First Victims of Freedom: An interview with Iraqi feminist Yanar Mohammed

Source: Guernica

For someone who faces death threats, swaps apartments regularly and hides the location of her organization from authorities, Yanar Mohammed, one of Iraq’s leading feminists, hasn’t lost her sense of humor. Even during a recent conversation about the demise of women’s rights and safety in post-war Iraq, her wry perspective asserted itself in small ways, revealing her humanity and suggesting a certain defiance. She laughed at her English on the rare occasions that it proved faulty, and poked fun at Islamist attire as worn by women in Baghdad’s fundamentalist neighborhoods, likening the all-black, body-concealing uniform to radioactive protective gear.

In 2003, Mohammed founded the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), which shelters Iraqi women targeted in honor killings and sectarian violence (both on the rise since the war and occupation). It also monitors women in jail and assists formerly detained women, such as prostitutes. And, most visibly, OWFI speaks out loudly and insistently for women’s legal rights and secular law in opposition to Iraq’s growing Islamism. Her demands shed light on the precarious position of women under radical Islamism but, perhaps more to the question at hand, they confirm the disastrous consequences of the Iraq war and the political repercussions of occupation, which, according to Mohammed, has unleashed militant fundamentalism that is proving impossible to subdue.

Mohammed asserts unequivocally that war and occupation have cost Iraqi women their legal standing and their everyday freedoms of dress and movement-a topic that has received surprisingly scant news coverage beyond scattered reports on sectarian violence and infamous prison abuses. “The first losers in all of this were women,” Mohammed says of post-invasion Iraqi society.

Born in 1960, Mohammed is an architect and sculptor who was raised in Iraq, earning undergraduate and master’s degrees at Baghdad University. In 1993, she and her family moved to Canada, in part to escape the dim economic prospects of her home country under international sanctions. In Canada, she raised a son, now 18, but after the 2003 invasion, she decided to return from an exile she describes as happy. In addition to founding OWFI, she has been featured in the New York Times, NPR and Democracy Now!, and was named a finalist for the 1325 Award recognizing international women leaders. In early April, she spoke with me by phone from Canada, where she was on a brief visit on her way back to Baghdad.

Guernica: Tell me about the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq.

Yanar Mohammed: OWFI was founded by a few Iraqi women who decided to have a voice. We were sure the future government would not be a woman-friendly one. From the first day our policy was to try to gain support from outside Iraq. We got help from Canadian, European and U.S. supporters. We formed in 2003, and spoke about full equality. We represent the modern, secular voice of Iraq that will not allow this country to be turned into another Afghanistan under the Taliban.

If there are any militias on your street, they will tell you to go back home and dress decently.

Guernica: Where are your offices?

Yanar Mohammed: We mainly work out of our main office in Baghdad and also in the southern city of Nasiriyah. In Kirkuk we have representatives but we couldn’t maintain the office. We still have our representatives working from their homes. They open their homes when a woman needs sheltering.

Guernica: Four years after OWFI’s founding, what are its challenges?

Yanar Mohammed: In this last year, the challenges, or let’s say the dangers, became very imminent. Some days it was hard for activists to arrive at our office. For many reasons. But the biggest one, the one that comes first to my mind, is you’re speaking about a city of different militias, each of them funded by another country and fighting amongst themselves. Everybody is hanging out with their machine guns. It’s a place where speaking about your rights is not a priority for these militias. Some sort of government is trying to survive while doing a new military security plan every other month. At times, your whole neighborhood is surrounded by military who are searching houses, or streets are closed for some international conference where they are trying to solve political issues, though nothing is being solved. Imagine living in a city where you can reach your office three days a week. Then again, we’re thankful on the days when we don’t face the enemies of women with machine guns and they’re asking us questions: what do you guys do?

Guernica: Do you get hassled by militias?

Yanar Mohammed: When I was a student, I was dressed like a modern girl and I wore long shorts. That is part of the past. There is fear in the streets. You cannot go out in the streets. You are looked at as if you come from another age. If there are any militias on your street, they will tell you to go back home and dress decently. They could beat you up or punish you worse than that. Some of us who have grown up in Baghdad are used to wearing what we please and walking where we please.

A big number of professional women were assassinated for no other reason than being women in high places.

Guernica: You have said that women in Iraq are far less free after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. Can you talk about some of the reasons why?

