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By Amanda Shaw
Women have been at the forefront of demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the recent popular uprisings, which have received much media and international attention. In contrast, coverage of attacks on women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Iraq’s Tahrir Square demonstrations has been limited, AWID asks why.
On the frontlines of demonstrations or behind the scenes as tech-savvy organizers, women have played pivotal roles in the recent democratic revolutions and uprisings in the MENA region. Women’s activism and organizing in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya has garnered substantial international attention. Yet in spite of several attacks, including sexual assaults, on Iraqi women activists and their organizations since February, women’s roles in Iraq’s Tahrir Square demonstrations have generated less media coverage. And the violence against them has intensified since June, one of the deadliest months so far in 2011 for Iraqis.
The Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) is one of the leaders of Iraq’s Tahrir Square demonstrations, helping to organize youth activists and advocating for women’s rights. AWID takes a look at OWFI’s work, the situation of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Iraq and asks why the other Tahrir Square is receiving so little international attention.
Women’s Rights and Women Human Rights Defenders in Iraq
Since the U.S. Invasion in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the conflict, nearly 4.8 million have been forcefully displaced and almost 750,000 women widowed. Even before the invasion, and as a result of years of economic sanctions and war, Iraqis experienced high rates of violence, displacement, exile, widowhood, unemployment and illiteracy. Today, Iraqi women face violence from all sides: from armies and security forces, sectarian and tribal leaders as well as from private security contractors unaccountable to international law.
Different political factions including opposition and resistance movements have also tended to target women and gender relations in their political projects, whether through physical violence or legislation. According to OWFI’s 2010 Annual Report, women in Iraq experience gender-specific forms of violence that include so-called ‘honour’-based violence, trafficking, violence toward women accused of prostitution, being unveiled, and wearing makeup.
It is within this context of militarization, religious, sectarian and political fragmentation, widespread violence (including various forms of violence against women) and increasingly conservative visions of gender relations that Iraqi WHRDs organize. They face the same denial of civil and political rights as all citizens – including those of peaceful assembly, association, expression and the right to life and security – but with gender-specific consequences. Some Iraqi WHRDs take part in mixed human rights groups or social movements, while others denounce the disappearance of family members or work directly on women’s rights agendas.
The context of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by foreign troops has led to a particularly problematic dynamic for those working on women’s rights who may be labelled “western” or “traitorous” for their work, which may also be seen by some Islamists as associated with the supposedly secular agenda of the Saddam Hussein regime. Given this difficult context, Iraqi WHRDs may be forced to abandon their political activities, go into exile or focus instead on surviving and caring for family members.
But in spite of these enormous challenges, Iraqi WHRDs continue their work in addressing violence, resisting militarism and organizing for democratic change. Some of the major achievements of the Iraqi women’s movements include campaigns against a discriminatory law governing marriage, divorce and child custody and limiting the constitutional role of Islam, lobbying for gender quotas in political representation as well as working to ensure legislation complies with international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
The Other Tahrir Square
Since 2010’s inconclusive elections, the Iraqi coalition government has been plagued by infighting and financial scandals, while many Iraqis still lack basic services and employment opportunities are few. Inspired in part by events elsewhere in the region, Iraqi citizens have gathered every Friday since February in Baghdad’s own Tahrir Square to protest corruption, poor government and basic services, high unemployment and lack of freedom of expression.
Authorities have responded harshly, banning street demonstrations and attempting to confine large gatherings to football stadiums. As a result, there have been a number of clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators on the one hand and security forces and pro-government demonstrators on the other, resulting in the deaths of at least 125 people, hundreds wounded and the arrest and detention of dozens of activists. Among the activists who have been attacked are several associated with OWFI, which has played a key role and helped to increase women’s visibility in the square demonstrations.
