Dominated by Islamist and sectarian parties, the Iraqi government has been resisting changes to improve women’s conditions.
Human rights activism is a risky business in the Middle East in general but it is more so in Iraq where female activists have been targeted. A series of killings in 2018 sparked fears of a coordinated campaign to silence successful and outspoken women in Iraq.
In August and September, four prominent women were assassinated, including activist Soad al-Ali in Basra and social media star Tara Fares in Baghdad. They had campaigned for women’s freedoms and rights in a conservative, tribal society.
“The new political situation in Iraq has been detrimental on all Iraqis, especially women,” said Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). “After the US-led invasion (2003), a new political system was created leading to a most sectarian, tribal and religious society where women’s lives don’t have much weight.”
“Women in Iraq are constantly exposed to social stigma and scrutiny because of their gender. It is a flagrant violation of their rights which under the constitution are supposed to be equal to men,” Mohammed said in a Skype interview from self-exile in Canada.
She said discriminatory practices against women have become a fait accompli and the norm in Iraqi families in rural areas as well as big cities, including Baghdad, after the rise to power of Islamist parties.
“They introduced extremist religious ideas based on hatred for women and viewing them as sexual and reproductive tools,” added the activist, who was among the BBC’s 100 most inspirational women worldwide.
However, campaigning by Mohammed’s OWFI has been instrumental in blocking a personal status legislation, the Jaafari law, which allows the marriage of 9-year-old girls to adult men, encourages polygamy and getting rid of wives if they are not sexually pleasant for husbands.
“The amount of humiliating material in this law against women is mindboggling and out of this era. It’s something that modern humanity cannot even conceive,” Mohammed said.
Women’s activism resulted in scrapping Clause 409 of the Iraqi penal code, which provided for light sentences for men in cases of so-called honour killings.
Despite intimidations and accusations of promoting secularism and encouraging women to go against their families, OWFI, which provides shelters for women who survive domestic violence, has been expanding since it was established in 2003.
“Over the past 15 years, we have been able to save 820 women from inevitable death. They included victims of domestic violence and potential victims of honour crimes,” Mohammed said.
“We had extremely difficult years fearing violence by tribal and Islamist communities who are utterly opposed to women’s rights and freedoms but we were determined to continue and today we have ten shelters in Baghdad and in rural areas where the tribes and clergy are very powerful,” she added.
In the shelters, victimised women not only keep safe but are educated and empowered, Mohammed said, adding: “Our shelters are schools for social transformation for women to turn from victims into defenders of women.”
Activist Hana Addour, president of Al-Amal organisation, said entrenched tribal values are still largely applied although Iraq has endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates freedoms of expression, movement, opinion and the right to choose a partner without force or intimidation.
“Divorce rates are on the rise in Iraq for many reasons including traditional marriages without prior acquaintance between couples and early marriage of girls who are not fit to start a family,” Addour said.
“The constitution says clearly that women are full citizens and have equal rights as men but, in Iraq, patriarchy is predominant. However, many unacceptable practices such as gender-based violence and harsh discrimination against women can be reversed through raising awareness in the society.”
She refuted as “baseless” accusations that activists were provoking women against social traditions. “We did not import our ideas and we do not contest customs or religious texts,” Addour said. “We only seek to implement the constitution by rejecting forced and early marriages and many other matters that we cannot accept under any pretext.”
Dominated by Islamist and sectarian parties, the Iraqi government has been resisting changes to improve women’s conditions, Mohammed said.
She said the government has been reluctant to provide legal status to shelters that are run by OWFI and other NGOs. Although there is no law that says shelters are illegal, neither is there a law that determines their legal status.
“Some of the tribal and misogynist officials did tell us in the past that we are doing an illegal thing but they did not shut us down,” Mohammed said, adding that one obvious, partial remedy to gender-based violence in Iraq would be to improve the rule of law.