Fighting for Gender Equality in Iraq

By Burns, Rebecca | In These Times, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Fighting for Gender Equality in Iraq


Burns, Rebecca, In These Times


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 US.-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U.S. troops have withdrawn, yet as many as 5,000 private contractors remain.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. …

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