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Back behind the wheel in Baghdad

world Updated: Dec 13, 2008 23:54 IST

The last time Manal Hakim was in the driving seat, she was pistol-whipped by gunmen.

Two years later, the 38-year-old Iraqi teacher is behind the wheel again, but now with a smile on her face.

“I was parked near a service station in Baghdad when five masked gunmen told me to get out of the car and began beating me up in front of everyone. Nobody did a thing to stop them,” she said. “They insulted me, and shouted at me never to drive a car again because it was haram (forbidden under Islam for women to drive),” said the mother of one. “They said they’d kill me if I did it again. I was totally shocked.”

She locked her car away in the garage of her home in the Sunni Amriah area of western Baghdad.

There were no restrictions on women in the Iraqi capital driving under the secular rule of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, but that all changed in the wake of the US-led invasion of the country in March 2003.

Now with improved security in the city since the end of last year and the expulsion by police and the Iraqi army of Islamist militias that held both Sunni Islam and Shia quarters in their grip, women feel more relaxed.

“It’s true that today you can see women drivers again,” said Hakim, who wears a headscarf. “Since the security situation got better I’m driving again, and I certainly feel more free.”

According to a study by the United Nations and Iraqi statistics bureau, women are the head of the family in 12 per cent of Baghdad homes, and therefore need to drive.