Publication date: 14 June 2023
Over the past 20 years, the fight to improve and protect women’s rights in Iraq has been incredibly challenging for me and my colleagues at the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). Every month has brought new obstacles, including security threats, legal intimidation, media attacks and social media stigmatization.
When the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, I had hoped for a future in which women in Iraq could be respected and treated as equals under a state that upheld human rights. Instead, the US-led invasion solidified existing patriarchal structures and created the conditions for an increase in violence against women. This prompted me and others to establish OWFI. In this restrictive atmosphere, my writing and advocacy for women’s freedoms turned me into a target for Islamist political militias which saw my work as a threat to their moral values. Despite the continued difficulties, I remain committed to championing women’s independence and equality in Iraq.
A sense of what was to come
In 2004, I remember speaking at a seminar and participating in one of the first women’s demonstrations against Resolution 137, which aimed to impose Sharia law in Iraq. At the time, we were also preparing to march in support of International Women’s Day. Consequently, I received two threatening emails, one promising to kill me within days and the other filled with misogynistic rants against me and others working at OWFI. The second email was signed by a militia, and it made me think twice about being seen in public. At this time, violent militias were vying for positions of power in the new governing structure of Iraq, but also within the so-called ‘resistance’. Despite the threats, on 8 March 2004 I helped organize a gathering of hundreds of women and men demanding equality in Firdos Square. Surrounded by supportive individuals, acutely aware of the dangers, we proudly celebrated International Women’s Day.
On the same day, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) approved the Interim Constitution of Iraq. The constitution introduced the concept of federalism and de-Ba’athification, but did not address women’s rights. It referred to the state religion but did not adopt Resolution 137. The head of the US occupation force that was ruling Iraq had selected the IGC’s members based on their ethnicity, religion, sectarian background and tribal strength, instead of choosing those who represented the diverse views and political affiliations of the Iraqi people. As a result, a group of religious clerics and many sheikhs became the main leaders of Iraq, influenced by the political views of the US and the UK. The political legacy of these appointments lasts to this day.
Under the colonialist appointments of these religious and tribal leaders, women’s spaces in Iraq diminished. Those living in relatively peaceful parts of the country were confined to the kitchens and bedrooms of their homes, while women in conflict zones became vulnerable and were subjected to exploitation, abuse and trafficking by tribes and militiamen. Even the new media platforms that once embraced diverse political views began to favour the patriarchal leaders of the time. Requests for interviews with representatives of OWFI became less frequent, and some that did take place were never aired, while TV talk shows became increasingly aggressive and misogynistic. The situation became difficult for women as their voices were silenced and their freedoms limited.
Taking women’s protection into our own hands
With rising incidents of so-called ‘honour killings’ and sex-trafficking, I knew I had to take action to advocate for women’s protection. In 2003, as director of OWFI, I wrote to the US administrator of Iraq demanding that the occupying forces fulfil their duty to protect Iraqi women. In addition, the women of OWFI took it upon themselves to document the sex-trafficking industry, with the help of women who had been rescued from trafficking and were living in our shelters. As a result, from 2003 until the present day, every issue of OWFI’s Al Mousawat newspaper has included an article or statement calling for anti-trafficking measures. With the support of my colleagues, I also compiled the information and published it in a report for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 2010.
When our calls for feminist progress were ignored, we shifted our focus to directly protecting, empowering and educating women who have survived these forms of violence. These women, who had already broken away from their patriarchal oppressors and taken control of their lives, became the next generation of OWFI feminists. Our support capacity at shelters grew steadily along with the expansion of our small feminist community of women, made up largely of survivors. In 2004, there were only three women at our first shelter, but by 2010 we were providing refuge to 12 women, and this number continued to grow until it reached 150 women in 2022.
It is noteworthy, and shameful, that the Iraqi government does not officially allow women’s shelters. Instead, it has established the NGO Directorate, one of whose primary missions seems to be to monitor and restrict the work of women’s organizations like ours. The women we sheltered, and continue to shelter, have received what amounts to death sentences from their powerful tribes, who have lobbied authorities for their return. From 2008 to 2018, our shelters were constantly targeted by members of the police and intelligence agencies, who questioned and intimidated us regarding the young women and girls in our care who had no official identification. Because we were housing women without male guardians, the authorities accused us of running brothels. Despite our efforts to protect and empower victimized women, the newly formed state and its advisers from the US and the UK showed no interest in jeopardizing relations with the Islamist and tribal leaders in order to save these women.
For years, we submitted numerous documents to the NGO Directorate in an attempt to gain legal registration for our facilities, but we faced massive resistance until eventually we received support from our international allies. Even then, the managers of the NGO Directorate still asked that we not run shelters for women, citing religious and cultural traditions. Despite these challenges, over the course of two decades, our shelters have provided refuge to over 1,300 women and girls escaping ‘honour killings’, sex-trafficking and domestic abuse.
Besides sheltering women, we have focused our energies on strengthening Iraq’s feminist media landscape. I launched the first issue of Al Mousawat in April 2003 and have since mentored the next generation of feminists running it. The paper has recently published its 69th issue. We have trained over 100 shelter residents to express feminist views in their own articles or personal stories, using aliases to protect their identities.
However, our radio station, Radio Al Mousawat (103.8FM), has faced greater pressures. The Communications and Media Commission (CMC) ordered it to be shut down in 2014 after we spoke out against the proposed Jaafari Law, which attempted to legalize child marriages and oppress women in various ways, including denying them inheritance rights. The CMC and its police force have raided the station and intimidated its staff on several occasions since June 2014. Although we managed to negotiate its reopening with a new CMC official, our registration with the NGO Directorate is now being denied, putting the future of the radio station in jeopardy.
After years of advocating against gender-based violence, we have succeeded in shifting public opinion and raising awareness about the harmful nature of ‘honour killings’. Initially, our efforts faced fierce resistance and criticism from the government and the public. We were condemned for going against the popular perception that these killings were somehow justified. But our persistence has paid off, and as a result the issue of violence against women has gained mainstream attention, with television and online media starting to report these cases on an almost daily basis. In February 2023, when Tiba al-Ali, a woman from Diwaniyah, was killed by her father in an alleged ‘honour killing’ for living with a man of her choice in Turkey, her death made headlines in Iraqi media outlets.
OWFI has also had successes fighting for stronger government protections for women. The Family Protection Unit and the Community Police, assigned by the Ministry of Interior to protect women, have become close allies and rely on OWFI’s services on a weekly, if not daily, basis. While OWFI has managed to influence some officials and judges to adopt a more women-friendly stance and stand up to patriarchal norms, the organization’s shelters remain technically illegal due to the absence of legislation supporting privately run shelters. Despite some progress, we continue to be at the mercy of extremist politicians and their misinterpretation of women’s rights.
In January 2020, after the outbreak of the October (Tishreen) uprising and the assassination in Baghdad of the head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps by US drones, there was another crackdown on civil society. I was subpoenaed to attend court after the Secretariat of the Council of Ministers (COMSec) filed a lawsuit against OWFI with the aim of dissolving the organization, but after a year-long court battle, the case was ultimately dismissed by a sympathetic judge.
Two decades of religious and tribal domination in Iraq have had devastating consequences for women. The ongoing battle between rival religious political groups only adds to the hopelessness, with the international community’s support of the Islamic Shia factions and their tribal allies further perpetuating the tragedy. Without a change in this dynamic, the people and women of Iraq cannot hope for a brighter future.
Note: Yanar Mohammed advises that between the writing of this article and its publication, the NGO Directorate issued an order for OWFI to stop all its activities immediately.