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From A War Outside To A War At Home

Ekhlas Mohammad Ali says her husband was told to divorce her or he would be killed. She is Shiite, and he is Sunni.
James Hider/For NPR
Ekhlas Mohammad Ali says her husband was told to divorce her or he would be killed. She is Shiite, and he is Sunni.

Love is a fragile and fractured thing these days in Iraq.

Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, there were about 22,000 divorce cases a year. Last year, there were more than 41,000. In parts of Baghdad, the divorce rate has almost quadrupled.

The reasons for the increase are many, but years of sectarian strife and changing economic circumstances are the main culprits.


Divorce Or Die

Ekhlas Mohammad Ali's marriage began as a story of true love.

"He was my neighbor. He was a Sunni and I'm Shiite," Ali says. "It was 1992. We married and we lived a very nice life for more than 15 years."

They lived in the Baghdad neighborhood of Doura — one of the areas hardest hit by sectarian violence.

Still, Ali thought she and her husband would survive together. Then, in early 2007, she says, "he told me he had been threatened because I was Shiite and he was a Sunni. They told him to either divorce me or he would die."


The couple was too poor to move to a safer neighborhood together, so Ali went to live with her Shiite relatives and her husband with his Sunni family. The divorce came through eight months ago. They do not talk or see each other now. Still, she waits for him.

"I know nothing about how he is. I wish I could go back to him, I wish," Ali says. "For so many years it was a love story, but within a minute everything was over."

'A War Waged Within'

At the court in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, social worker In'am Sahib Salman says she deals with about 15 divorce cases a day. It is her job to try to reconcile the couples. She has had less and less success while her workload has mushroomed.

"For many households, the problems outside have become a war waged within," says Salman. "Married men continue to live with their parents because of the bad security situation, and that causes all kinds of pressures."

Women's rights activist Jum'a al-Rubai'ee says sectarianism has accounted for about half of the marriage breakdowns.

Another major factor, says al-Rubai'ee, is the massive unemployment in Iraq. Men, she says, are dumping their wives to cut costs.

"It is getting easier for men to get divorced," says al-Rubai'ee. "If a man has a low salary, he would divorce his wife to marry another woman with a better salary — even if the other woman ... is older than him."

Sectarian Struggle

For Shaima Qassim, a Shiite, the difficulties began in 2003 when Paul Bremer, then the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority — the U.S.-led civilian agency that administered Iraq — decided to disband the Iraqi army. Qassim's husband, who was an army officer under Saddam Hussein, was left jobless.

After Saddam was captured in December 2003, Qassim's husband, a Sunni, would lock himself in his room and cry.

Then, Qassim says, the "teasing" began.

"He would say, 'You Shiite people, you were just waiting for Saddam to fall to control us,'" she says. "I took it as a joke at first, but his comments became more bitter and step by step I realized that it was not a joke at all."

When all-out sectarian war tore through Baghdad, it also savaged her marriage. His family turned against her, blaming Qassim anytime a Sunni was kidnapped or killed.

Finally, her husband told her he was leaving the country to look for work. He never came back, writing her to say only that she should get a divorce.

Qassim's two children were taken in by his family; she says she rarely gets to see them.

The Stigma Of Divorce

The hardest part of the ordeal, says Qassim, is the stigma of being a divorced woman. She has no job, and she is propositioned whenever she tries to find work.

"The first question they ask is if I am married or not," she says. "Then they want to know if I am divorced or a widow. Then they start asking me even more private things.... They inevitably ask me to have relations with them, to go out with them to private places to earn more money."

Ekhlas Mohammad Ali has also been struggling with the reputation of being a divorcee.

"We cannot act freely; all the time we are being watched and judged," she says, "by our neighbors, our family, even our friends."

Men can remarry without any problems, she says. But at age 40, Ali now finds herself childless and back living with relatives.

"Before I had the full freedom of my own house to do whatever I wished, to buy things, to cook what I desired, but now I'm like a guest," Ali says.

Her family tells her to forget about her husband. They say he used the threats as an excuse to get out of a barren marriage.

She refuses to give up hope. She has no other choice.

"I'm waiting for him," she says, "and I will until the end of my life."

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