Acid attacks on "immodest" women on the rise

For Sumeya Abdullah, a 34-year-old primary school teacher in the capital Baghdad, life will never be the same again. In late June she had her legs burned by corrosive acid in a street attack because, she believes, she was not wearing her veil and the traditional 'abaya' covering common in many Middle Eastern countries.

"I was shopping in one of the most crowded districts in Baghdad when I felt my skin burning by something corrosive. It was horrible, a terrible pain, then I found myself in hospital," Abdullah said.

Witnesses in the district where the attack happened, said that for more than two weeks, women have been targeted by acid attackers for dressing immodestly. Sometimes the assailants spray or throw the acid on foot, or on occasion, from a moving car. Other attacks have been even more shocking.

"A month ago I was walking from my college to my house when I was abducted in the street by three men. They dropped acid in my face and on my legs. They cut all my hair off while hitting me in the face many times telling me it's the price for not obeying God's wish in using the veil," Hania Abdul-Jabbar, a 23-year-old university student, recounted.

"Today I cannot see out of one eye because the acid made me lose my vision. I am afraid to leave my house. Now I am permanently disfigured with a monster face," she added with tears rolling down her swollen and scarred cheeks.

"The rights of freedom should be respected and each person has the right to choose what to wear. Those criminals should be in jail," Abdullah urged.

According to local police, dozens of women have had parts of their bodies burned by religious conservatives in a string of incidents throughout the capital in recent weeks. Maj Abbas Dilemi, a senior police investigator in Baghdad, said that most of the acid attacks had occurred in the Mansour and Kadhmyia districts of the city.

"Our sources have found that many children are being used to conduct such violence. The one adult we have arrested for this crime cannot accept Iraqi women wearing Western clothes and walking without veils, alleging that it's a prohibition by God," Dilemi said.

During Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqi women were more or less free to wear what they wanted. In the 1980s Iraq was considered one of the most Western countries in the region in terms of fashion.

The current attacks and intimidation are not confined to the capital. In the western province of Anbar, female residents have received warnings not to go out without their veils and abayas since April 2004. Five women were reported killed in the province for not following the orders of religious radicals since the war the led to Hussein's downfall ended in May 2003.

"Our country is a Muslim country and women should respect this by wearing veils and long cloaks. I'm against the use of acid against them but something should be done to force them into wearing the clothes," Sheik Hussein Abbas, a radical Shi'ite leader in the capital, said.

Despite the attacks, many women are refusing to bow to the will of religious extremists.

"I won't force myself to use something that I don't feel comfortable with. Women in Iraq are losing their place in society and we have to fight that and determine who we are and how we should dress, despite these dangers," Hiba Zuheir, 24, a resident of Mansour district, said.