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Women Iraq

Women’s Freedom in Iraq: A Conversation With Yanar Mohammed

Twenty years on, Iraq still struggles with the consequences of the US-led war[i]. Recently, as sectarian violence and extremism have risen in the country, women’s rights have experienced a major push backwards. Despite the challenges, women’s groups and NGOs continue their fight for equality and human rights.

One such initiative is the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq[ii]. Led by Yanar Mohammed, a well-known Iraqi feminist, the organisation runs one of the country’s few existing shelters for women, assists those exposed to human trafficking and domestic violence, and carries out social campaigns aimed at promoting equality. It has provided refuge for more than 1,300 Iraqis in the last twenty years, who were fleeing domestic violence and could not get help elsewhere. The organisation has been active in protesting honour killings such as the murder of an Iraqi blogger this February by her father[iii]. This activism sparked backlash and major repercussions from Iraq’s political elite[iv].

“I am currently in Canada as I had to leave Iraq,” Yanar tells me as she talks about her activist work in her home country. “I was shown a warrant in my name saying I had to be arrested immediately because I was a human trafficker. We shelter women and protect them from human trafficking only to find that the accusation is turned on us. It is a very twisted reality.”

Crackdown on Women’s Activism

In a country where half of women have experienced domestic violence...dedicated and effectively run women’s shelters are a necessity.

Yanar’s organisation has been able to carry out major projects in Iraq, despite the various challenges which exist for activists operating in the country. The government has continuously interfered with the work of NGOs such as Yanar’s initiative. For instance, it created the Department of NGOs that regulates the work of non-governmental organisations and their right to operate in the country. According to Yanar, this department is threatening NGOs by withdrawing their registration and banning their activities. Yanar’s organisation has had on-and-off problems with registration but still runs its shelters without a government permit.

“All throughout our existence, we’ve always been under the radar of governmental monitoring”, Yanar says. “The government tries to cancel our registration almost every other year, telling us that our work is illegal.”

Furthermore, the government regularly shuts down the radio program that the initiative runs as well as censors the media heavily so activists like Yanar have fewer platforms to speak on. Finally, there is the constant threat of being imprisoned for one’s activism. Yanar had to flee Iraq more than once. Each time the government threatened to jail her for her work.

Iraq’s constitution creates significant challenges for the protection of women’s rights in the country. After the 2003 war, there were some changes that empowered women – such as legislation establishing a 25% quota for women’s representation in the parliament[v]. The Iraqi government also declared its commitment to democracy, and was among one of the first Middle Eastern countries to develop a national action plan on Women, Peace and Security[vi]. Despite this, many religious laws are still in place, which intervene with the work of women’s organisations and perpetuate patriarchal norms in the country. For example, Iraq’s personal status law allows husbands to discipline their wives however they see fit. Another provision allows a rapist to escape punishment if the criminal marries the victim thus legalising rape in marriages[vii].

Article 41 of the Iraqi Constitution grants Iraqis the right to rely on their religion when it comes to personal matters, which enforces sectarian divides and allows religious practices to replace universal legal protections[viii]. In addition, parliament has repeatedly failed to pass a law that would combat domestic violence due to pressure from conservative politicians and sectarian leaders; currently, Iraq does not have a law that specifically addresses domestic violence. Throughout the 2010s, the MPs debated whether to allow child marriages in Iraq. Due to women’s activism, the draft legislation was not passed although the topic continues to be debated by various political parties.

Current laws allow only the government to run shelters for women who are abused or want to flee domestic violence. As the government lacks the infrastructure to support these shelters, it would sometimes place victims in female prisons[ix]. In a country where half of women have experienced domestic violence, and where around 1,000 women become victims of honour killings each year[x], dedicated and effectively run women’s shelters are a necessity.

