Recent incidents in which gunmen – some affiliated with al-Qaeda-- disguised themselves as women in order to avoid capture by security forces are an abuse of Iraqi society's respect for women, Iraqi officials and women's organisations say.
Iraqi police captured three wanted men disguised as women on February 12th as they tried to pass through a checkpoint in eastern Baghdad's Ur neighbourhood, said Lt. Col. Iyad Radhi of the Baghdad-al-Rusafa police.
"The men are wanted on charges of carrying out terrorist attacks, including killing citizens based on identity and sectarian or ideological affiliation, as well as involvement in committing armed robberies, thefts and detonating explosive charges," he told Mawtani.
Security forces have captured 16 al-Qaeda suspects disguised as women and wearing traditional abayas and sheelas in the past three months, Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan told Mawtani. In other cases, security forces busted a weapons smuggling attempt disguised as a wedding convoy in an area north of Baghdad, Maan said.
"In one case, the level of disguise reached a point to where a wedding party included nine cars. The terrorist was disguised as a bride, and his companion was wearing a men's suit, and they were all transporting weapons and explosives to Baghdad by way of these cars," he said.
"Were it not for the alertness of the security men at the checkpoint in al-Taji, north of Baghdad, the cars with the explosives inside would have entered Baghdad and a real human massacre would have taken place," he said.
New measures to confront such attempts include the appointment of women police inspectors at major checkpoints at city entrances and at main points in Baghdad and the provinces, Maan said, so these women can search suspects inside a special cabin "with all due respect".
"This is a new phase of terrorists' exploitation of women. After their attempt to turn women into mere merchandise or just a physical need, they come now to exploit society's respect and appreciation of women," Safia al-Suhail, a member of the parliamentary women's committee, told Mawtani.
"Religious leaders of both sects, intellectuals and journalists must warn the Iraqi people against such sinister attempts to undermine Iraqi conventions and values," she added.
Iman Abd Ali, director of Baghdad Women, an Iraqi non-governmental organisation, said her organisation and its affiliates consider the "terrorists' attempts to disguise themselves using women's attire" a serious concern.
"We call on security forces to take precautions and be on the alert to ensure this does not become a cause for violating customs and traditions while searching women and for violating their sanctity," she said, urging police to "adopt modern scientific methods at security checkpoints to uncover the disguised terrorists".
In addition to dressing in women's clothes, she said, some gunmen pose as taxi drivers and pick up unsuspecting women in order to get through checkpoints without being searched. In the past three months, Iraqi courts exonerated four women detained because they had ridden in taxis driven by gunmen who were transporting weapons and explosives, Ali said.
The gunmen, whose passengers included female university students, had counted on the willingness of the security forces to clear the road for them out of respect for the ladies, she said. The courts found the women had been used and were innocent of all crimes, she said.
Sabah al-Hashemi, a social activist in Baghdad, said it is no surprise "those who committed murder and set off explosions would use any means possible to accomplish their ends".
"We will launch a popular campaign in Baghdad rejecting this, and calling for harsher punishment for those who exploit women to carry out abhorrent terrorist plans, whether they disguise themselves in women's clothes, or use unsuspecting women to transport explosives and weapons between the various areas and cities of Iraq," she said.
Terrorists "began using all means to achieve their aims", Sheikh Rafa Abdul Kareem al-Kharbeet, a prominent tribal chief in Fallujah, told Mawtani, adding that their latest methods will "reflect negatively on all Iraqi women".
At one time, gunmen moved around freely, he said. Then they began wearing masks to carry out their attacks, and now they are disguising themselves in women's clothes, which shows "their weakness and the extent of the deterioration that has affected them".
Al-Sunaid urged precise intelligence work and close inspection of the identities of those entering and leaving cities, while maintaining women's sanctity. Iraqi women "have endured a lot of terrorist crimes which took away their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers. We must not allow anyone to exploit them in this filthy way", he said.
By Mohammed al-Qaisi in Baghdad