Features » February 7, 2012
Fighting for Gender Equality in Iraq
Yanar Mohammed says the U.S. invasion and occupation hurt women’s rights.
Inequalities cannot thrive in the third millennium, and that's why everybody is in the streets--especially in the Arab world.
As President Obama hailed the “extraordinary achievement” of U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraq in December, continuing protests against government repression and abysmal basic services undermined the narrative of a successful democratic transition. Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), has for months helped many Iraqis express their anger. Since February 2011’s “Day of Iraqi Anger” – on which tens of thousands of Iraqis nationwide called for jobs, fair distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth and an end to occupation – Mohammed has helped organize weekly demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. She’s been a vocal critic of both the U.S.-led occupation and the fundamentalist groups that she says it has empowered.
On June 10, 2011, Mohammed and other OWFI activists were attacked and sexually assaulted while demonstrating. Despite continued threats and intimidation, she continues her work to defend Iraqi women from domestic abuse and sexual trafficking, and to promote women’s voices and demands in the struggle for a truly democratic Iraq. She spoke to In These Times in December from Toronto, where she was visiting family.
U.S. troops have withdrawn, yet as many as 5,000 private contractors remain. What is the importance of this moment for Iraqis?
We are unable to focus on the withdrawal because our insecurity has escalated. There are more bombings. And we are unable, after eight years, to figure out: What did we gain out of this occupation? We know what we have lost. We know the United States was unable to put together a functioning government. We know that we have lost the elegance of our cities. Baghdad is totally ruined. We know that at this point the standard of life is so low and so expensive that a middle-class family cannot get by, cannot put healthy meals on the table.
Is the occupation continuing by other means?
Although U.S. troops withdrew, they have left us with a heavily militarized society. Almost 1 million Iraqi personnel have been recruited into the army and the security agencies. We are still living in a big military camp – the only difference is that they are wearing Iraqi military uniforms. We have almost 10 different kinds of security agencies – some of them are anti-riot, some of them are intelligence and some of them are private security groups. None of them feel like they need to be accountable.
How have things changed for Iraqi women since Saddam was overthrown?
Women’s status in the society is much worse. When Saddam was around, we had many objections, but the laws did grant some basic women’s rights. But after the so-called liberation, a girl can be married at 11 years. This is legal because the Iraqi Constitution has an article that says that Iraqis are free to choose what kind of law under which they lead their civil lives. Many American officials have called the Constitution the most democratic constitution in the Arab world, but how does an 11-year-old girl choose what kind of law protects her?
How did the OWFI Iraq get its start?
During the beginning of the occupation, I was living in Canada. In May 2003, I traveled to Iraq and met with some women, and we founded the OWFI. Our mission was to build a society of full equality for everybody under a secular, non-ethnic constitution. We started with a few volunteers. One of the volunteers was a young woman who was eloping, but under the threat of an honor killing. We gave her a room on the upper floor in the building, while we took the main floor for the organization. And so we started the first shelter for women in Iraq!
Our main shelter is in Baghdad now, but we have many families who have opened their houses for women who are under threat of honor killing, or who are escaping other kinds of abuse. OWFI defends women without compromising with anyone – not the tribal groups in Iraq who see women as property, not the religious groups who claim the political scene for themselves and not the nationalist groups, under whom we have lived our whole lives, who see men as the heroes of a society.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
For sure. The kind of feminism I look at encourages equality – including when it comes to gender. Inequalities cannot thrive in the third millennium, and that’s why everybody is on the streets. Feminists, especially in the Arab world, have had a big say in these public squares of political struggle, because women are the face of political change.
Your organization recently issued a message of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The media talks about violence in Iraq a great deal, but rarely inequality and rising unemployment. Is there a new 1% in Iraq?
Although the U.S. troops are leaving, they have left us with a 1% of Iraqis who are ruling ruthlessly. A member of Parliament in Iraq receives annual compensation that is equivalent to $102,000, while a worker in the Iraqi public sector earns $200 or $300 as a beginning monthly salary. This is a society of inequality.
Unlike the revolutions in Egypt or Tunisia that were demanding the removal of a dictator, February’s mass demonstrations were targeting a government that was elected. What does this say about Iraqi democracy?
We are asked, “Why demonstrate against an elected government?” During the occupation, all the political and financial support went to the most right-wing groups in Iraq. The elections are the final result of the eight-year U.S. occupation.
The government announced before the demonstrations that there would be a curfew – they were terrified. Yet people came and demonstrated. Nobody was fighting against each other – there was no sectarian struggle in this square. But, the end of the day was different. The armies, security groups and anti-riot troops surrounded us, and they began shooting. It did not feel that it was a democratic country at all. On Fridays, people still go. But if you go to demonstrate in Tahrir Square [in central Baghdad], Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has his militias around the square ready to pick you up.
OWFI members have been beaten and sexually assaulted while demonstrating, just like female protesters in Egypt. Why are women targeted in this way?
They wanted us to feel ashamed. Our organization made sure that these demonstrations had a female face. We had our slogans, our banners, which we carried every single Friday. This was not approved by al-Maliki’s government. And in an Arab society, if a woman is shamed, she is pushed out of the public arena. They expected that we would go hide in our homes and not show our faces to anybody. The same way in which women are forced to immolate themselves or made the victim of an honor killing, they wanted to force a political dishonoring on us in order to end us politically.
How are the women who have been attacked in Tahrir Square faring today?
All of them are back in the square. But we are very careful as to our whereabouts. Once we see security forces, we leave the square. We are not willing to be tortured again and again.
Are you working to get women elected directly to Parliament?
In Iraq, 25 percent of members of Parliament are required to be women, which is good. But more than half the women in Parliament are from the Religious Right. When we were beaten in Tahrir Square – 25 of us – not a single female Parliamentarian spoke out. In other words, those women are puppets.
You have been threatened with assassination. Why do you continue doing this work?
The government is threatening not to renew our registration as an organization. But I always remember the eyes of the young women in our shelter who are given a second chance in life because they just escaped an honor killing that was forced upon them because they were raped, or because they were harassed. This second chance to life for women is important. I will never let go of this mandate, whether I am beaten or declared illegal by some corrupt prime minister. The American occupation put all the resources of Iraq in the hands of the misogynists. Feminists can bring a better future in Iraq. And we are waiting to hear from the feminists of the United States, from progressives, from everybody. We want you to help us gain the upper hand in Iraq
Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.