living among them. We are despised on popular and official levels. Some would not even sell us things because we are Roma. We live like dogs” says Raghad, an Iraqi Roma woman who was describing the deterioration of their living standards following the USA invasion in 2003.
For decades the main professions of Roma women in Iraq were dancing, singing and palm reading. About a decade ago, the Roma villages turned into fertile grounds for sexual pleasure seekers who would pay for prostitution. The Roma men worked in trade and did various other odd jobs such as blacksmithing, metal work and making guns, daggers and copper pots, as well as singing at weddings and parties.
The Roma suffered social exclusion and poverty for decades, even though Saddam Hussein’s government offered them Iraqi nationality in the eighties to encourage them to settle in a location. The suffering of Roma communities escalated following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent emergence of fundamentalist Islamist militant groups who made the lives of the Roma even more difficult by targeting their communities, under claims of spreading virtue. “The sons of some influential members of the tribes harass our women and try to force them to have sex” claims Ghassan, a Roma young man from the Azzohour area of Diwaniyah province (150 km south of Baghdad).
There are no accurate figures for the number of Roma in Iraq. According to Abbas Mohammad Saidi, a member of the Commission on Human Rights in the province of Diwaniyah, the Roma population is estimated to be about sixty thousand.
Roma communities were thriving under the rule of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party before the 2003 invasion. They used to earn their living as singers, dancers and musicians at weddings and cultural festivals. They were also the focus of attention for many people who would bring the women gifts and shower them with money because of the sexual pleasures they provided in a conservative society dominated by tribal
traditions and religious values.
Following the US invasion of Iraq, visitors to Roma villages can only see deserted areas, ruins, piles of stones, burning garbage, trenches of rancid waters and sheets of metal.
The US invasion of Iraq caused a rise in the influence of radical Islamist groups who claimed to be fighting for the liberation of Iraq whilst spreading conservative religious values. The Roma village of Azzohour, for example, was attacked in early 2004 by Shiite militants who consider the Roma as a group of people engaging in immoral acts. Witnesses claimed the militants used bombs, mortars and machine guns in the attack and also looted homes.
Abbas Mohammad Saidi said “the attack on the village destroyed it almost completely, turning it to rubble. The houses are without water or electricity or any of the most basic humanitarian services needed.” He asserts that “the number of families who lived in the village dropped from 450 to 120 and the ones who remained are the poorest.”
Some Roma people have been forced to abandon their small communities such as Diwaniyah and move to the Iraqi capital in search of a new life. Others have fled to neighbouring Arab states such as Syria, UAE and Jordan, to escape poverty and harassment. A lucky few have been granted refugee status in European countries such as Sweden and Norway.
Thurayya, a Roma woman, claims her people suffer from unemployment because they are branded as ‘Caowlyah’; an abusive discriminatory term used to describe the Roma in Iraq. She says: “a lot of Iraqis see us as objects of sexual pleasure or forced labourers who deserve to live a marginal life; no one want us to work for them”.
The mud made windowless houses of the Roma village lack water and electricity like all other Roma communities.
Before the invasion of Iraq, some Roma used to be hired as farmers. The war has left many of them suffering from mental health problems, such as depression, and dreaming of immigration as a way to escape poverty and the escalating assaults against them by Islamic militants. Some militants, who claim an affiliation to the government, force the Roma to pledge not to carry out any ‘heinous acts’.
”I do not understand what is meant by ‘heinous acts’. Most of those who now persecute us used to be our customers before the invasion. They have totally changed their ideology” says Zahra, a young Roma woman.
According to historian, Saeed Razzaq, ”the origins of almost 150,000 Iraqi Roma go back to the Indian sub-continent and Spain. They live in marginalized and isolated communities. Some have emigrated from Iraq in the past few years, hoping to merge with other communities, trying to melt into other societies to get rid of the ‘Caowlyah’ title that links them with social ostracism and contempt.”
Sahira, a Roma woman who used to earn her living from prostitution, describes how vigilant the Roma’s clients have become. She says ”a lot of our customers who used to visit us in broad daylight now approach us in disguise, for fear of being identified. When we tell them that we are no longer their fun projects and that we do not provide sexual pleasures any more, they threaten us. They say they will resort to force or will fabricate stories and rumours to cause us trouble if we do not obey them.”
”Last year, some young men from neighbouring tribes approached us and threatened to kill or imprison us if we did not satisfy their sexual needs. We were lucky because we managed to escape” Sahira explained.
Sahira now works as a seamstress and a farm labourer to earn her living. Sometimes she travels to neighbouring cities to make some money by reading palms. She claims some of her old friends became dancers at night clubs in Syria whilst others became beggars, wearing a burqaa to hide their faces as they beg for money at the crossroads of Diwaniyah, Babel and Baghdad. Lamya, a beggar, says ”I beg from 5 am to 3 pm. What am I to do? They left us no choice, either we beg or die of starvation”. Other Roma women found their way to Jordan where they sit on the street pavements of Amman selling cigarettes, threads, needles and other small items.
The Roma kept their language, known as ‘Alratin’, a mixture of Persian, Indian, Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic.
Muslim cleric and Imam of Friday prayers in Diwaniyah, Hafiz Mutashar, says, ”Islam considers them (the Roma) as people perverting from the right path, there is little hope that they will return to the right path”. He adds ”the Roma people of the village are engaging in prostitution that is forbidden by Islamic Sharia, thus it is only natural that the society looks down on them and insists on distancing themselves from them”.
Muslim cleric and Imam of Friday prayers at Diwaniyah, Hafiz Mutashar, says, “Islam considers them (the Roma) as perverting from the right path, there is little hope that they will return to the right path.” He adds ”The Roma are engaging in prostitution that is forbidden by Islamic Sharia, thus it is only natural that the society looks down on them and insists on distancing itself from them”.
Despite the fact that the Roma of Iraq are trying to integrate with other societies by leaving their communities and migrating to cities, many are treated with contempt as soon as other Iraqis discover their origins.
Samar and her family abandoned their Roma community in Diwaniyah in an attempt to start a new life but this decision means that they now suffer unemployment as well as social isolation and a lack of belonging.
Khalid Jassim, who used to work as musician before the invasion laments ”before 2003 we were able to work at events, weddings, festivals and folk concerts. But since the invasion, nothing is left for us because our lifestyles are not in line with Islamic values. They say to us that artists have no place in Iraq, art is over!”
”Tell me what to do? Should I work as a soldier or a policeman?” Jassim asks with an angry sarcastic tone.
Saeed Jaber says his people’s situation improved in the seventies and eighties when Iraqi society became more tolerant towards his community, but that did not last long.”Now we suffer increasing isolation and become more marginalized from the rest of the Iraqi communities. We live in isolated cantons in areas around Diyala, Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul as well as some villages in Al Muthanna and Diwaniya” he claims.
Iqbal Tamimi is the Director of the Arab Women Media Watch CentreTags: Middle-East
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This post was written by Iqbal Tamimi