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Visiting Iraqi journalist ranks culture over conflict

Iraqi journalist Huda Ahmed never tells questioners whether she is a Sunni or Shia Muslim. Such a question, she believes, is not only inappropriate but underscores a dangerous lack of understanding of Iraqi history.

The American media is so focused on the Shia-Sunni split that "there is no need to talk about it," she said. "If you ask, you bring it into existence."

All she will say, and she says it proudly, is: "I am an Iraqi Muslim."

A journalist who was recognized for bravery while covering combat during the siege of Najaf in southern Iraq, Ahmed is currently at MIT's Center for International Studies as a recipient of the International Women's Media Foundation's Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship. The nine-month fellowship to study human-rights journalism is sponsored in memory of the Boston Globe reporter who was killed while on assignment in Iraq in 2003.

Ahmed will take classes at MIT and Harvard, serve internships at WBUR with National Public Radio and possibly at two American daily newspapers, and participate in the Elizabeth Neuffer Forum on Human Rights and Journalism on March 29.

She will also write a study on the Iraq situation--focusing on family issues--which she hopes "will be studied by the American administration."

Ahmed, who is her 30s, does not go by her full name or have her photo taken, even in the relative safety of Cambridge. Her name has appeared on hit lists, and she is keenly aware of the dangers of journalism posed amid the chaos caused by warring insurgent groups. "Some of them don't announce why they kill such a politician or such an engineer or doctor or journalists," she said. "They just hit them and they go."

Yet she remains hopeful--because, she explained, Iraqis are hopeful people--that her homeland will gain some kind of normal life.

She does not believe, for example, that sectarian violence was inevitable after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"Sunni and Shia used to live together. Sunni and Shia are both Muslims," she said. "They have differences but that doesn't mean they have to fight each other. We have intermarriage. We have mixed tribes, mixed families. Of course, there are fanatic families on both sides. Sunnis were favored by Saddam Hussein, but they were favored before that, even by the Ottomans. And even before that, the Shia were oppressed.

"But that didn't stop them from getting married to each other. They didn't say, 'Oh, he's Sunni and she's Shia,' and they couldn't marry each other. Nobody felt that way.

"Saddam was trying to have this gap--to build this seed. He worked so hard on that. Apparently he succeeded now.''

American administrators in Iraq attempted to put more Shia in power after Saddam's fall, to redress inequities, but quotas and lists that identified leaders as Sunni or Shia just enhanced religious tension. When the Shia began to die in bombings, religious differences seemed irreconcilable, she said.

Ahmed, who was born and raised in Baghdad and graduated from the College of Languages of Baghdad University, became interested in journalism after the American invasion of 2003, when she started doing translation and other research work for the Washington Post. "We covered all the stories you could ever think of: hot spots, bombings, politics, culture," she said. She later worked for Knight-Ridder.

In the process, she got an education in American journalism and in what the American media will or will not cover. For example, she wishes the American press would focus on the lives of Iraqis and Iraqi culture as well as Iraqi politics and provide more in-depth stories that will help Americans understand the context of the current violence.

In her own research, Ahmed will delve into women's issues; she wants Americans to understand the nuances of Iraqi women's lives, such as why an Iraqi woman may choose to wear a veil or headscarf. Women started wearing scarves during the embargo of Saddam's era to mourn deaths from an unusual surge in cancer cases and other health problems and to show their faith. After 2003, many continued to wear a scarf to show commitment to the new post-Saddam politics; others wore scarves out of concern for security in the new religious atmosphere.

"But don't ever think that this woman, who wears a veil (scarf) because she was influenced by the Islamic party, that she is not strong, that she is not outspoken or that she cannot beat you and men in her speech," Ahmed said.

Iraqi women "are powerful, I tell you. And they are trying hard not to be left behind," she said. "They feel that this is their chance and even if it takes a long time, they have to do it."

The Elizabeth Neuffer Forum on Human Rights and Journalism will be held March 29 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. For more information, go to

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 21, 2007 (download PDF).

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