Yanar’s Experience as an Activist

Women’s rights in Iraq experienced a major drawback after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Originally from Baghdad, Yanar grew up in a liberal family, but she quickly saw the inequalities women faced in Iraq, even in her own family. After his wife died, Yanar’s grandfather married his late wife’s sister, who was fourteen at that time. Marriages like this are still practiced in Iraq.

Women’s rights in Iraq experienced a major drawback after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990[xi]. Iraq suffered the devastating impact of international sanctions, which cut the country’s economy in half, imposed severe restrictions on trade, and led to an increase in food prices by 1800%[xii]. Schools and hospitals became underfunded, and many families could no longer afford to pay for their children’s education. In an attempt to rally Iraqis around the flag, Saddam Hussein announced the launch of the Faith Campaign in 1993[xiii], which promoted an Islamist agenda in the country and increased the influence of religion in all aspects of civil life.

During these turbulent years, Yanar’s family moved to Canada to flee sanction-ruined Iraq. There, the activist founded the Defense of Iraqi Women’s Rights organisation in 1998 with an aim to help Iraqis struggling in her home country. In 2003, the initiative was transformed into the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, as Yanar moved back to her home country.

“With headquarters in Baghdad, we’ve got three more branches in Samara in the West, Basra in the South, and Kirkuk in the mid-North,” Yanar explains. “Our main work centres on vulnerable women for whom we set up shelters. The women we rescue are under the threat of honour killing, human trafficking, or domestic abuse, to whom the government’s protections do not extend.”

Fighting for Equality

The armed groups and terrorist organisations which rose after the 2003 war are still operational across Iraq.

Over the past twenty years, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq lobbied for a domestic violence law, the establishment of more shelters for those exposed to domestic violence, as well as interviewed illegally imprisoned women to shed light on the legal pitfalls impacting women inside Iraq. The organisation does educational work, too, producing and publishing a newspaper and maintaining a radio station. Both media outlets are threatened by shutdown, but the team still manages to print 3,000 newspaper copies and regularly distribute them in Baghdad. In addition, the organisation runs meetings with residents of Baghdad interested in discussing secular issues, women’s rights, current laws, and the broader political situation in the country.

Yanar’s work in Iraq went through major shifts. Along with her colleagues, she remained in Iraq during the rise of extremist militias and continued providing shelter and psychological support for women in need. The organisation continues operating despite political turmoil and increasing pressure from the state. As more conservative politicians gain influence, various groups are pushing for a sectarian agenda, which threatens campaigns to protect and expand women’s rights alongside activists themselves.

“There is a great problem with security for women activists, and it stems not only from censorship by the courts and intelligence services, but also from threats posed by the various militias present in the country,” Yanar explains.

As she highlights, the armed groups and terrorist organisations which rose after the 2003 war are still operational across Iraq and threaten women as well as activists.

Going forward in times of uncertainty

Eight out of ten Iraqi women experienced some form of sexual violence, and only around 11% of women work outside their households.

Yanar stresses that while Iraq is no longer a dictatorship where one ruler can decide for all, the regression on women’s rights in the wake of the war, and an increase in violence and instability continue to be a serious cause for concern.

“The suppression of women that came around cannot be compared with the civil rights women had before, such as the right to education, the right to choose your partner in life, or the right not to be a second, a third or fourth wife,” Yanar explains. These rights were guaranteed during the second half of the twentieth century during Iraq’s secular dictatorship but were largely overlooked amid various crises that affected Iraq since the 1990s.

“Now, all these rights have been lost,” Yanar adds, “On top of it, the number of honour killings has skyrocketed.”

Yanar is referring to the fact that the prospect of full emancipation of women has not materialised just like the commitment to human rights that was part of the US rhetoric during the Iraq war. Many US policymakers at that time claimed that one of the reasons for invading Iraq was to liberate oppressed women[xiv]. However, in 2022, Iraq ranked as one of the four worst countries for women in the world alongside Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan. Eight out of ten Iraqi women experienced some form of sexual violence, and only around 11% of women work outside their households[xv]. Moreover, there is a high level of violence and insecurity that affects women’s ability to move around the country. This is alongside sustained political violence[xvi], with threats to women politicians and activists.

