Anti-women violence in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, about 600 km south of the capital, Baghdad, has increased markedly in recent months and has forced women to stay indoors, police and local NGOs have said.
"Basra is facing a new type of terror which leaves at least 10 women killed monthly, some of them are later found in garbage dumps with bullet holes while others are found decapitated or mutilated," the city's police chief Maj. Gen. Abdel Jalil Khalaf told IRIN in a telephone interview.
"The perpetrators are organised gangs who work under religious cover pretending to spread instructions of Islam but they are far from this religion. They are trying to impose a life style like banning women from wearing western clothes or forcing them to wear head scarf," Khalaf said.
In September, Khalaf added, police found the body of a decapitated woman with that of her also decapitated six-year-old son lying beside her.
"We do believe that the number of murdered women is much higher as more cases go unreported by their families who fear reprisals from extremists," he added.
Speaking only on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, a woman activist with a local NGO in Basra said that a deteriorated security situation has made the province a hotbed for the extremists.
|Basra is facing a new type of terror which leaves at least 10 women killed monthly.|
"(Sunni and Shia) extremists are imposing an extremist culture on the community of Basra, a new culture in our society which leads to bloody violence against women," she said.
"And this culture, which surfaced after the US-led invasion in 2003, added more to the already existing tribal culture which condones family violence against women," she added.
She went on saying that women, who are threatened by extremists, have approached her NGO but they cannot help them as they do not have shelters or appropriate places in the province for the women to take refuge in.
"Iraq's southern cities in general and specifically Basra don't have these shelters for women, a matter that has derailed our efforts in helping them. And therefore we approach the local police, dignitaries and religious leaders to harbour them. Some of them accept it while others refuse," she said.
The activist added that the issue has been raised many times with local officials in Basra but the city's deteriorated security situation makes women’s rights the last on their list of priorities. "And women are left with only two choices: either to leave the city if they can afford it or stay locked in their houses."
Once a peaceful city
Like other parts of Iraq, Basra before the US-led invasion in 2003 was known for its mixed population and active night life with social and night clubs. Basra women had the right to choose their own life-style although it was considered a tribal society.
|A map of Iraq highlighting Basra province|
But now vigilantes patrol the streets of Basra on motorbikes or in cars with dark-tinted windows and no license plates. They accost women who are not wearing the traditional dress and head scarf known as hijab. They also attack men for clothes or haircuts deemed too Western.
Hana Youssif was one of hundreds of Christians who were living peacefully in the once-religiously mixed city, but sectarian violence drove him out.
“My family has been in Basra for ages," said Youssif, a 43-year-old father of four." But sectarian violence forced us to leave all our memories behind," Youssif added.
Youssif, who has ended up in a relative’s house in Baghdad, said that troubles started last May when gunmen stopped him as he was walking with his wife and asked her about her clothes and why she did not wear hijab.
"We were beaten so badly that day when I told them that we are Christians and they threatened to kill me if I would not respect Islam in this city."