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February 2007
Our Darkest Hour
The Satya Interview with Yanar Mohammed

 

Yanar Mohammed burning a veil.
Courtesy of Yanar Mohammed

Article 14 of Iraq’s new constitution states that Iraqis are equal before the law “without discrimination because of sex.” Yet, the constitution also states that no law can be passed that contradicts the “established rulings” of Islam. Such Sharia-based provisions, especially in the areas of family law, are a fundamental setback for a majority of Iraq’s population—namely, women. Yanar Mohammed, internationally renowned Iraqi activist and founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, worries these Islamic provisions are turning Iraq into “an Afghanistan under the Taliban, where oppression and discrimination of women is institutionalized.”

Yet in 1959, Iraq modified its Sharia-based law system and became one of the Middle East’s most secular states, where women enjoyed unprecedented equality. Although women’s rights were eroded during Saddam Hussein’s reign, today, however, their hard-won freedoms have been altogether lost under the U.S.-imposed Iraqi administration.

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) fights to stop atrocities against women and advocates for women’s social, political and economic rights. One of their main projects is developing battered women’s shelters and an “underground railroad” to help women fleeing from violence and “honor killings.” OWFI is the only Iraqi women’s organization that has spoken out openly against both the U.S. occupation and the forces of Islamic reaction it has unleashed.

Yanar Mohammed worked with other Iraqi women to establish the Defense of Iraqi Women’s Rights (DIWR) in 1998. In June 2004, the group changed its name to The Organization of Women’s Freedom. In addition to her advocacy work, Yanar is an accomplished artist and architect with a master’s degree in architecture from Baghdad University. Yanar also works as editor-in-chief of a newspaper called Al-Mousawat (Equality). Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk with Yanar Mohammed about today’s crisis for women living in Iraq.

What was the situation for women’s rights in Iraq before the U.S. invasion?
This may come as a surprise, but the 1950s through the 70s were good times for women in Iraq, the peak of the women’s movement. Major changes were made to the Iraqi family law making it the best in the Middle East, an egalitarian-like society. People who came from the U.S. to Baghdad in the late 50s and early 60s were annoyed by the big feminist talk they heard from Iraqi women. It was actually a well-known joke for Iraqi women to say it was time for them to go back to the U.S. where “women knew their limits.” I mean, we used to walk in the streets of Baghdad in modern dress, in mini-skirts. A large number of women were economically independent and made up 40 percent of the work force of the public sector. Many women were the breadwinners of the family. I grew up that way and received my education from elementary school to post graduate. It was all free, because at that time eastern-style socialism was the trend.

Unfortunately the situation did not stay the same. The political side of Iraq went through stages, a bit like a rollercoaster. When Saddam took power there was an immediate change. [Then,] after the year 2000, he began working with the tribes to gain their support and that meant letting go of pro-women’s issues. He began introducing laws strictly against women. One about honor killing determined that any male in the family could justly kill any woman who commits an act threatening the honor of the family. This was just one of the major changes to take place. And all of this happened during the years of economic sanctions, which were supposed to be hurting the political régime, making it powerless, but in reality had rendered the Iraqi people powerless and made Saddam free to change laws to achieve political gain.

But I must make it very clear, even during the worst times, the years right before Saddam left power, it is nothing compared to today’s situation.

How is it worse now?
Just imagine another country invades where you live. In a moment’s time all the ministries of the government are out. It is the end of all police, army and government services. All the civil institutions and frameworks begin to fall apart. The hospitals are frozen. A lock-down is placed on everybody. We have no electricity, no security. A civil war has started, and a hideous form of democracy has been imposed on us—putting ethnic bigot rulers and tribal heads as representatives of the Iraqi people.

What impact has the U.S. occupation had on women?
Imagine you are a pregnant woman about to have your baby but nothing is functioning, no hospitals. This is how Iraq became. Hundreds of women had problems during childbirth, and with their babies’ health. Hundreds of thousands of women lost their jobs, becoming totally economically deprived. They could no longer put food on the table. We literally stepped back into the medieval ages.

