A life after divorce


August 5, 2012

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    Hawar Anwar/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Rasha speaks during a video conference with Global Citizen Corps members in Indonesia. She credits the program with turning her life around after she chose to divorce her husband, a decision that invites scorn and ostracism in Iraq. Photo: Hawar Anwar/Mercy Corps

Rasha’s story is unfortunately typical of girls in Iraq: She was married off against her will at age 13.

Rasha’s husband — 18 years her senior — banned her from pursuing her most valued pastime: education. To top it off, they were simply incompatible. “When I called something black, he called it white,” she describes, emphasizing how oppositely the two perceived the world. “It wasn’t a marriage at all,” she says. “It was a disaster.”

After 12 years of marriage, which produced two children, she simply couldn’t live in a situation so suffocating, so empty of love. Despite the consequences, she arranged a divorce — not an easy task in Iraq.

The split provided some degree of liberty to the newly single mother. Most importantly, she was able to return to her studies. Yet divorced women suffer from severe stigma and subsequent social exclusion in Iraq — this is in addition to the adversities that females already face in the country.

“Many around me said ‘You are a woman. You should stay at home’,” Rasha recalls. Rasha’s struggle to continually endure the criticism — combined with having to work full time, do well in her studies so that she could earn a Bachelor’s degree in English Language, and care for two children — drained her resolve and determination. She felt constantly exhausted, lonely and defeated.

Thankfully, one day soon after she left her husband, Rasha learned about GCC when she overheard some colleagues at her university in Baghdad discussing it. The program — designed to develop the skills and confidence of young people to address issues facing their communities — gave her the strength to change the course of her life, the confidence to pursue her goals, and a community to support her through the toughest times.

She's now been a member for 10 years. “GCC made a great change in me,” she told me. “It even changed my personality. I used to be shy and quiet because I was a divorced woman. Most of our [GCC] group is made up of men, but even so, I can now make my voice heard by others."

When I first met Rasha, the change in personality was evident. She exudes confidence and pride. When I attended a Global Citizen Corps meeting with her, she participated in conversation often and offered intelligent opinions on how to strategize local community projects.

She has completed her Bachelor’s degree and is ambitiously on track for a Master’s degree. One of her fellow GCC members told me, “Rasha is going to be famous one day.”

I believe it. She is an incredibly strong woman who has looked stigma and stereotype in the face and, to a large extent, has overcome it. Rasha told me that one GCC member, Johainna from Khanaqin, had been a role model for her, leading community projects and encouraging other females to join her in local activism.

When Rasha says things like, “If you want to change your community you first have to change yourself,” it is clear that she has the potential to take on a similar mentor role for other young women in GCC, or in her community at large.

“I think it will be a wonderful future,” Rasha told me, unprovoked, toward the end of one of our conversations. And thanks to GCC empowering women like Rasha to become community leaders in Iraq, it will be.