World view - Lindsey Hilsum explains Iraqi's sense of honour

Iraqi women who work or go to university become the target of Islamists - but those who stay in trad

It was a breath-taking moment. Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, the Italian aid workers taken hostage in Iraq, lifted the black veils covering their faces and smiled. After three weeks in captivity, they were free. Liberation came not when they got out of the vehicle that brought them to be handed over to the Red Cross, nor when they arrived in Rome some hours later, but when they revealed their faces. "You can take that off now," someone said.

In all societies undergoing trauma, women's position and power becomes a source of anger and dispute, and nowhere more so than Iraq. For Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Islamist militant who seized Kenneth Bigley and his two American colleagues, it is a key issue. His first demand was the release of jailed Iraqi women.

The demand was probably for female relatives of insurgents captured in Fallujah. Few Iraqis believe US claims that all such women have been released. Dr Salam Ismael, who worked at Fallujah General Hospital during the siege, told me how families there maintain that women who were arrested during these past months have still not reappeared. It was one of the Americans' most desperate and damaging tactics. Frustrated at their inability to get information from the men they captured, US troops arrested women and used them as bargaining chips. They told the men that if they talked, the women would be set free, but if they remained silent, no promises could be made about their fate. The Americans knew perfectly well that this was the worst threat they could make to any Muslim male traditionalist living in a tribal area.

In Iraq, a family's honour - its sharaf - resides in the chastity of its women. Persistent rumours that women have been raped by Americans at Abu Ghraib Prison have horrified Iraqis. Dozens of photographs purporting to show Iraqi women being raped at the prison circulate in Iraq, and although most are fake, the official US report by Major General Antonio Taguba did cite at least one case of an American having sex with a female Iraqi detainee. A letter smuggled out, supposedly from a young female prisoner, alleges rape and humiliation. As with so much in Iraq, it no longer matters if it's true, because everyone believes it is.

Few Iraqi women have spoken publicly since their release from US detention. Some families have sent these women away to rural areas or even abroad, so that neighbours cannot see the source of their shame. Others are reported to have killed the women, such is the disgrace brought upon the family.

Attitudes to women were the root of the trouble last year, when six Royal Military Police were killed in al-Majar al-Kabir, in the British sector. Local leaders had protested about British troops raiding houses, seeing women unveiled, and searching their bedrooms and wardrobes. After negotiation, it was agreed that the British would stop house raids for a while, and the leaders would persuade people to hand in their weapons.

The violence started when young men fired on a British patrol, because they believed the soldiers were about to break the agreement and raid more houses. (The RMPs were killed in the confusion.)

The problem for the British soldiers was that some of the Iraqi men were indeed hiding weapons in the women's bedrooms and wardrobes.

The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, led by Iraqi women who have spent years in exile, cites eight women recently murdered near Mosul, including a doctor, a pharmacist and two university lecturers. In language nearly as blood-curdling as the extremists', they say: "The Islamist terrorist savages could not tolerate women to work and feed themselves and their families. They want them blindfolded, covered by hijab and heavy rags and thrown into the kitchens of their houses to serve as slaves."

Women's groups that are seen as having a western agenda have been harassed. In March this year, Fern Holland, an American lawyer who worked with women in Hilla, south of Baghdad, was murdered alongside an Iraqi female colleague. She had upset too many powerful men. It didn't help that the Americans constantly used her project for their own propaganda, claiming that they were liberating Iraqi women and thus reinforcing the view that America had come to sow revolution and destroy honour.

Under Saddam, women could have a profession and choose whether to wear the veil or not, but lived in terror of the secret police. Now, if they participate in politics or work, or simply go to university, they may become targets for the Islamists - but if they live a traditional life, the Americans may arrest them as a way of pressuring their husbands and fathers. Italians had extra sympathy for the two Simonas because they were young women. In the west's eyes, another line would have been crossed if their captors had murdered them. Yet that line has already been breached, as all factions abuse Iraqi women while few in the outside world even notice.