The Satya Interview with 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
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
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.
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
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
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
But you have taken some control back. Can you talk about operating a
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
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.
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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