Yanar Mohammed: The first losers in all of this were women. That was because of the mixed-up politics that came with occupation. The country is under the authority of Islamic militias: Shiite Islamic militias, who are in power, or Sunni Islamist militias, who are underground. Sometimes they compete. What is the first thing they do? Sadr City, which is a Shiite suburb of Baghdad, is considered to be the proletariat part of Baghdad, the source of social and political change for Iraq’s future. If you go to this city, it’s under the authority of Shiite Islamist militias. The kind of veil the women wear there is usually black. At its worst, the women look like black objects: black gloves and black stockings-no flesh can show. I have never before in my life seen young women dressed like that. In 1993, when I left Iraq, I had never seen the black gloves. Now you go to Baghdad and with the high level of poverty you see women begging on the sides of the street; even the beggars wear black.

Guernica: Are women being targeted?

Yanar Mohammed: A big number of professional women were assassinated for no other reason than being women in high places. Deans of colleges and many academics are now living under threat, because tons of their colleagues have been killed. I have a friend who’s a surgeon in the hospitals in Baghdad. She says if you have a high degree in medicine, and are known to do a good job, you will be killed as soon as possible. The number of academics and doctors killed in the last three years is more than 150 people. These are not political people. They are just making a living.

Guernica: Is this all the result of sectarian violence?

Yanar Mohammed: Women’s welfare is like another card that is used between misogynist parties to pressure each other. Sunni Islamist party representatives have accused the Shiite party of raping Sunni women. We have received many reports of women who were assaulted and later killed by the militias, and it was for sectarian reasons. On one side, women are being used to exploit or defy the other sect. On the other side, the sad part of the political story is that these Islamist parties also have their women representatives. They have put them in parliament seats and tell the whole world they represent Iraqi women. Most women in government represent Sharia.

Guernica: What other dangers face women of Iraq?

Yanar Mohammed: It is very dangerous for a woman to go into a prison or be detained. We put together a prison-watch team to go into women’s prisons. We’ve been doing that for more than a year now. We found out that rape in police stations sometimes was routine procedure. We knew that it was happening. When the Sabrine issue the rape of a Sunni woman by Shiite police officers came out, and she started talking, I immediately wrote a statement, saying that we know this kind of atrocity is being committed routinely against women in police stations, mostly run by Shiite Islamic militias. Sabrine is not the only one. We have spoken to more than 250 women in the prisons. We have raised the issue to the Ministry of the Interior. But then the woman in charge of our program began to get threats to her and her family. So she left Iraq.

She lied because she was facing domestic abuse at home. She thought she was going to be safe, but she was beautiful, and raped by the whole police station.

Guernica: Why are the women being detained in the first place?

Yanar Mohammed: There are all sorts of reasons. One of these women said she had killed a translator. She lied because she was facing domestic abuse at home. She thought she was going to be safe, but she was beautiful, and raped by the whole police station. Another woman came home and found her husband with another woman and killed her. There are all kinds of situations; a few women were accused of being caught in brothels. In the previous Iraq, the law didn’t say you put a prostitute in prison, but lately they have been putting them in prison. They have nowhere else to go. The moment they step out of prison, their pimps put them back into the industry. OWFI’s third initiative is to break the vicious cycle forcing these women back into prostitution. We have been able to assist three of them so far this year. The third woman is the cook for our organization.

Guernica: I know that honor killings are a problem in many parts of the world. How has the U.S. occupation affected the frequency of honor killings in Iraq?

Yanar Mohammed: Honor killings are a very old story, but if you look at it historically, in the ’60s and ’70s the numbers were much less. Women got educated and it was easy for Iraqi women to have economic independence. By the 80s, women constituted 40 percent of the public workforce. The number of honor killings almost disappeared; they only happened in the suburbs and rural areas. Then again, remember the process through which Iraq came into the center of the political spotlight: the first Gulf War and 13 years of economic sanctions, then the second Gulf War. All of this has made the Iraqis go into a process of impoverishment. The war caused a very big number of widows, and millions of young men were killed. Widows have nobody to take care of them. As a result, the modernization of the country went backwards. We began to lose our social status and started to slip back into a premodern situation in Iraq, where a big number of women had to agree to be second or third wives of some affluent man just because these women don’t have other sources of income.

Just imagine that this country had to let go of all the achievements of modernity. Before the sanctions, Iraq wasn’t really a third-world country. It was better off because of the income from oil and higher education women got for free. The rights of women started in the ’50s and ’60s, but by the ’90s they began to take another direction. The clock began to turn counter-clockwise. You find out that 10 years is a very long time. You could lose a big part of your status and economic welfare. The constitution and laws were still in place, leading up to the war, but no longer applied. Polygamy was not a problem in the ’80s. I do not remember one single woman in Baghdad who was the second or third wife. Now it’s a very common story. Sometimes two wives living with a man in a 5 by 10 foot room. It’s a very miserable economic situation.

