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Category: International, Religion

WMC Excerpt: Yanar Mohammed, Iraqi Symbol of Freedom and Secularism, Speaks to WHRnet

August 30, 2006

There is no question that Saddam committed terrible atrocities against his own people, in particular the Kurdish populations. People suffered enormously as well as a result of continuous regional wars and the U.S. backed embargo. However, we also have to recognize that during his rule, the society did enjoy some economic prosperity and the benefits of secularism. Forty percent of the public work force was female. Economic independence and high levels of education—free and nationalized—placed Iraqi women in the most privileged status in the Middle East.

Due to progressive movements preceding Sadam, women's status was respected and social freedoms were enjoyed. These movements had forced amendments to reform the family law. Women in cities were professionals, judges, ministers and wore modern, stylish dresses. Professions like acting, art teaching, and banking were crowded with women.

The change happened overnight after the sudden invasion of Iraq. The U.S. occupation authorities dismantled all former security and defense institutions, which gave rise to looting and women being abducted and trafficked across borders, where there was no serious inspection. OWFI held a demonstration on August 24, 2003—a few months after the war—where I wrote an open letter holding the U.S. occupation responsible for the lives of almost 400 Iraqi women who were raped, trafficked, or killed.

Until this very day, the streets are insecure. Militias of religious fundamentalist parties harass women who do not wear the veil and Islamic dress. There were many killings of women professors and officials by these mobs, part of whom are in the government now. In the southern cities, pro-Iran Islamist groups (Badr Brigades) have full political control. The streets have become no-women zones where even the Christians do not dare to walk unveiled. Because of the failure of the public sector, most women lost their jobs. Two years without income have made them revert to a tribal scene, with unemployment among women at 90%, and no social insurance programs.

In the first constitution written for Iraq in 1925, there was no mention of a formal religion.  Islam became the religion of the first republic in 1958. Through several changes in the constitution, family law, partly based on Islam, had undergone reform. After the invasion, the U.S. occupation divided the government and parliament seats according to strongly armed and funded political groups in Iraq (mainly Shiite Islamists and Nationalist Kurds), which left women's rights and activists defenseless, marginalized and unheard. In the new constitution, Islamic Sharia was considered the base source of legislation, which aborted decades of feminist struggles in Iraq. The resulting family law will be one that legalizes polygamy, disciplining of women, stoning of adulteresses, and sexual apartheid. The first results were clear with a resolution segregating sexes in the universities and colleges.

Since the beginning of the war, those who refused to be labeled according to their religion and ethnicity were not offered seats in any councils. The secretary of the biggest secular party in Iraq (Iraqi Communist Party) holds a Shiite seat in the governing council. It took two years for this U.S. divisive plan to turn into a civil war where people are being killed based on their sectarian identification.

The atrocities that accompanied the military attack and the lack of security still persist. It has forced women to quit work and keep their daughters away from school. The new Islamist fundamentalist resistance has brought misogynist attacks and Taliban-like methods. Fatwas to marry young girls to Mujahideen in Falluja and Ramadi, thus saving them from “American rape," had caused actual legalized rape for female children as young as 12 years.

The occupation has also turned Iraq into another Islamic republic of Iran, where women are second-rate citizens by law. The U.S. watched the Shiite Islamist political groups apply their backwardness on Iraqi people without the smallest gesture of dismay. But they are unable to force their will on a society that had enjoyed more than half a century of modern civilized life. The notorious U.S. ambassador Khalil Zadeh dared to describe the new constitution as the most democratic one in the "Islamic" world, while 60% of the people (the women) are second-class citizens in social, economic, and political rights. He might as well have celebrated the outbreak of the civil war, or the Balkanization of Iraq.

Unfortunately, misogynist groups have recruited females to represent their agenda and were successful in gaining them the entire female quota in the parliament. The women's organization scene shows all the colors of the spectrum; from the most reactionary who do not want to hear about equality (e.g. Al Mihrab Martyr organization) to the most progressive who have established a free voice of demanding women's rights according to universal standards with no compromise to local religions. The U.S. occupation authorities have made sure to exclude OWFI from their conferences and their highly publicized manipulations called women's events. They have managed to divide women again—based on ethnic, religious, and sectarian lines—and most of the liberal women's groups have fallen apart.

OWFI has decided not to connect with perpetrators of backwardness and misogyny, but rather to look to the broad base of feminist network around the world. So far, OWFI managed to open two shelters for women, publish nine issues of Al Mousawat Newspaper, and train women activists within its ranks. OWFI's most ambitious project at this moment is to start a satellite TV for Women's Freedoms in Middle-Eastern Countries. It will initiate modern libertarian and secular programming to pull society away from the Islamist religious tendencies transmitted by other TV channels that have destroyed the consciousness of Middle-Eastern youth. Amwaj (waves) TV will start new waves of Iraqi and Arab feminism and will work effectively against patriarchal misogyny supported by religion. This women’s alternative should be the answer to all evil, misogyny, and bigotry, transmitting waves of militant feminism from Iraq, to cover all the Middle East and to reach the entire world. We hope it echoes back support and empowerment.