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Story Publication logo August 12, 2019

The Journey Home: The Welcome Home Committee


With a four-foot, two-pronged, gold sword in her suitcase, Zahra Ahmad walks toward security at Erbil International Airport in Erbil, Iraqi-Kurdistan on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Ahmad received the sword when she visited her family for the first time in Baghdad. The sword is called Zulfiqar or Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib's sword. The sword made it through the airports of Baghdad, Erbil, Turkey, Amsterdam, Iceland and Detroit. Image by Brontë Wittpenn. Iraq, 2019.

The story of an Iraqi-Irani woman’s experience of immigration highlights the importance of cultural...

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(L-R) Zahra Ahmad's aunts Amira Sibte, Samira Sibte and Rebab Sibte pose for photos. The women are Baba's younger sisters. Image by Zahra Ahmad. Iraq, 2019.
(L-R) Zahra Ahmad's aunts Amira Sibte, Samira Sibte and Rebab Sibte pose for photos. The women are Baba's younger sisters. Image by Zahra Ahmad. Iraq, 2019.

Three short women dressed in abayas, full-body black cloaks, threw chocolates in celebration and then swarmed me with kisses as I walked off the shuttle in Baghdad. It was Diya -- Baba's mom -- and his sisters, ‘Amas Samira and Rebab. I embraced each of them as they started to cry.

My aunts and uncles traveled hours north from Najaf and west from Bald Ruz so we could reunite. All of us were staying at ‘Ama Rebab's house with her husband, Mohammad, and their four children.

The airport was a 15-minute drive to Rebab's house.

Diya laid one hand over my head as the other held my hand. She recited prayers, thanking Allah, God, for bringing me home.

Baghdad was greener than I'd imagined it to be. A trail of green bushes, grass and date trees guided us out of the airport.

"They keep the airport nice for visitors," Samira said. "The rest of Iraq doesn't look like this."

There weren't painted white lines dividing streets into lanes, but there were traffic lights and soldiers directing cars on paved roads. Between the restaurants, electronics and clothing stores were rubble where a business may have once stood.

The physical effects of war intensified when we entered Rebab's neighborhood.

Tall, narrow rectangular cement homes lined Rebab's street. Six-foot gates, each decorated uniquely, guarded the homes. The sidewalks were nearly level with the street so there wasn't a clear path for the water to drain into sewers. Dozens of powerlines ran from one telephone pole to the next.

During the day, groups of children played on bikes and wagons. And tucked between the homes, wooden crates of goods were stacked along the walls of a small neighborhood convenience store. Each day my cousins would run to the store and return to Rebab's house with chips, candy and juice.

The store in Iraq reminded me of the corner store I'd grown up around in Lansing. Our neighborhood in east Lansing was less than a mile from Potter Park Zoo. Some nights I'd wake up to the sound of a train passing by or a gun being shot off a few blocks away.

Zineb, my youngest sister, loved walking to the store in Lansing with our neighbor, Larry. Zineb would spend every dollar Baba had given her on chips and candy.

Baba's four sisters and three brothers met me at Rebab's house. They're all variations of Baba's best features. Despite my broken Arabic and American mannerisms, Baba's family accepted me. They loved me and I could feel it.

So why did it take me so long to embrace Iraq? I believe a lot of it has to do with being a woman.

'Something Is Missing'

I sat on the second floor of Rebab's house while she threaded my eyebrows.

Eyebrows are a serious chore for Middle Eastern women.

Our thick, dark hair grows back quicker than our paychecks come in. Threading one another's eyebrows is an ancient method of grooming dating back as early as the Iran Qajar dynasty in 1785.

In eyebrow threading, a cotton string is doubled then twisted and pulled over the area of skin with unwanted hair.

I sat by the large glass-block window for the natural light that shined through.

"This lighting is great. All this time and I never thought about doing my eyebrows in this spot," Rebab said as she wrapped the string around her fingers.  

With each line of hair she threaded, Rebab asked a question about my life. She eased me into the conversation by asking what I did for work, if I finished college and how Mama was doing.

Zahra Ahmad sits with her family eating dinner in Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Ahmad family.
Zahra Ahmad sits with her family eating dinner in Baghdad, Iraq. Image courtesy of Ahmad family.

Then, very casually, she hit me with a question I couldn't answer.  

"I don't want to scare you, but I've noticed something," she said. "There's something deep inside your eyes. You seem lost, like you're not fulfilled. That something is missing, like you're caging yourself in. It shows that you've been through a lot and it's trapped you. There is something weighing you down." 

Rebab was right. There was something weighing me down.

All my life people have told me what it means to be a woman from the Middle East. In America the media portray women from the Middle East as oppressed by Islam and subservient to men. Succeeding as a woman, according to traditional thinking Iraqis, means dressing modestly, getting married young, bearing children and speaking softly.

I'm not married, I don't want children in the next five years, I'm an outspoken journalist who takes risks and I'll never be subservient.

Islam hasn't oppressed me; rather, immense pressure from society's expectations of how I should look, act and speak have.

For more than two decades I thought my characteristics isolated me. Though I'd soon discover those characteristics would be the foundation of my connection with Iraqi women.

Zahra Ahmad, 24, takes a selfie with her cousin Estabrek Ahmad, 18, and her aunt Samira Sibte on their way to a mall in Baghdad, Iraq. Image by Zahra Ahmad. Iraq, 2019.
Zahra Ahmad, 24, takes a selfie with her cousin Estabrek Ahmad, 18, and her aunt Samira Sibte on their way to a mall in Baghdad, Iraq. Image by Zahra Ahmad. Iraq, 2019.