Guernica: Has OWFI been able to protect women from honor killings?

Yanar Mohammed: We are becoming an underground railroad for Iraqi women. Some have to leave the country or they will be killed. Women cannot dream of having political standing or status. You are treated as a second-class creature inside your house. You do not have any choices and people do not expect much from you.

In the very first part of the constitution there is the article that refuses any law or any article in discrepancy with Sharia.

Guernica: But what about the constitutional benchmark of 25% female representation in the Council of Representatives?

Yanar Mohammed: The 25% is a big farce. Most of them have voted yes to a constitution that totally cancels women and is based on Islamic Sharia. In the very first part of the constitution there is the article that refuses any law or any article in discrepancy with Sharia. We Iraqis feel it was imposed on us. It wasn’t a local thing. Iraqis have led a sort of secular life for almost 50 years. Influences from the Islamic Republic of Iran are in control of almost half the Iraqi government. They have written the very heavy introduction to our constitution that insists Iraq has to be an Islamic country now. The introduction sets the tone for the rest of the constitution.

Guernica: Can you say more about the changes to women’s legal status?

Yanar Mohammed: There are other articles, articles 39 and 41, which would refer family law to religion. (Note: Previously, “personal status law” gave women favorable treatment on divorce, custody, inheritance, etc., in Iraqi civil courts. The new constitution would allow women to choose Shiite, Sunni and other systems of religious jurisprudence instead of civil law.) So if a woman wants to marry or divorce, it’s in deference to Islamic Sharia. If she is Christian, to Christian laws. Or you could also go to previous personal status law. In this way, the tribal lifestyle is being reborn. A woman would be forced by all of her tribe to follow whatever system they tell her. The constitution has put women in a position where no one will protect them from religious cliques. If a woman is the third or the fourth wife and she has no rights inside her home and, on top of that, there is domestic abuse in her house, she is doomed. Under Islamic Sharia law a woman must accept beatings from her husband. Under Islamic Sharia, she must not revolt because she is the third or fourth wife.

Guernica: Is this all a result of the Shiites’ assertion of power in Iraq?

Yanar Mohammed: Is it Shiite? These sects of the Islamic religion have existed forever in Iraq. For example, my father is from one sect and my mother from another, but there was a secular law that regulated relationships. Nobody cared from which Islamic sect you were. Starting in the ’80s, the new Islamic Republic of Iran affected all of the political democracy of the Middle East. It was the model for state laws modeled on Shiite Islamism. You cannot say the Sunni are more advanced. Sunni fundamentalism, from which Al Qaeda has emerged, is more notorious than Shiite. Under Sunni fundamentalism, it is legal to kill or destroy a big number of people because they think of them as apostates.

Guernica: So OWFI exists to counter these effects. It seems like a tremendous task. How hard has it been over the years?

Yanar Mohammed: In the beginning, a number of buildings were empty because the government no longer owned them, or banks were robbed, or for all sorts of reasons. What we did in the OWFI was we went into an empty building and took the best room and hung the sign OWFI on the door. The upper floor could serve as a shelter for women in need. It’s a city where everyone is looking at each other with a big question mark: what are you allowed to do and what are you not allowed to do? We decided to open a women’s shelter. We rented a house where we made it a formal shelter for women, then opened one in Kirkuk, then opened a few of our activist houses. All of a sudden in the last year, the government became a little stronger and wanted to exercise authority over NGOs and set conditions on us. They said you can’t open a shelter without the approval of five ministries. Some of these ministries are run by the most notorious Islamists in Iraqi politics. They spoke openly against us, denounced us as promiscuous women. We looked at conditions they set for us and knew we could not meet them. We do not admit in Iraq to these shelters. We do it in secret from the government. We have a central office in Baghdad. We have to change the location of shelters once a year.

Guernica: News reports suggest the Kurds are faring better than groups in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. Does that hold for women as well?

Yanar Mohammed: The Kurdish organization in the north is different from central and southern Iraq. The Kurdish constitution is written differently than ours, not as Islamic. They have one article, 7, that would make women vulnerable to Islamic Sharia if families decide it. OWFI member and Kurdish feminist Houzan Mahmoud has been campaigning against it, pressuring regional government. The difference with the Baghdad government is it is almost all dominated by Islamist parties. In the center and south, if you can guarantee you’re alive the next day, you’re a winner.

(NOTE: A U.N. report that was released after this interview documented a rise in honor killings in the Kurdish regions of Iraq.)

