For their new women's center, the women of Karbala chose the name of a warrior: Zainab al-Hawraa. Sister of the Shiite martyr Imam Hussein, Zainab fought alongside him in 680, saving his young son and his legacy for future generations.
When Fern Holland heard the story, she laughed and told the women, "We want all Iraqi women to be just like her."
Ms. Holland, a young lawyer from Oklahoma, was women's rights coordinator of Iraq's Shiite heartland for the Coalition Provisional Authority. She helped write the part of the new constitution addressing women's rights. To the women in Karbala, she was "just like a sister."
March 9, after visiting the center, Holland and her deputy, Salwa Ourmashi, and coalition press officer Robert Zangas were killed, their car forced off the road and machine-gunned. Investigators arrested six suspects, four with valid Iraqi police ID.
Coalition officials call the murders an assassination, but hesitate to conclude whether the three civilians were targeted for promoting women's rights or as part of a larger campaign against Americans and Iraqis who work with them. Either way, the killings accelerated the CPA's plan to hand over the centers to Iraqi women to run by themselves, financing their work by charging small fees for classes and renting out space. "Fern was a huge catalyst for women's rights, says Hilary White, CPA press officer and Holland's former roommate, "but the women wanted it just as much as she did."
But today, the women carrying on Holland's and Ourmashi's work are afraid.
Over the past few months, Iraqi women in public roles, especially those who work with Americans or in promoting women's rights, have increasingly become targets of death threats and assassination attempts.
Many large international aid groups, including most of those with women's programs, have already withdrawn international staff because of attacks against aid workers. Now the few remaining women's groups fear they will be next.
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