OWFI’s current president, Yanar Mohammed, co-founded the organization during the 2003 U.S. invasion by putting up a sign reading “Women’s Freedom in Iraq” in a burned out bank in Baghdad. OWFI advocates for change in the structures that allow violence against women to be perpetrated with impunity, implementing programs that strengthen women’s political participation and promote freedom from violence. They have established an underground network of safe houses for women escaping violence, advocate for women in prison, organize against sexual trafficking and run a newspaper and radio station. Since its original three members, the size of the organization has grown or shrunk depending on the country’s security situation; OWFI currently has almost 60 activists, hundreds of supporters in person and online and is active in four cities in central, western and southern Iraq.
Targeting OWFI and other Iraqi Activists
Since the Friday Tahrir Square demonstrations began in February of this year, OWFI activists have experienced violent and sexualized attacks, intimidation and harassment preventing them from carrying out their work. There have also been reprisals against their youth allies, including detentions and kidnappings. In an interview posted on the organization’s website, OWFI President, Yanar Mohammed, cites their work in organizing the youth at Tahrir Square as being one of the main reasons why OWFI activists have been targeted.
On Friday June 10th, after the expiration of a one-hundred-day deadline, set by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki for improving basic services, demonstrators gathered because there were no noticeable changes in the provision of electricity, water, jobs, or in ending corruption. At this demonstration, four women from OWFI’s 25-member delegation were attacked, sexually assaulted and beaten by pro-government demonstrators who destroyed their banners, beat them with wooden sticks, and groped their bodies. The attack was seen by OWFI as an attempt to shame the activists in public space.
OWFI activists met in the first week of July to discuss a strategy in the face of this violence, and on July 8th, a bus full of female activists and some youth supporters returned to Tahrir Square with banners reading “Beating of Tahrir Women Increased Our Determination for Change,” and “Instead of fulfilling the promise of the hundred days, they released their thugs on us”. Activists Jannat Basim, Aya Al Lami, and Yanar Mohammed were interviewed by the media and used a megaphone to announce their determination to continue challenging the authorities in spite of repression. But as the delegation left the square, pro-government supporters intimidated and physically attacked youth activists that were accompanying the OWFI delegation, surrounded their bus and attacked the activists through the doors and windows. One youth supporter was kidnapped and later released. Only when foreign journalists were called to the scene did the pro-government supporters abate.
U.S.-based women’s rights organization MADRE has described repression against OWFI as “an attempt to terrorize women who have been the catalysts for demonstrations that call for a new Iraq.” As Yanar Mohammed describes in a MADRE Interview “when the humiliation is sexual, in a society like Iraq, they know it will break the women.”
The Role of International Solidarity
The mainstream media has largely ignored these events and the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq, some citing readers’ “Iraq fatigue” to justify their lack of coverage. According to Yanar Mohammed, media coverage plays an essential role in helping to protect women human rights defenders, “if you are an outspoken feminist in Iraq these days and you are demonstrating in Tahrir Square, you have actually no protection. So media [coverage] is the best protection.” Moreover, international solidarity efforts – campaigns and other forms of calling attention to the work of WHRDs – are made all the more challenging by the complex terrain of an Iraq overwhelmed by foreign intervention. At the same time, Mohammed marks an important distinction:
“Even if the U.S. intervention that happened before – the military intervention – has destroyed our lives, we need a civilian intervention now. We need the American people to support and empower us again so we can take matters into our own hands and hold free elections." 
Indeed, broad-based international (and not just U.S.) solidarity with Iraqi WHRDs remains important in helping them continue their work. As female activists occupy center stage elsewhere in the region’s democratic revolutions and uprisings, the activists in Iraq’s Tahrir Square should also be counted among them.
Sign the MADRE petition condemning the attacks on OWFI and other activists here.
2. Al-Ali, N. and Pratt, N. (2008) “Women’s organizing and the conflict in Iraq since 2003” Feminist Review 88, pg. 74-85. Pg. 75.
3. OWFI Annual Report, 2010.
5. Al-Ali, N. and Pratt, N. pg. 81.
6. Al-Ali, N. and Pratt, N. Pg. 76.
10. Personal Communication, Yanar Mohammed, 20 July 2011.