These Islamist parties are not only U.S.-backed but also backed by the Iranian government and ruling parties.

Guernica: I know OWFI will continue to shelter women and document abuses, but what is your next step politically?

Yanar Mohammed: For an outsider, it may look like the constitution was approved and that’s it. But 80 percent of us feel it is not legal. We do not take it seriously. No one has the feeling that this government is authentic.

Guernica: Eighty percent? That’s a startlingly high number.

Yanar Mohammed: I don’t know if you’ve heard about Star Academy. This an “American Idol”-like show produced in Lebanon that was won by an Iraqi singer based on call-in votes. When your administration tells the whole world that this government represents the people of Iraq and it is an Islamic government, what about the seven million votes that went to Star Academy? That’s a real referendum, unlike the phony referendum they held. The Star Academy winner is a young woman who is in an open dress and is lovely. She is a symbol of the Iraqi life we used to have. That’s what people voted for. If these Islamists grow stronger and more powerful, she will not be able to look like that or sing like that. This is the answer to the U.S. administration when it tells us that this is the elected representative government of Iraq. These Islamist parties are not only U.S.-backed but also backed by the Iranian government and ruling parties. They do not represent the people of Iraq. The U.S. said they’d bring democracy but they waited to see who is stronger- the rule of the jungle-and gave power to the strongest, best funded and best armed. But, then again, maybe the U.S. was hoping to have an Islamist modernist government, similar to the Saudis. They were thinking of something like that, but the genie came out of the bottle, and it will not go back any more.

Guernica: I understand you have faced death threats.

Yanar Mohammed: I went back to Iraq in 2003. I was walking to the Internet café close to our offices. In my email in-box there was a death threat. It was very clear. The death threats came twice, in the beginning of 2004. It really affected the way I could move inside Iraq. It was very hard to walk freely on the streets. Usually people are with me, and we move around in a car. I have one single body guard who is a friend. He is one of those people who believe in the freedom of women. He sticks around me and takes care of my safety. My political friends, who are secular, are usually close to me and give me instructions over what to do and what not to do: they have experiences confronting Islamists.

Guernica: How so? How do you confront Islamists?

Yanar Mohammed: For example, there was this man who tried to sue us. He was upset at a comic I drew for the newspaper she edits, Equality. I was trying to describe women in traditional dress, to make it sound like a space suit: that not a single part of skin should show, or otherwise nuclear radiation could get in. I was trying to be sarcastic about not letting any part of your body show. This man, he was offended and he tried to sue me for $5,000. The next day I find out there were 30 lawyers who stood up against him. He gave up.

Guernica: How was it living in Canada and watching events unfold in Iraq?

Yanar Mohammed: Those years empowered me a lot. When you first leave Iraq, you live in trauma until you get settled, until you feel you have the right to have dreams. Then, with the beginning of 2003, I had a feeling I couldn’t focus on architecture or sculpture anymore. In the beginning of 2003, I had to face the fact that it’s hard to stay in my apartment in Toronto and live the peaceful life that is here while all the atrocities are happening inside Iraq. I had to be part of the scene.

Guernica: Will you stay in Iraq?

Yanar Mohammed: You just know that your life is there. All the challenges are there.

Guernica: It must be terrifying to live in a war zone.

Yanar Mohammed: I lived for a while in a dangerous part of the city close to the green zone; it was like hell. Let’s say it’s evening and you’re back from work and you had a hard time arriving because one of the bridges was closed, and when you ask why, they tell you it is full of resistance pockets. It takes two hours to reach your door and you go inside your house and when it begins to get dark you hear a few shots here and there and machine guns closer to your house, like 20 meters from your house; then all of a sudden a mortar bomb goes off, and the ground shakes.

Guernica: What is next for you?

Yanar Mohammed: We need to have a secular egalitarian constitution put in place. We need a humane government where women and the working class are represented.

Guernica: Is it possible to make reforms to the constitution?

Yanar Mohammed: Islamic Sharia is the founding base of this constitution. How much of a reform can you do? It has to be repealed, and there are a number of people in Iraq speaking about canceling the whole process so far.

Guernica: So, final verdict, are women worse off than before the war?

Yanar Mohammed: Let’s put it this way. At this point, the women of Iraq do not even dream to have even a small part of the reality we used to have before. We have been put under the most notorious Islamic authority in Iraq. Our monies and resources have been taken away from us. If there was the possibility of a resourceful society, we have lost that also.

(Her voice lowers) There isn’t much to be hopeful about. We will have to live it one day at a time and try to find ways out of this dilemma.

Lead image credit: Amy DePaul

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