RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq has just launched a weekly youth program, "Shabab al-Nahrein" (The Youth Of Two Rivers ). The program takes on taboo issues in Iraqi society, particularly those among the country's booming younger generation (60 percent of the Iraqi population is under the age of 25). This week, host Rowayda Faris talks about women's education with guests and callers from across Iraq. Listen to the program in Arabic here.
In her late teens, Huda is beautiful and smart, a combination many parents hope to see in their children.
"Having a diploma," says the young woman from northern Iraq who didn't want to give her full name, "is the same as having a weapon."
Yet the power afforded to women by education -- critical thinking, debate skills, career possibilities, and the ability to read marriage and legal contracts -- is seen as a drawback by many Iraqi families.
Huda's family stopped her from attending school when she was 13 years old.
"I had just learned to read and write," she says. "They said the reason was because 'you're too beautiful.' I wish I could finish my studies, see the world, my friends."
Now Huda is at home most of the time. "What am I doing? Just cooking and cleaning the house. What am I contributing [to society]? Now I have to rely on my father and brother for everything," she says.
But Huda's father believes he is saving his daughter from an unhappy marriage.
"If a girl studies too much, it will just make people get divorced," he says. "If my daughter goes to university, she will become very stubborn. Her husband won't like this, and eventually he will divorce her."
"Why would I send her to school?" he asks. "Eventually, there is a husband waiting for her."
LISTEN: Host Rowayda Faris talks about the program (in English)
Thirty percent of girls in Iraq's rural areas are never even enrolled in primary school, while less than half of all Iraqi children (44 percent) finish their primary studies. One in five Iraqis over the age of 15 is illiterate, with illiteracy rates among women more than twice that of men.
Pulling girls out of school early to marry them off is common in the country's sprawling rural provinces -- somewhat less so in Baghdad, where university attendance among women is considerably higher. On average, one in five Iraqi girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is married.'Girls Have Very Small Minds'
Huda's father also claims that unemployment, which a 2009 UN report
put at 18 percent in Iraq, is a problem.
"Our sons finish school, but there are no jobs for them," he says. "So why would we let girls study? We teach her how to read and write, and that's it. To go to university? To get a diploma? No, she doesn't need that. Why would [not continuing school] have a negative effect on her? It wasn't a problem for my mother or my grandmother, so why would it be for my daughter?"
Huda's brother agrees. "Hundreds of girls are sitting at home and they are happy," he says. "Why would she go to school? It is better for her to stay at home. Plus, everyone knows that girls have very small minds."
Seventeen percent of Iraqi women work, despite the fact that women make up some 50 percent of the population
. By comparison, 42 percent of women are employed in neighboring Iran.
But for the younger generation, taboos on women's education and employment might be slowly changing. Asked if Iraqi men are scared of educated women, one young man from northern Iraq says he doesn't think so.
"Yes, there might be some men like that," he admits. "But in general, if a man is educated and has a modern mind-set, it shouldn't be a problem at all."
His friend, a young woman from the same area, agrees with him -- with one caveat. She says: "Some men might think, 'She is taking my place. I have the responsibility [to provide for the family]. So why should she work [instead of me]?'"
But Huda's inability to continue school hurts her on more than just a practical level.
"When people ask me what grade I'm in at school, that's when I feel very, very low inside," she says. "I wish I could tell them that I was still in school.... I really wish I could go back to school."Yassin Jaber, Kristin Deasy, and Alex Mayer contributed to this report