Iraqi Women

Iraqi women are built to be strong. I perceived the challenges I'd overcome in life as shameful before I traveled to Iraq. Rather than accept what set me apart as a superpower, I felt the adversity I'd faced growing up was burdensome to others. This perception was withering away with age but meeting the women of my family in Iraq obliterated any doubts I had about my resilience.

Brave women in Iraq are working for equality despite the adversity of wars, low wages and society's expectations of them. By making their own choices, Iraqi women are outgrowing the mold people have unwillingly placed them in.

Iraqi women are brave enough to take risks. Mama risked her life crossing into Iran to deliver Hawra.

Iraqi women are inherently strong. ‘Ama Amira, a surgical technician, is raising three children on her own. She sold all her gold and bought a house under her name after her husband died.

Iraqi women have faith. ‘Ama Samira conservatively wears an abaya by choice. I'm most comfortable covered up, Samira said. She prays five times a day and lives in Iraq's holiest city, Najaf.

Iraqi women are driven.

‘Ama Nassirian is a practicing orthopedic surgeon. She wears her headscarf as a turban, rocks colorful blouses and loves family vacations swimming in the lake with her kids and husband.

Iraqi women will move the country forward.

Closing the Gender Gap

While in Iraq and Iraqi-Kurdistan, I met a wide array of women who dressed, spoke and carried themselves differently. They all shared one common hope — equality in Iraq.

"An important role for young people to take on is reconstructing Iraq through education," said Estabreak, my 19-year-old cousin who's studying to be a doctor. "They'll succeed in various fields through their faith in themselves and their plight which is to restore strength in Iraq."

Iraq has historically been at the forefront of granting women rights, including the right to vote, but women in the Middle East are still outnumbered by men in graduation rates. In 2017, women made up 36 percent of university enrollment, while men made up 64 percent.

Though women are inching closer to closing the gender gap in education, their tiny role in its economy halts Iraq's progression. At 48.7 percent, Iraq has one of the lowest labor force participation rates globally, according to a study by the World Bank. Of that, women only make up 12 percent of the labor force.

Jumana Mohammed, a far removed cousin and practicing family physician, said the gender gap hinders freedom in Iraq. Jumana is divorced and living with her parents in Erbil. She is one of three daughters. She makes about $800 a month practicing at a family clinic. The wages aren’t enough for her to support herself, she said.

"If you want a high-paying job, you have to know someone or be a man," she said.

Dr. Jumana Mohammed, 27. Image by Brontë Wittpenn. Iraq, 2019.
Dr. Jumana Mohammed, 27. Image by Brontë Wittpenn. Iraq, 2019.

Baba's Dream

Before I was born, Mama was pregnant with what would've been my older brother. But one day while driving, Baba's car turned over and Mama, riding shotgun, miscarried.

Months later, Baba had a dream where one of Islam's 12 Imam's -- Imam Musa al-Kadhim, Prophet Mohammad's son-in-law -- approached him predicting the birth of his first child: me. In the dream, Baba asked Imam Musa if his first born would be a boy.

"He looked at me like he was disgusted when I asked him," Baba said. "He told me it shouldn't matter what gender the child is; the child will be great."

A mass of people walked by in the dream. Imam Musa disappeared with them. Baba picked something up from the floor, a hijab.

"I knew you would be a girl," Baba said.

Mama was five months pregnant with me when her doctor told her to abort me.

"I still remember her name, Dr. Roanoke," Baba said. "She said to give you up because you'd come out deformed. I said no way. The Imam said our first child would be great in my dream. You were born on a summer night in August. Your big, dark eyes were wide open, looking around, when they brought you to me. I took you back to Dr. Roanoke a week after you were born. I told her 'This is the one you wanted me to get rid of'."

Baba loves me unconditionally.

"My blood runs through your body," Baba said. "How could I live without you?"

But sometimes I can't help but think he wishes I was born a boy. He'd wish it selflessly. He would wish it because society builds such large barriers for women before they're born.

But those barriers can be broken down with the help of fathers and brothers.

Free Your Daughters

Babas are important in changing Iraq's narrative around women's rights.

Faris, Mama's third cousin, is supportive of Jumana and her 14-year-old sister, Dano Mohammed's, dreams. He's an example of a supportive baba. But it'd take him years to shift from a protective to progressive mindset.

Faris raised Juamana based on a set of expectations and standards reinforced by traditional-thinking Iraqi men. She had to wear a hijab, dress modestly, marry as soon as she could and try to start a family.

Jumana studied, became a doctor and got married. Her marriage didn't last very long, however.

"He was crazy," she said.

So Jumana got divorced. Getting a divorce is common in Iraq. Iraqi women have the constitutional right to own land, unlike in Saudi Arabia where male guardianship is enforced.

Faris admits he was stricter with raising Jumana.

Faris is the transportation and highway director in Erbil, Iraq-Kurdistan. A drive home on the highway he helped build got him thinking one evening. Faris thought about how he would be remembered after he died. People will drive on the highway he'd constructed long after his death. But something in Faris' heart twisted when he imagined what his family would remember him for.

After some soul searching, Faris concluded he didn't want his daughters to remember him as intolerant. He didn't want to prevent them from being free.

Dano's never cut her hair. Her long, black hair drags on the floor when she lets it down.

"My hair symbolizes my freedom," she said.

Dano Mohammed, 14, has never cut her hair. Image by Brontë Wittpenn. Iraq, 2019.
Dano Mohammed, 14, has never cut her hair. Image by Brontë Wittpenn. Iraq, 2019.

Faris and Dano are best friends. He listens to Dano about gender inequality and her dreams of studying abroad. But it took Faris decades to come to this realization.

In my case, it took years of working with Baba to get to the same point in our relationship.

But we never gave up, no matter how different our views are.

Dear fathers: Your daughters are your blood. They are the part of you that lives on when your time comes. Free yourselves by freeing your daughters.


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