The new constitution denies women the civil and social rights given to men. Can you talk about this gender discrimination?
We are outraged by a constitution that gives legality to these tribal, ethnic and religious heads, and has turned Iraq into an Islamic country. The U.S. government simply handed us over to Islamic forces. There is no debate anymore, no space for discussion. We are seeing the rise of a civil war because religious groups are competing for power, and currently the group who has the most seats in Parliament is the most notorious. We have seen them function in our neighboring country Iran, as the Islamic Republic of Iran, where women are stoned to death. After only a short time in power, one of the members of our new government formulated a resolution numbered 157, which canceled the previous family law, replacing it with Islamic Sharia law. Some people in other parts of the world think we have been living under the Sharia law all our lives, but this is not the full story. Our previous family law was partly based on Sharia but had many good amendments. All these are now gone.

With Sharia law, there is no minimum age for the marriage of a female. If you are six years-old, you can be married to a man of any age. Under this change—that George Bush said was supposed to be for the freedom of women—we encourage pedophilia. Under these new laws, if you steal something you have your hands chopped off. If you have committed a major crime, you are beheaded. People now go to the public square with a picnic and while eating their sandwiches they watch people being beheaded. This is what happens when you enact a constitution [based on] religious laws written 15 centuries ago. We have been forced to let go of all of our struggles in human rights, all the amendments that have been made.

So things were better under Saddam Hussein?
We have been put into a time machine. Under Saddam it wasn’t perfect, but women could go to work, university, get married or divorced. But at the moment women have lost almost all their rights. In other words, we are not allowed independence. We are not allowed to make decisions, and not only in appearances—wearing the veil or not—but about having choices in our lives. We have lost those, and it is by constitution now. No article contradicting Islamic Sharia will be allowed in the family law. So, while our previous family law was more progressive in giving women independence, today’s law puts women’s rights in marriage, divorce, custody, even access to work and education in the hands of the males. I watch myself turning back into my grandmother. It is always implied that the daughter lives better than her mother because as time progresses, things get better. This is not the case in Iraq. All of the women are now second-rate citizens.

What about “honor crimes”? What exactly are they?
They are an archaic tribal ritual where women, treated as the property of the tribe, can only have relationships with men chosen for them in the tribe, usually her cousin. And if she does not agree to it, she will be forbidden from marrying all her life. And if she even thinks about falling in love with somebody else, the tribe will immediately get rid of her in order to cleanse its honor. This is legal in Iraq. It is legal for any male in the family to kill any female in the family if she is suspected of acting against the honor of the tribe. The male doesn’t have to see the act; it only has to be suspected.

I need to point out when I was growing up honor killings had [become so rare] we didn’t hear about them anymore. It was during the economic sanctions, when we basically became isolated from the world and deprived as a poor country they started to rise again. But nothing like this. It has never, ever been like now. In the last few years I have heard stories I could never imagine happening in metropolitan Baghdad. It has reached the point where hanging the palm of the honorless girl from your doorway has become a common symbol of cleansing. Just imagine a war turning your life upside-down and now you are in fear of being killed and dismembered by your own family. A father, a brother chopping the palm off your body and nailing it to the front door. How has this become so prevalent? This heavy punishment for love?

Why do you think there is a recent escalation in honor crimes?
The U.S. has destroyed the Iraqi state, leaving people more reliant on conservative tribal authorities to settle disputes. More and more individuals are seeking the power of the tribe because there is nothing else to protect them. The occupation has also empowered extreme social conservatives, who exploit the rising poverty, violence and insecurity to impose their own social and religious agendas. Because of this war on Iraq, the total chaos and being subject to such religious rulings, tribalism has become stronger than ever and honor killings are prevalent. Rape has also dramatically increased since the U.S. invasion. In the first four months of occupation, OWFI collected 400 accounts of rape and abduction. “Honor killings” of rape survivors have increased as well. Although the U.S. is obligated as the occupying power to protect Iraqi human rights, it has not done so.

