BAGHDAD, (AFP) — Zina Nabil, a pretty 28-year-old Sunni Arab, thought she had found her man. But like many other Iraqi women, she was forced to abandon her marriage plans three years ago because of sectarian hostilities.
“I fell in love with a very nice, well-educated man. But my parents rejected him when they learnt that he was a Shiite.”
Nabil was then 25, an age that is considered old for a woman in Iraq to be getting married, and she thinks her chance of happiness has passed.
“Since then I’ve just stopped thinking about marriage, to avoid finding myself in the same situation,” she sighed forlornly.
The issue of sectarianism in Iraq has turned the search for a spouse, already problematic for other social and financial reasons, into a quest for the Holy Grail.
In Iraq’s conservative society, the only opportunity for a single woman to meet someone is often through her job, if she has one. But unemployment is high — 18 percent, according to the United Nations, and much worse among young people — confining more unmarried women to their homes.
“I’m not going to meet people at home,” lamented 24-year-old Rula Mohammad, a Sunni who graduated in political science but remains jobless.
“My marriage prospects are made worse by the country’s sectarian problems. My parents would not allow me to marry someone from a different religious group.”
The conflict between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities between 2006 and 2008 killed tens of thousands and brought the country to the brink of full-blown civil war, opening wounds that are still raw.
It also created a new generation of widows.
During the first five months of 2006, at the height of the sectarian blood-letting, between 90 and 100 women lost their husbands each day, according to Iraq’s association for women’s rights.
“It’s not that members of the two communities don’t fall in love with each other now,” said Rula. “But not doing so just avoids problems.”
The single status of women has become a serious concern in Iraq, according to Sawsan al-Barrack, 50, in charge of women’s affairs at the ministry of human rights.
“It is a big problem today for women, who are more numerous than men, initially because of the war (1980-1988) war with Iran, which killed one million people.
The problem of inter-communal marriages is largely new in Iraq, where the community one belonged to was previously of little importance in the quest for a spouse. Executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime comprised a Sunni Arab elite but was largely secular.
“The situation deteriorated after the fall of the former regime and the sectarian violence that followed.”
Sociologist Suha al-Shamaa, who also works in the women’s section at the human rights ministry, said: “Before the US occupation of 2003, the question of which community a woman belonged to was not asked. Today it’s essential.”
Official Iraqi statistics show that there are 102 men for every 100 women, but the ratio varies significantly depending on the age group, underpinning the plight of Iraq’s single women.
Men aged up to 24 are more numerous, while they are equal in number between 24 and 29, and women between 30 and 49 are in the majority, according to a study carried out in 2008 by the United Nations’ World Food Programme and Iraq’s central organisation of statistics.
As many as 41.5 percent of Iraqi men and women over 12 years old are single, the WFP says, and 4.2 percent are widowed.
“I am one of those women who missed the boat,” said Azra Kamal, 36, who works at the ministry of health. “I studied, and then when I was ready it was too late, even though I have never given up hope of finding a man.”