IRAQ - ATTACKS CONTINUE ON WOMEN HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
Photo credit: OWFI
- Women have been at the forefront of
demonstrations across the Middle East and
On the frontlines of demonstrations or
behind the scenes as tech-savvy organizers, women have played pivotal roles in
the recent democratic revolutions and uprisings in the MENA region. Women’s
activism and organizing in
The Organization for Women’s Freedom in
Iraq (OWFI) is one of the leaders of
Women’s Rights and Women Human Rights
Different political factions including opposition and resistance movements have also tended to target women and gender relations in their political projects, whether through physical violence or legislation. According to OWFI’s 2010 Annual Report, women in Iraq experience gender-specific forms of violence that include so-called ‘honour’-based violence, trafficking, violence toward women accused of prostitution, being unveiled and wearing makeup.
It is within this context of militarization, religious, sectarian and political fragmentation, widespread violence (including various forms of violence against women) and increasingly conservative visions of gender relations that Iraqi WHRDs organize. They face the same denial of civil and political rights as all citizens – including those of peaceful assembly, association, expression and the right to life and security – but with gender-specific consequences. Some Iraqi WHRDs take part in mixed human rights groups or social movements, while others denounce the disappearance of family members or work directly on women’s rights agendas.
The context of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by foreign troops has led to a particularly problematic dynamic for those working on women’s rights who may be labelled “western” or “traitorous” for their work, which may also be seen by some Islamists as associated with the supposedly secular agenda of the Saddam Hussein regime. Given this difficult context, Iraqi WHRDs may be forced to abandon their political activities, go into exile or focus instead on surviving and caring for family members.
But in spite of these enormous challenges, Iraqi WHRDs continue their work in addressing violence, resisting militarism and organizing for democratic change. Some of the major achievements of the Iraqi women’s movements include campaigns against a discriminatory law governing marriage, divorce and child custody and limiting the constitutional role of Islam, lobbying for gender quotas in political representation as well as working to ensure legislation complies with international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Since 2010’s inconclusive elections, the Iraqi coalition government has been plagued by infighting and financial scandals, while many Iraqis still lack basic services and employment opportunities are few. Inspired in part by events elsewhere in the region, Iraqi citizens have gathered every Friday since February in Baghdad’s own Tahrir Square to protest corruption, poor government and basic services, high unemployment and lack of freedom of expression.
Authorities have responded harshly, banning street demonstrations and attempting to confine large gatherings to football stadiums. As a result, there have been a number of clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators on the one hand and security forces and pro-government demonstrators on the other, resulting in the deaths of at least 125 people, hundreds wounded and the arrest and detention of dozens of activists. Among the activists who have been attacked are several associated with OWFI, which has played a key role and helped to increase women’s visibility in the square demonstrations.
OWFI’s current president, Yanar Mohammed,
co-founded the organization during the 2003
Targeting OWFI and other Iraqi Activists
Since the Friday Tahrir Square
demonstrations began in February of this year, OWFI activists have experienced
violent and sexualized attacks, intimidation and harassment preventing them
from carrying out their work. There have also been reprisals against their youth
allies, including detentions and kidnappings. In an interview posted on the
organization’s website, OWFI President, Yanar Mohammed, cites their work in organizing
the youth at
On Friday June 10th, after the expiration of a one-hundred-day deadline set by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki for improving basic services, demonstrators gathered because there were no noticeable changes in the provision of electricity, water, jobs, or in ending corruption. At this demonstration, four women from OWFI’s 25-member delegation were attacked, sexually assaulted and beaten by pro-government demonstrators who destroyed their banners, beat them with wooden sticks and groped their bodies. The attack was seen by OWFI as an attempt to shame the activists in public space.
OWFI activists met in the first week of July to discuss a strategy in the face of this violenc, and on July 8th, a bus full of female activists and some youth supporters returned to Tahrir Square with banners reading “Beating of Tahrir Women Increased Our Determination for Change,” and “Instead of Fulfilling the Promise of the Hundred Days, They Released Their Thugs on us”. Activists Jannat Basim, Aya Al Lami, and Yanar Mohammed were interviewed by the media and used a megaphone to announce their determination to continue challenging the authorities in spite of repression. But as the delegation left the square, pro-government supporters intimidated and physically attacked youth activists that were accompanying the OWFI delegation, surrounded their bus and attacked the activists through the doors and windows. One youth supporter was kidnapped and later released. Only when foreign journalists were called to the scene did the pro-government supporters abate.
US-based women’s rights organization MADRE has described
repression against OWFI as “an attempt to terrorize women who have been the
catalysts for demonstrations that call for a new
The Role of International Solidarity
The mainstream media has largely ignored
these events and the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq, some citing readers’
“Iraq fatigue” to justify their lack of coverage. According to Yanar Mohammed, media
coverage plays an essential role in helping to protect women human rights
defenders: “If you are an outspoken feminist in Iraq these days and you are
demonstrating in Tahrir Square, you have actually no protection. So media
[coverage] is the best protection.” Moreover, international solidarity efforts
– campaigns and other forms of calling attention to the work of WHRDs – are
made all the more challenging by the complex terrain of an
“Even if the
Indeed, broad-based international (and not
just US) solidarity with Iraqi WHRDs remains important in helping them continue
their work. As female activists occupy centre stage elsewhere in the region’s
democratic revolutions and uprisings, the activists in
Sign the MADRE petition condemning the attacks on OWFI and other activists here.