But you have taken some control back. Can you talk about operating a network of women’s shelters and the underground railroad? How does it work?
In response to the “honor killings,” we have established five women’s shelters—in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Erbil and Nasariyeh—to provide Iraqi women with a safe place. But we found that by taking a woman from these kinds of situations and putting her inside our shelter, we actually turned her into a prisoner. The minute she would step out into the street again she would be killed by a partner, spouse, any male in the family. There are sometimes hundreds of people out to get one women and many of them have machine guns. A woman who is a target of “honor killing” is often hunted down by her family for years. For that reason, relocating completely, changing her name, is the only way to save her. The Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women provides the means for a woman to escape and begin a new life. Just imagine moving a woman around the country keeping her a few months in each city and then managing a team to take her outside the country until she gets approval for refugee status. It is very costly, but for a woman who could lose her life there is no other option. We are told this is similar to what happened to African slaves in America. To escape, to be free, they had to use an underground railroad. This is what we provide for Iraqi women.

You have another program geared toward stopping a civil war from erupting. Can you talk about that?
I believe a civil war has already started. Since the beginning of the occupation, the U.S. administration has recognized Iraqis only according to their ethnic and religious identities. This polarization of society has planted the seeds for a civil war. The bigger your ethnic minority, the more rights you have. The bigger your religious minority, the more rights you have. We are speaking about Iraq being divided into bits and pieces, where in the south the Shiites will be prioritized over any other religion, and in the north, the Kurds will have priority over Arabs and Turkmens. We are speaking about a very serious declaration of civil war. This is George Bush’s hideous democracy they have forced onto us. So as a women’s group what could we do?

We had a meeting in Baghdad and one guard was listening very carefully, and deeply. Toward the end of the meeting he told me he wanted to bring all of his friends to our organization, that he was a poet. And all of his friends are poets. We decided to open this up to both the Shiites and Sunnis. I named this event “Freedom Space.” The goal was to bring Shiites together with Sunnis; the two teams sit opposite each other, and take turns reading their poems. It was wonderful. Many youth came and there was no religious talk, only talk of love, life and hope. A few hours of poetic magic brought this group of people together and we felt like one family with no differences. People are desperate for this kind of positive connection. We will try to do this very often. Think about the change this can bring about. What we see is absolute love and an aspiration for freedom.

The current situation is so out of control. What are your main concerns for women right now?
My immediate concern is our need to totally cancel the current constitution and replace it with a humane, egalitarian constitution that awards women the rights they deserve. We all know the constitution can really only be ink on paper and the application of it is another story. The political formula the Bush administration has promoted has to be totally frozen.

The second thing is to fend off a civil war. To divide people according to religion is called racism and is not allowed in a modern country. A civil war is the minimum you could hope for when you have such a political formula. I don’t know if the Bush administration can see the damage they have done. I don’t think anybody with a sane mind would knowingly open the doors for a civil war.

[Laughter.] Well, we do not have a sane administration.
I shouldn’t be giving them the benefit of the doubt? [Laughter.] But then again I know they have these huge media machines that are total manipulators of general opinion. There is tremendous power given to Fox, even CNN, when it comes to media on Iraq, giving all the reasons to support George Bush. I mean, how many people came to the streets the day before the war on Iraq? Millions, and those opinions did not count at all. One must ask what kind of democracy the U.S. is. And what kind of democracy we will be receiving in Iraq if our occupiers practice the social oppression of their own citizens. And let’s not forget, just like Saddam, Bush is the reason for the death of 600,000 Iraqis in this war. If we were to compare one to the other, they are almost equal.

So true.
Our condolences to each other. But then again, you are still protected. In Iraq we are totally vulnerable to so very many inhumane practices, so there is a big difference. In Iraq we are unable to fight back, to have a say. Iraqis may have ideas and understandings, but the power, the government, is completely in the hands of the most notorious men of our society. And if you are a woman, your hands are empty.

To learn more visit www.equalityiniraq.com and www.madre.org.

 

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