Yanar’s organisation remains active regardless of the challenges. At the moment the initiative is engaged in campaigns to raise awareness of the problematic legislation that would allow child marriages[xvii] as well as the personal status law which allows husbands to violently discipline their wives[xviii].

“We’re here to continue and to wait for the right moment; and we’re mobilising at the same time and attracting more women,” Yanar concludes, “We’re preparing our movement for a better day. We started with a few women and now there are hundreds working with us; we have seven shelters, and thousands of rescued individuals.”

[i] Cortright, D., Romandash, A., and Al-Zoughbi, M. (2023). Women and the Iraq war, 20 years later. Fourth Freedom Forum. https://fourthfreedomforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/2023-Women-and-the-Iraq-War.pdf
[ii] Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. http://www.owfi.info/EN/
[iii] Mohammed, Y. (2003). Letters home: Iraq. BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3354937.stm
[iv] Echols, N. (2023). A requiem for a lost Iraq. Responsible Statecraft. https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2023/03/17/a-requiem-for-a-lost-iraq/
[v] Constitute Project (2023). Iraq’s Constitution of 2005. https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Iraq_2005.pdf?lang=en
[vi] ND Keough School of Global Affairs (2023). Iraqi Women Speak: Promoting Women, Peace, and Security. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYcinc-0zTQ&ab_channel=NDKeoughSchoolofGlobalAffairs
[vii] Cortright, D., Romandash, A., and Al-Zoughbi, M. (2023). Women and the Iraq war, 20 years later. Fourth Freedom Forum. https://fourthfreedomforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/2023-Women-and-the-Iraq-War.pdf
[viii] Constitute Project (2023). Iraq’s Constitution of 2005. https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Iraq_2005.pdf?lang=en
[ix] Cortright, D., Romandash, A., and Al-Zoughbi, M. (2023). Women and the Iraq war, 20 years later. Fourth Freedom Forum. https://fourthfreedomforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/2023-Women-and-the-Iraq-War.pdf
[x] Home Office (2021). Country Policy and Information Note Iraq: ‘Honour’ crimes. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/975221/Iraq_-_Honour_Crimes_-_CPIN_-_v2.0_-_March_2021_-_EXT.pdf
[xi] Ghazi, N. (2023). Waiting for the us to invade my Iraq. Inkstick. https://inkstickmedia.com/waiting-for-the-us-to-invade-my-iraq/
[xii] Gordon, J. (2020). The Enduring Lessons of the Iraq Sanctions. Middle East Research and Information Project. https://merip.org/2020/06/the-enduring-lessons-of-the-iraq-sanctions/
[xiii] Romandash, A. (2023). Iraqi Women Speak: Promoting Women, Peace, and Security. The Kroc Cast. https://kroc.nd.edu/news-events/podcasts/the-kroc-cast/
[xiv] Cortright, D., Romandash, A., and Al-Zoughbi, M. (2023). Women and the Iraq war, 20 years later. Fourth Freedom Forum. https://fourthfreedomforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/2023-Women-and-the-Iraq-War.pdf
[xv] Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (2022). Women, Peace and Security Index. https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/WPS-Index-2021.pdf
[xvi] Human Rights Watch (2023). Iraq. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2023/country-chapters/iraq
[xvii] Yuan, S. (2021). Iraq: Court hearing resumes on marriage of 12-year-old girl. Aljazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/28/iraq-court-hearing-resumed-for-the-marriage-of-12-year-old-girl
[xviii] Aljazeera (2019). ‘I felt I was going to die’: Battling domestic violence in Iraq. https://www.aljazeera.com/program/in-the-field/2019/7/13/i-felt-i-was-going-to-die-battling-domestic-violence-in-iraq

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.