“When I used to dance and sing I felt free,” says Karima Muhsen, a 42-year-old gypsy woman living in the area of Fawar, about 20 kilometres southeast of the city of Diwaniya, capital of the southern Qadisiyah province. “And I used to teach my daughters the art of dancing and singing. But now we are no longer allowed to dance and sing. I am getting old and I can no longer work – I can't even beg in Diwaniya's streets,” she complains.
Muhsen is one of Iraq's gypsies, or Romany people, known locally as Kawliya. It is hard to know how many gypsies are living in the country – estimates range between 6,000 and 20,000. But what is known is that after 2003, when Iraq became more religiously conservative thanks to the end of the regime of secular, nationalist dictator, Saddam Hussein, the gypsies were forbidden from earning their living from dancing and singing.
As with gypsies almost everywhere, their lives were far from easy before 2003. But at least local authorities would allow them to practice their traditions within their own enclaves and to travel freely between gypsy settlements. Now they are carefully monitored by conservative locals and tightly controlled by local police. For example, recently the local police surrounded Fawar for a week – they are preventing almost everyone from coming or going.
“We are deprived of the most basic rights,” Muhsen told NIQASH. “No health care, no social welfare and we are fed up with these harsh conditions.”
Fawar has about 300 houses, but many of them are abandoned. The streets are dusty and garbage is piled high on corners. State services do not reach here; there is no running water, no schools and no health clinics. Once a week authorities allow a water tanker in.
“The police treat us in a very arbitrary way,” adds Abdullah al-Mueen, a gypsy and another resident of Fawar. “Sometimes they allow us to enter the village and other times they don't. In some cases, they won't even let our relatives enter the village to visit us.”
Security measures at the village were taken after a decision was made by the Diwaniya provincial council, the Commander of Diwaniya Police, Abdul Jalil al-Asadi, told NIQASH. And the decision was made for moral reasons rather than any security problems.
“The gypsies are peaceful people,” al-Asadi said. “They do not have criminal or terrorist motives and they are not hosting incubators for terrorists. In fact not one charge of crime or theft has been filed against them and they do not engage in prostitution.” There are actually other parts of the district that are more problematic for crime than this village, al-Asadi noted.
Gypsies have always had to deal with discrimination in Iraq.
“The first gypsy family came to the Diwaniya area at the beginning of last century,” says Ghalib al-Kaabi, a local sociologist. “Gypsy families then began to settle in areas like Basra, Kamaliya and Ishaq as well.”
Since the 1920s, when the modern state of Iraq was founded they have been unable to serve in the military or police because this would have “dishonoured” the security forces.
In the 1950s, the Iraqi authorities tried harder to integrate local gypsies and set up a primary school for the children in Fawar. However tough economic conditions, a lack of jobs and extreme poverty saw many gypsies continue to earn money with prostitution or by begging.
Al-Kaabi points out that some of Diwaniya's people have married gypsies and some of their descendants actually hold senior positions within the city administration – yet the stigma of gypsy forebears means that many of them hide their roots.
After 2003, gypsies became easy targets for religious militias who took over many gypsy villages and caused inhabitants to flee, often outside the country. The word “gypsy” was replaced in Iraqi identification papers by the word “exception”, basically taking away local gypsies' right to an ethnic identity of their own. After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, the ethnicity, “Iraqi”, was applied only to those who were born to Iraqi parents. Because gypsies' parentage is often unclear, they began to be described as “exceptions” instead.
And really, since 2004, gypsies in this area and around Baghdad have been harassed continuously by religious extremists, who believe that they are all sex workers and who consider their lifestyle immoral.
Although gypsies are Iraqis and are allowed to vote they cannot get any kind of state-sponsored jobs, local man al-Mueen says. “Not even in simple roles – like a waiter or a night watchman.” In a country where almost all the jobs are provided by the government, and where your position is often based on tribal or ethnic affiliations, having “exception” on your ID card is a big handicap when it comes to employment.
The security measures taken against the gypsies are necessary in order to protect ordinary society from their immorality, says Hassan al-Jibouri, who heads the human rights commission on the provincial council.
“Of course we believe they should have public services and that they are entitled to their human rights,” al-Jibouri says. “But we will not lift the security restrictions and we refuse to allow them to mix with Diwaniya society because of their bad and immoral conduct.”
“Has the name “gypsy” become a stain upon our foreheads?,” asks another gypsy local, Kathem Abu Nashwan, angrily. While some of the young gypsy men have joined with the volunteer Shiite militias, who are fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, other young men in the village are not even allowed to play football with outsiders, Nashwan notes. “Football players who tried to enter our village to play with our youths were arrested!”
With a sad face, Nashwan says that really the social rejection is more difficult to take than the security measures. “We are Shiite Muslim citizens of Iraq. We have creative talents that are being lost. We are no longer allowed to sing or dance.” It is all of these things that make Iraq's gypsies choose to live in isolation, Nashwan concludes unhappily.