The Roma women of Iraq from dancing and prostitution before the USA invasion of Iraq to harassment and begging on the
By Iqbal Tamimi
“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 distant 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 of Iraq.
The gypsies of Iraq have been suffering social exclusion, poverty and marginalization for decades, even though Saddam Husain’s government offered them the Iraqi nationality in the eighties to encourage them to settle down. But their suffering escalated following the USA invasion of Iraq in 2003 which one of its outcomes was the emergence of the fundamentalist Islamist militant groups that 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 with them” claims Ghassan, a Roma young man from Azzohour area of Diwaniyah.
There are no accurate figures for the number of Roma in Iraq, but according to Abbas Mohammad Saidi, a member of the Commission on Human Rights in the province of Diwaniya, their leaders say the Roma population is about sixty thousand.
The Roma communities were thriving under the rule of Saddam Husain’s Baath Party before the 2003 USA invasion of Iraq. They used to earn their living as singers, dancers and musicians at weddings and cultural festivals. They were the focus of attention of many people who were sucking up to them, bringing them gifts and showering them with money, because of the sexual pleasures they provided them in the Iraqi conservative society that was dominated by tribal traditions and religious values.
Following the USA invasion of Iraq, the visitors to the Roma villages can only see deserted areas, ruins, piles of stones, burning garbage, wood, and trenches of rancid waters and sheets of metal.
The USA invasion of Iraq was a direct reason for the rising influence of radical Islamic groups, claiming to work for the liberation of Iraq and spreading virtues and Islamic values. The Roma village of Azzohour for example was subjected to an attack launched in early 2004 by Shiite militias who consider the Roma as a group of people who are engaging in immoral acts. The Roma witnesses claim the Shiite militias used bombs, mortars and machine guns and looted their homes when they attacked their village.
Abbas Mohammad Saidi, a member of the Commission on Human Rights in the province of Diwaniya, says “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 were forced to abandon their small communities such as Diwaniya (193 km south of Baghdad) and migrate internally to the Iraqi capital in search of new sources of living. Others escaped from poverty and harassment to neighbouring Arab states such as Syria, UAE and Jordan, while few were luckier for being granted refugee status in European countries such as Sweden and Norway.
Thurayya, a woman from the Roma society, claims they suffer unemployment because they are branded as “Caowlyah”; an abusive discriminatory term used to describe the gypsies in Iraq. She says: “a lot of Iraqis see us as projects for 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, located between the city of Diwaniyah; a province of Qadisiyah and Afak area, suffer lack of services, water and electricity like all other Roma communities.
Before the invasion of Iraq, some Roma used to be hired as farmers, but not anymore. The war left many of them in bad mental health, suffering depression and dreaming of immigration to escape poverty and the escalating assaults against them by Islamist group members; some of which claim affiliation to the government, who force the Roma to pledge not to carry out any “heinous acts”.
“I do not understand what they meant by “heinous acts“. Most of those who persecute us now used to be our customers before the USA invasion of Iraq, but now they have changed totally in their actions and their ideology” says Zahra, a gypsy young woman.
According to history researcher, Saeed Razzaq, “the origins of the almost 150.000 Roma of Iraq go back to the Indian sub-continent and Spain. They live in villages as clusters of marginalized and isolated communities, some of which 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 “AlCaowly” title that became the nickname 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 clients turned to be in Iraq. She says “a lot of our customers who used to visit us in broad daylight now approach us in disguise, fearing of being identified, and 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 would resort to force or they will fabricate stories and rumours to cause us trouble if we do not obey them”.
“Last year, some young people from neighbouring tribes in the countryside approached us and threatened of killing or imprisoning us if we do not satisfy their sexual needs, but we were lucky, because we managed to escape” Sahira explained.
Sahira works now occasionally in sewing, some forced labour and farming for a living, sometimes she would travel to neighbouring cities to make some money out of palm reading, but she claims some of her old friends became dancers at night clubs in Syria, others became beggars, they would wear burqaa to hide their faces while they beg for money at the crossroads of Diwaniya, Babil and Baghdad. Lamya says “I start begging from 5 am to 3 pm, what shall I do, they left us no choice, either we beg or die of starvation”. Other Roma women found their way to Jordan. They set on the pavements of the streets of Amman, the capital city, selling cigarettes, threads, needles and other small items.
The Roma kept their language, referred to as «Alratin». It’s a mixture of Persian, Indian, Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic expressions, which is difficult to understand by others.
For decades the professions of Roma women in Iraq were dancing, singing, palm and horoscope reading. About a decade ago, the Roma villages turned into fertile grounds for sexual pleasure seekers who pay women money in return of prostitution. The Roma men worked in trade, and various other odd jobs such as blacksmiths, gold and silver teeth placements, metal repairing, making guns, daggers and pots of copper, selling gold ornaments besides playing music and singing at weddings and parties.
Muslim cleric and Imam of Friday prayers at 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 themselves from them”.
Despite the fact that the Roma of Iraq today are trying in every possible way to mix and integrate with other societies by leaving their people and migrating to other cities to melt among the crowds, yet many of them were identified and scrutinized by some people who treated them with contempt and inferiority as soon as they discover their origins.
Samar and her family abandoned their community at the city of Diwaniya. No more they meet with their Roma old friends, in an attempt to start a new life, but this decision meant that not only they suffer unemployment and deteriorating economic situation, but also they suffer social isolation and lack of belonging.
Khalid Jassim, who used to work as musician before the USA invasion of Iraq laments “before 2003 we were able to work at events, weddings, festivals and folk concerts. But since the invasion, nothing was left for us because our life style is not in line with the 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 managed to win some attention and improved care in the seventies and eighties when the Iraqi society became more tolerant towards his community, but that did not last long. “Now we suffer increasing isolation and became more marginalized and distant 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 the Al Muthanna and Diwaniya” he claims.