Some Iraqi Women Get a Break at the Pumps

By Azeez Mahmood

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq, October 6, 2006 (ENS) - Hour after hour, Barez Qadir sits in her car in the sweltering heat, waiting her turn at the Bakthiar filling station on the outskirts of Sulaimaniyah. Other women manage to escape the blazing temperatures, finding shade under some nearby trees in this northeastern Iraqi city in the Kurdistan Region.

The Bakthiar petrol station is a women only service station introduced by the authorities to spare female drivers the arduous, uncomfortable queuing that car owners have to endure at pumps across the region.

But such is the severity of the fuel crisis gripping Iraq at present that even here at Bakthiar the lines of vehicles waiting their turn sometimes seem endless.

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There are now more vehicles in Kurdistan than the oil-rich region can fuel. (Photo credit unknown)
"I wish I could leave this country," said Qadir. "[My husband and I are] thinking about selling our home and traveling to Europe one way or another. Life is terrible here."

After the fall of the former regime, the number of cars in Iraq multiplied. But the supply of fuel could not keep up with increased demand, and shortages were made worse by corruption, theft and the growth in the number of fuel-powered generators, which people bought because of the constant electricity cuts.

The fuel crisis is now the source of growing political tension. Last month, drivers staged a protest in Sulaimaniyah, blocking several roads. And some analysts are suggesting that further unrest has the potential to bring down the current government, especially if there is a sharp rise in prices.

For the moment, the situation at Bakthiar is calm. Every day, nearly 500 women come to fill their cars - or those of their husbands. While waiting, they get out and chat to pass the two or three hours it takes to be served.

Because the queues here are shorter than at other pumps - where drivers often have to wait up to a couple of days to be served - men get their wives to fill up their cars at Bakthiar, which can cause all sorts of problems if they are poor drivers.

"Those women often can't drive well and crash against other cars," said civil servant Gashbeen Mahmood, 36.

Staff at the filling station say they can tell which women have been sent to Bakthiar by their husbands by the cars they're driving - the most obvious cases being those at the wheels of pick-ups and "Monicas," Toyota four-wheel drive land-cruisers - named after Monica Lewinsky because it is so popular with men.

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Kurdish women in Sulaimaniyah have a petrol station dedicated to serving their needs. (Photo courtesy IMB)
The number of women drivers in the region remains relatively low - just over 9,000 female inhabitants of Sulaimaniyah, which has a population of 650,000, got their licenses over the last sixteen years.

Being able to drive has a liberating effect on many women, allowing them to lead more independent lives. "I no longer have to wait for my husband to take me out, I go wherever I want," said Jwana Salih, who owns a hairdressing salon.

Although the queues at Bakthiar are shorter than elsewhere, women nonetheless complain that they are waiting too long. In response, the filling station's management has introduced several measures to cut down the queues. For instance, customers now have to produce a driving license, which is aimed at discouraging those who are only there to fill up their husband's vehicle or that of another family member.

Notwithstanding the problems at Bakhtiar, the station's supervisor, Pshtiwan Mahmood, insists that his customers are generally happy with the service. "It is the men who create problems. At their pumps, there are always fights in the queues. This seldom happens here," he said.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR}