Iraqi women’s rights activist: “Fighting for survival and human dignity”

Submitted by AWL on 21 July, 2005 - 6:51

Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), spoke to Martin Thomas when she visited Britain at the end of June.

What does the OWFI do? For example, what were you doing in Baghdad in the week before you came to Britain?

Last week we started something new. In spite of our work for equality and a secular constitution, we know that if we do not do the daily outreach to women and people in general, if we are not becoming a social movement, then we are not getting anywhere.

We decided to do what we call a Thursday Evening. The name in Arabic means “Women’s Evening”. We announced to all our friends over radio and TV that anyone interested in the situation for women should come to visit us that evening. We would be chatting over tea and cakes, and maybe have some live music.

Maybe in the UK you would find this something very ordinary, but in Iraq it was news. The only people who are talking about women’s rights, apart from us, put it in a very artificial way. They mention equality, but at the same time they base their ideas on religious law, Sharia.

We want to make women’s rights a reality, and for that you have to start with women who work in the factories, with university students who have never heard the word “assertive” in their lives, and women who work in the media.

Our major regular task is our newspaper, Al Mousawat (which means Equality). The second is the women’s shelters. We always have problems there because the shelters are underfunded.

Our organisation also accepts men as members. About 15% of our membership are men. We prefer to give the leadership positions to women, because it is one of very few chances they get to learn leadership skills.

Once we are able to get ourselves known in society, once we are able to pull people into the movement, then we have a beginning. Just a beginning. After that comes stage number two: organise, and turn people into revolutionary forces for society.

My paper is written by volunteers. It is printed by some friends who are supportive of our work and charge us a low price. We are helped with the circulation by our friends in the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq and the Union of Unemployed and the Worker-communist Party of Iraq. We send copies to every important city in Iraq.

We sent about 500 to the University of Basra, for example, to be distributed by our representatives there. A few days later they told us they would need another thousand copies. We send 500 to Nasiriyah and 1,000 to Kirkuk. The bulk of the distribution is in Baghdad. There is a street in Baghdad called Al-Mutanabi. All the communists and leftists meet there at the weekend. That is where the biggest demand is for our paper.

In some of its issues the paper was not up the standards I would like it to have. Because we are training a new team of young women and men to run the newspaper, and some of them were not able to get to the headquarters, the quality of the last issue was not that high. But so far we have had eight issues.

You have had two death threats against you from Islamists. What precautions do you take? How much does that restrict your activity?

SOON after the overthrow of Saddam a newspaper showed a picture of a Shia pilgrimage procession where the pilgrims had self-inflicted wounds. It showed the blood flowing down their faces. I wrote that it was a scene I did not want to see because I don’t think it is civilised. The printers were reluctant to print our newspaper because they could see the reaction coming.

Later in 2003 political Islamists pushed through resolution 137 in the Iraqi Interim Governing Council [reintroducing Sharia law for family matters]. Women activists came forward to object. Around 80 women’s groups demonstrated in Al-Firdous square in January 2004. Some of them did it in a very timid way. The slogans were toned down so as not to get them in danger. But our group called things the way they were.

I was not in Iraq at the time. I was travelling abroad. When I returned I did a seminar about Sharia, and went on TV many times to do interviews.

Then I got an email, written in very good Arabic — which meant it was by someone who has been to a religious school. It said that if I did not repent of my psychologically disturbed complexes, they would have to kill me. It was signed “Army of the Prophet’s Friends”.

I had to go into hiding. I had a bodyguard with me already, but my bodyguard is a volunteer from the workers’ groups that I work with, and our abilities in that respect are very minimal. The second death threat came 19 days later. They threatened to send a mujahed with a bomb to blow up me “and the prostitutes around me”. It was before International Women’s Day, and their aim was to make sure that we did not organise any celebration or gathering.

I go to Baghdad University often, and on the walls I see the slogan written: “The veil is the beauty of women”. I do not think the situation is very liberal there. I see green and black flags, and in Iraq that means the Shia Islamic parties. There is a strong presence of political Islam.

Our first work was in the Political Science department in the University of Baghdad. One day I met there with 22 young women. Of those 22, eight were staunch activists for women’s rights. They would not agree to veil their heads. Some of them are with our organisation, and one of them is now one of our editors on Al Mousawat.

What are the main issues facing women in Iraq now?

THE first priority is to survive. The moment you step onto the street, you are an immediate target just because you are female. If a woman goes out, she may be assaulted, she may be kidnapped. The gangsters are very organised. Ransom is becoming an everyday thing. A gang kidnaps a woman and they contact her family to ask for a fat ransom. Unfortunately, some families will ask whether anything sexual has happened to the woman. If it has, they won’t want her back.

Even apart from this the streets are not women-friendly. Many professional women who drive to and from work get insulted by men travelling around in pick-up trucks holding machine guns and wearing black from head to foot. Going out in the streets is scary. Many females have stopped going to school.

In many mosques they preach that a female should leave school in Grade 6, because otherwise she will be mixing with males and evil will happen.

Political Islam is taking away women’s rights to education and equal access to work. That attitude was not acceptable, let’s say, 15 years ago. But I would not say that it was created overnight after the war of 2003. Before that Saddam had been flirting with Islamists so as to gain some support and replace the old Arab nationalist support he used to have.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has strong influence now in Iraq. And the veil is the symbol of women submitting to a very oppressive lifestyle.

Equal pay was not an issue in Iraq under the old regime. In spite of the dictatorship, it was a pseudo-socialist regime, and pay was equal for men and women. But now that situation no longer exists. There are now differences in pay between men and women, and differences in the recruitment of women.

The Islamists know how to work very well. They work in the unions. They set up their own unions. They try to stop women getting equality.

The situation differs from one part of Iraq to another. In Basra, political Islam has almost full control of the city, but you don’t see many explosions or clashes between the so-called resistance and the Americans. There is more security, but women are very oppressed. Historically, Basra was a centre of secularism in Iraq. It was one of the strongest centres of the Iraqi Communist Party. The women of Basra were known to be very outspoken. But now you do not see a single woman in the streets without a veil.

The Christian minority in Basra has also been oppressed, to the point where many thousands of Christians who used to live there have left the city, to go to the north of Iraq or abroad. In the north, in the Kurdish cities, the left is stronger and things are better. Unfortunately the nationalist parties have hijacked the situation and claim that they have brought about better conditions for women.

They cannot claim that they brought about better conditions for workers. Economically, all the money has gone into the pockets of the nationalist leaders like Talabani and Barzani, and the workers’ situation is poor.

If you travel from the north down through Iraq to the south, it is like being in a time machine. You travel from the 21st century in Sulamaniya, through Kirkuk to Baghdad, where you see a city which is in ruins. There is dust everywhere, and people are wearing very old clothes. Then in the south you are in the Dark Ages. In the areas dominated by the Sunni Islamists, in Fallujah or in Mosul, women’s situation is even worse than in Basra. You have something there which is new to us in Iraq. It comes from Wahhabism, from al Qaeda, from Saudi Arabia.

In that culture women are just a tool for production of children and sexual entertainment of men. Young females are promised by their families to other males in the tribe, in a very inhumane way. On top of that, women are considered to be sources of evil, and that is why we need to be covered from top to toe.

In the Shia areas, they do have to concede to some of the international rules leaving some space for women. They have to look legal for the international community. In the Sunni resistance areas, it is different.

After two years of war in Iraq, a lot of people don’t want the Islamists around any more. At the same time the hatred towards the occupation has reached a level that we could not have foreseen in the first days after April 2003.

Some of us thought that the US occupation was just there for a limited time; then they would leave and we would just have the normal social and economic conflicts of any society. That turned out to be a false understanding. They are there to stay, and they are there to force on us a political formula that will keep us divided and push us towards civil war.

Our first priority now is to end the occupation, and then we must attract people to a secular agenda and marginalise the Islamists. It’s not something that can be done with machine-guns. The rest of the story, after ending the occupation, has to be worked on socially and politically. We have to win the people over.

Can it really be done in stages like that: first end the occupation, and then win people to secular politics? As you have said, the Islamists already have large forces and control the streets in many parts of the country.

THE Americans threaten us on a daily basis. Big parts of Baghdad, Fallujah, and Mosul have been bombed, and masses of people killed. We are the only political group which has stood very strongly against the Islamists. We are willing to take it all the way. If it comes to a military clash, we will do that. But it’s not just that the Islamists have the guns, the funds, and the support from the Americans. They manipulate the masses into their social circles. If we are unable to attract people to a progressive, life-loving agenda, we can do nothing. We need to win over the masses.

In the Iraq Freedom Congress [initiative launched by the Worker-communist party of Iraq to group together broader forces], we are getting all the secularists together with two missions: first, ending the occupation, and second, moving towards a secular, non-ethnic, non-religious government. We made it very clear: anyone who has an Islamist agenda for the government is not acceptable in our circles. But if this occupation does not end, it is pointless to think of winning any other battle. The occupation is the magnet which is attracting political Islamists from all over the world. The “resistance” Islamists, which are the scariest, are getting stronger by using slogans like “kill the Americans”. Traditionally, the enemy of American hegemony over the world was the Communists. Now the Iraqi Communist Party has let everybody down. Our agenda is to get the secularists together to work on ending the occupation and win over the young men who are vulnerable to the agenda of the Islamists.

By ending the occupation we don’t mean military clashes. The beginnings will be political, civil disobedience, scandalising them...

As for the Islamists who are working with the Americans, like Dawa and SCIRI, the social support for those parties is already diminishing.

To those who consider themselves leftists in the UK, I would say: you cannot be a leftist, you cannot consider yourself a socialist or a secularist, and support a far-right agenda. A far-right agenda in this country might be the Christian right. In our part of the world it is the Muslim right.

We are not a nationalist group. Ending the occupation as an aggression against national pride is not our objective. It is the communists’ opportunity to give strength to a group that represents the class struggle, to end the occupation through a movement where the centre of it is those communist forces who are the organisers of the labour force.

The objective is not just ending the occupation. It needs to be done by a workers’ movement.

The Organisation of Women’s Freedom has done a lot of work around refugee camps in Baghdad. . .

IN April 2003 a large part of the public sector workforce found itself jobless overnight because of the failure of all the government institutions. At the same time, because of fuel shortages and insecurity, many factories stopped production. Millions were jobless overnight and unable to pay their rent. So many government buildings were turned into refugee camps. I am not talking about refugees who had come from other cities. For example, there was an area in the Ministry of the Interior complex. It used to be the residences of officials. It was turned into a big refugee camp, called Al Huda. We became part of a team that was taking humanitarian aid to that area. There were many other refugee complexes in Baghdad where we used to distribute humanitarian aid.

The level of misery we would see was unprecedented. You could see symptoms of anaemia. The girls did not go to school. We contacted humanitarian aid groups, like CARE. We took aid for them to distribute in the refugee camps. But always, at the end of the distribution, we would get the people together in a hall and talk to them about the importance of women’s rights and workers’ rights.

We used to take a lot of aid parcels from the Mennonite Church. For the Mennonite Church, it was the last thing they wanted, to help a secular agenda. But for them it was very important that the aid packages get distributed reliably. So we were able to gain their confidence.

With an Orthodox church aid group, once they had heard that we had a secular agenda and had clashed with the Islamists, their coordinator went crazy and started threatening us. But most of the groups just wanted a system that worked.

We as an organisation never received an office or any funding from the aid groups. We did fund-raising ourselves, around the world, to get our offices and computers and telephones. That allowed us to keep our independence.

The idea of the Union of the Unemployed came from the refugee camps. Millions of people with no jobs and no income, so we led demonstrations in front of the Green Zone to demand that the US occupation grant jobs or unemployment benefit. At first a lot of unemployed workers came to demonstrate, but after 47 days the US officials gave us a few promises. The humanitarian agencies and the NGOs have left Iraq because of the kidnappings and so on. Now most of the humanitarian aid is being distributed by Islamist groups from Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries.

In the camps we found people whose houses were turned into organising centres. But at the same time we faced continuous conflict with the Islamists. In Al Huda complex, the al-Sadr group were always around the corner.

With the closing-down of humanitarian aid, our contacts got weaker with the groups in the camps. We were not able to find very strong organisers in the camps. I cannot say that we had a big success story.

We defended the refugee camps for a long time, defending their right to stay in the government buildings. When the police came to evacuate them, we said that if they did not provide the refugees with decent housing they could not evacuate them. We were able to delay the evacuation for almost one year, but in the end the government got strong to attack and evict all the refugees onto the streets overnight.

There are new refugee camps developing all the time around Baghdad.

What scope do you see in Iraq for united-front policies trying to unite different working-class organisations on particular issues?

We believe in uniting the greatest number of women’s groups on a secular, progressive agenda. At our last conference in Baghdad, three months ago, we put together our platform and invited other groups to join us on it.

But no Islamist group will come and join us in campaigning for a secular constitution. Although ideologically we are very much against nationalist groups, on the women’s front we do find some nationalist groups that are closer to leftist tendencies. We try to win them over. Of course, when you win them over, they do not come one hundred per cent.

It is not an easy fight. We were able to attract fewer than ten women’s groups to the conference.

As regards workers’ groups, I attended the Basra conference [called by the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions] at the end of 2004. We sat together with them and wrote the clauses of the conference resolution about women’s right to work. In a Third World country, as they sometimes call it, if you are an organisation which puts forward women’s rights, or a labour organisation, you cannot be very strong if you do not have what I call the political lining — a staunch communist agenda. Otherwise you are loose, and you are not very strong on your demands. We have a lot of debates, going back and forth, about how much of the agenda should be political, how much should be mass organisation. What is the objective, attracting a bigger number of people, just being populist, or what?

But with the Iraqi Freedom Congress you seem, in effect, to be launching another political party — it says its aim is to be the government — which is like the Worker-communist Party of Iraq except without the worker-communism. Notionally it is a project for a liberal bourgeois party, but everyone can see that it is launched by the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, so in fact it’s no more than a campaign of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, occupying the political space which should be occupied by a systematic policy of united fronts.

THE way we have been putting the councils for the IFC is that although the Worker-communist Party of Iraq is the spine of these councils, but it is no more than 25% of the leadership of this movement. Many in the central council are secular people who come from other parties. Some are intellectuals or liberal thinkers. But do you accept Islamists into that alliance? People who want to see an Islamic government? No.

Although we need to achieve intermediate successes by putting united fronts together, that must not make us lose our main objective of creating a secular and progressive system that is for the workers and for the women. We have been pressured to accept reactionary forces standing with us for some minute reform or demand here or there, but it is very hard to work with a reactionary group. If you compromise once, you are done for.

But in the dark scenario there is no other choice but to put together a group with ourselves as the spine but surrounded by a large number of secular intellectuals and people who simply want to live in a decent, civilised society. The Iraqi Freedom Congress is about ending the occupation and moving towards a secular and non-ethnic government which will write a secular constitution.

In the first meeting of the central council of the IFC we had five individuals from the Iraqi Communist Party — some of them had defected from the CP, some not — all of them older than us. We had four academics who are strong leftists. The IFC is a tool for getting to these leftist people and organising them towards an agenda which is uncompromising on women’s and workers’ rights. We are extending the agenda of worker-communism by reaching out to people who do not recognise themselves as worker-communists.

But the only force that can fight the occupation without strengthening the Islamists, and fight the Islamists without strengthening the occupation, is a self-organised working class. The working-class issues cannot be separated off as extra issues to be taken up narrowly while the broad IFC takes the other issues.

I agree, it is the workers who should be the base of this movement. But in this situation of insecurity and military conflict, we want to include all the society around us. If you have put in place an interim government for six months, and then hold an election, and the Worker-communist Party of Iraq is strong, those will be different times. Sistani will not win the majority of the votes.

Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq website.

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