"We are all targets, women and Americans alike," says Yanar Mohammed, a newspaper editor and outspoken feminist. "There are many women activists, but they cannot speak boldly against political Islam."
Ms. Mohammed has received several death threats from a militant Islamic group called Jaish al-Sahaba, Army of the Prophet's Companions, for her opposition to Islamic law.
"If you do not ask forgiveness, then you are an apostate and should be killed by Islamic law," read the first threat, quoting a verse from the Koran that promises death or crucifixion for those who spread sins on Earth.
Mohammed is a socialist, a defiantly secular voice against sexual taboos. But even devoutly religious women who wear the veil aren't safe: Raja Habib Khuzai, a Shiite member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, received threats after voting against a controversial measure that would have replaced Iraq's civil personal status laws with Islamic law, or sharia.
At the Karbala center, the women are hardly opposed to sharia - most of them wear the maqna, a veil so concealing it even covers their chins. But they are determined to recapture a role in the city's teeming civic life.
"I came to this center because I wanted women to have a role in this community, because we are more than half the community," says Amal Omran, a young veterinarian. "And I think it's our reward for not having anything before."
Under Saddam Hussein, women enjoyed civil protections that were relatively advanced for the Arab world, a legacy of the pre-Baathist monarchy. But after the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Mr. Hussein began courting Islamic hard-liners, segregating schools and decriminalizing polygamy and honor killings.