By Kasia Anderson
Remember those photos of Iraqi women triumphantly raising freshly inked fingers for Western cameras after voting in their new “democracy”? They were presented to the world by the U.S. government as an indication of a policy that would liberate Iraqi women and men. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way, according to Iraqi women’s rights activist Yanar Mohammed, who argues that the situation for women in her country has significantly worsened since the American invasion in 2003.
Despite his immense failings and unforgivable atrocities, Saddam Hussein ran an essentially secular government that gave women more educational, professional and social freedoms than does the current regime. This is a source of chagrin to people like Mohammed who detested the dictatorship but fear that the future will only bring new restrictions and greater oppression for Iraq’s women under the guise of “democracy.”
On April 14, Yanar Mohammed was honored by the Feminist Majority Foundation, an organization that warned the world about what the Taliban was doing to women and girls in Afghanistan long before the U.S. decided to take military action. As one of four special guests at the foundation’s Global Women’s Rights Awards, she was able to speak out about the many battles that she and other members of her activist group, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, are fighting on behalf of women in their country, risking their lives on a daily basis for their cause. Mohammed tells Truthdig’s Associate Editor Kasia Anderson about her mission and explains how the current state of affairs for Iraqi women differs from the picture painted by many Western media outlets.
Kasia Anderson: Can you tell us in your own words about your work [with the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq], how you started and what issues are most important to your cause right now?
Yanar Mohammed: After this war started on Iraq I immediately decided to go back to set up an organization and to be the voice for free women there, and since the beginning, in my organization, we decided to do demonstrations, to do campaigns, to make petitions, and to see whatever is needed. And it started with speaking out against the human trafficking of women, and we were the first to demonstrate. It was a few months after the [March 2003] beginning of the war—in August 2003—we started that. But later on, our work was mainly on sheltering women from honor killings, and also on seeking out the reports of women’s trafficking, and later on in the last two years we found out—especially after the breakout of the scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison, we found out that it is very important to have a presence in all the women’s prisons and see what’s happening there. So, we managed to become regular visitors to the central prison—it’s called Khadamiyah, a women’s prison, and we interviewed all the women in there, and we found out terrible things happening before they reached the prison. Six of them, actually, spoke out about being assaulted, about being raped, some of them serially raped by the staff of the police station before they reached the prison. So, we decided: This is a program that we will have to pursue immediately. And the surprise here is that most of this work we do with very minimal funding—mostly depending on volunteer work.
Anderson: How did the onset of the Iraq war change things for Iraqi women, specifically? I would imagine that there would be an increase in particular forms of oppression and violence once things became more volatile and uncertain. ...
Mohammed: Well, although people on this part of the world think that Iraqi women are liberated, actually, we have lost all of the achievements or all the status that we used to have. It is no longer safe to leave your house and get groceries. We’re not speaking here about a young woman trying to reach the university, because that is beginning to get too difficult. We’re not speaking here about women who are trying to go back and forth to work and even those of my friends who do that already because they have to—many of the police at work are being killed for sectarian reasons. So, you have to witness all sorts of atrocities just going back and forth to work, and if there is this new [policy] of Sunni and Shiite, checking all the IDs of people, you leave the house and you do not guarantee that you come back safe.
Anderson: And I know that the markets are one particular target for bombers—repeated targets for bombers—when people are just trying to shop and go about their business.
Mohammed: Well, all the districts of Baghdad have witnessed bombing, and it’s like the bombings move from one neighborhood to the other every month, so ... I moved my residence from one place to another, but I found out they’re all unsafe.
Anderson: What is your hope now for your organization—to move into new areas of social and political concern? Or are you going to keep building up what you’re working on now?
Mohammed: Actually, we always try to be ahead of the atrocities happening. It started with sheltering; then, it extended to the matter of the trafficking of women. The third thing is that we went into the prisons and we are watching for women’s self-esteem to be respected in there. And finally we found out that if you do not put women’s rights in context, you have done nothing. So, we have started a youth initiative where we are inviting youth from the Sunni and the Shiite areas and making poetry events where we tell them: “The subject matter of the event is about women, is about love, is about hope,” and we are witnessing very good results—that the youth do not want to be recruited for a civil war, do not want to kill each other, but there are very few alternatives for them out there, and the few democrat, seculars and outspoken women aren’t really supported. This is the reason that I visit L.A. and speak to our friends at the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. Magazine, trying to seek support so we can survive as a project and as a voice, because, surprisingly, this war on Iraq brought all the support for the fundamentalists, for the extremists, who are new in the country, who are not the original people of the country, and they made them strong against us—the women and the freedom-loving people of Iraq.
Anderson: Besides the mistaken notion that women in Iraq are enjoying more freedom now than before the beginning of the current war, which tends to be a party line over here, what other misconceptions about what’s going on in actuality in Iraq do you feel you could disabuse us of on this end?
Mohammed: Well, the myth of democracy has killed already half a million Iraqis, and if it were giving us real democracy, where people are represented according to their political affiliations or their economic understanding or their social justice affiliations, that would have been understood. But the way Iraqis are represented is according to their religion and their ethnicities. It is as if the U.S. administration is trying to tell the whole world that Iraqis are not entitled to political understanding or political activity. The political formula that was forwarded to us is a total insult for a part of the world where the politics are very much thriving and all kinds of politics—with the dawn of the war, thousands of political parties have registered. And they all wanted to be competing, or let’s say running into democracy, but who was empowered, who was supported? It’s mostly the religious and mostly the ethnic groups, and the women’s groups? The U.S. administration wasn’t really interested to speak to, let’s say, free women’s groups. They preferred to bring decorative factors to the parliament, where they look like women, but they all voted for a constitution that is against women. And the constitution at this moment has imposed Shariah law upon us, when in the times before the war we had more of a secular constitution that respected women’s rights. So, it’s one more thing lost for this war.
Anderson: Can you respond to the claims made by U.S. politicians talking about how well the reconstruction efforts in Iraq are going?
Mohammed: Well, you know, the billions of dollars that we hear should have reached Iraq and been spent for the reconstruction—well, we don’t see any reconstruction. Whatever they have tried to construct, like the electricity generators and water supply and all of that—they have been blown away by the resistance over and over again, so they stopped doing those.
Anderson: Those are particular targets for the resistance?
Mohammed: Yes, yes, because they do not like to see the country run in the American way. So, the answer here is that it cannot be solved by money. There is a political issue to be solved, and later on the reconstruction follows. We’re not saying that money should not be spent on the reconstruction, but the political issues have really stopped, and there is absolutely no communication, and all of the solutions are reaching a dead end. So, all talk of reconstruction is nonsense at this point. We have not seen any buildings reconstructed in Iraq. I wonder what they’re talking about.
Anderson: And the utilities are, at this point, shot?
Mohammed: Nothing! We get electricity one hour in the morning and one hour at night, and in the last two days there was no electricity. We did not see any new buildings built, unless they are inside the Green Zone, where we cannot see them.
Anderson: And there was a wall being constructed in April. ...
Mohammed: Not one wall—there are 10 layers of concrete walls that we have to be searched over and over until we reach the Green Zone. So, maybe there is some reconstruction in there, but I’ve been there and I haven’t seen really much. So where are these billions going? I have no answer, but I think they are going somewhere else.
AP Photo / Samir Mizban
Yanar Mohammed speaks at a women’s rights rally in Baghdad in August 2005.