In the fall of 2004 I had the privilege of interviewing Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). We talked about how things had changed and become worse for women in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. As we observe the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war, several pieces have been published that make all too clear that things have deteriorated badly for the women we promised to liberate.
As Rania Khalek writes, women continue to be trafficked. Women have been widowed and children orphaned by the millions. Millions of women live in vulnerable circumstances without reliable income and are forced into marriages and killed for ‘honor’. Women’s representation in the government is a sham and education all but impossible and as CNN points out, civil family laws have been replaced by religious ones that deprive women of rights.
For a few years, there was much concern about the welfare of women in Afghanistan and then Iraq. That interest has faded but we need to remember the shameful legacy we have left behind in these countries. I wish in re-reading my interview with Mohammed that it did not still seem so relevant. But it does and so I am reprinting it here:
Our Lives Are Worse Now: Yanar Mohammed Talks With Lucinda Marshall About the Impact of the US Occupation on the Lives of Iraqi Women
Author’s Note: I first started corresponding with Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), early this spring when I received a frantic email from Jennifer Fasulo of the Working Committee in Support of Iraqi Women’s Rights explaining that OWFI urgently needed funds to rent a shelter in Baghdad for women at risk of honor killings. The letter asked that checks be made out to Ms. Fasulo personally, so that she could wire the money directly, because the usual method of donating via the internet would not be fast enough. Although I was familiar with OWFI’s work, I had never heard of Ms. Fasulo, so I emailed Ms. Mohammed to ask if this was a legitimate request. She promptly assured me that it was, explaining that some expected funds had fallen through, leaving OWFI without enough funds to pay the annual rent of $3200 needed for the shelter. Shocked at how little was needed, I immediately sent a check to Ms. Fasulo and am happy to say that the funds were raised. Over the course of the spring, Ms. Mohammed and I continued to correspond, and I was struck by how easily we communicated, two women, who had never met, half a world apart. In a true example of how communality transcends borders, it turns out that both of us are in our mid-forties with teenage sons. We both have degrees in architecture and have spent most of our working lives as artists turning our energies these last few years to ending violence against women, she by founding OWFI and I by founding the Feminist Peace Network. Ms. Mohammed, a long time activist, working against the Baathist regime as well as for women’s rights, was born in Baghdad in 1960. Finding that she could no longer make a living with the economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, she moved to Canada and continued her activism from there. Last spring she returned to Iraq for four months to work directly with women during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. We spoke recently about her trip, the current the situation for women in Iraq, and what she was able to accomplish while she was there.
Lucinda Marshall: First if you could, tell me about the goals of OWFI.
Yanar Mohammed: The first goal is to achieve equality between women and men and the way to that is a secular constitution and a separation of mosque and state. The second goal is to have equal representation of women and men in all councils, both social and political. Third, we need to end the compulsory veil, to have some laws that protect a woman’s right to the dress code of her choice. Last, our goal is to end segregation in the schools.
LM: What are the most important issues for women in Iraq right now?
YM: The first issue is security in their day-to-day lives. The second is that the women need a secular Constitution that equals them to the men. For the time being, it has been announced quite clearly that the temporary Constitution that has been written will be based mainly on Islamic Sharia (fundamentalist Islamic laws). If one man can marry four women, this gives you an indication of a woman’s position if this Constitution is based on Sharia.
LM: What are the conditions for women since the American occupation of Iraq? Are they better or worse than they were before?
YM: Try to imagine that in your house there is not one single penny to spend, there are five children to feed, there is a man who has married a second wife and a third wife and you are not allowed to leave the house and work because the man thinks it is un-Islamic, is your life better or worse? Conditions for women were deteriorating before, but they have deteriorated much more since the war because there was work for women before, the factories were working. So a woman who was able to bring income to the house is not able to do that anymore. And if the Americans say that unemployment is over, that is a big lie. Seventy percent of the people in Iraq are unemployed and most of those are women. And just imagine how many children are being affected. You know who gets hurt the worst? The mothers. You take your own food and you give it to your children, you sell whatever gold or jewelry you have left, you give everything possible to the children.
LM: What if anything did the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) do to alleviate these conditions?
YM: I met the person the Americans put in place as the consultant to the ministry of Labor and social affairs and I told him that hundreds of thousands of women are widows, they don’t have husbands, and they have lots of children. Social insurance needs to be given immediately, this is an emergency. This man looked at me and said we know what to do and when to do it. We need to make a census from north to south to decide who to give it to and are you here to confront with me or are you here to collaborate?
LM: What about the new Constitution, will that be beneficial to women?
YM: 25% of the government will be women, and I think that’s a very good thing and it is justified, but it is not our main demand. Our main demand is that women get respected in the Constitution, to be equal to men. What’s the use of a Governing Council that is even 50% women if their policies are not women- friendly? You have some political groups that have their women’s organizations and these women’s organizations are responsible for honor killings or for preparing the lists of women to be killed. So for us, if a woman is taking over, it doesn’t always mean that she will bring women-friendly policies.
LM: What you just said is very shocking. There are lists prepared of women to be killed?
YM: The people who usually take these matters into their hands are the nationalist groups and tribal heads. They give much importance to the honor of the family, honor of the tribe and eventually it becomes the honor of the nation. When a woman commits adultery or un-allowed love or somebody has suspected she is pregnant (by someone other than her husband) she gets killed so as to restore the honor of the family. It happens all over Iraq, but it depends on the political parties and whether they are encouraging it or not. In the 1990’s in the Kurdish northern part of Iraq, the ruling party was not only encouraging the practice, they were organizing it as well.
LM: The party itself was organizing it?
YM: Yes. Surprisingly, the head of this party is part of the American formula now. Our President now is a tribal head and the Prime Minister is an Arab Nationalist, a previous Baath person.
LM: I am at a loss of words just because it is truly unspeakable to even think about.
YM: Yes, Why does nobody speak out? You know that in Iraq, it is a taboo. If a woman goes against the will of the family, she needs to be canceled from life, she needs to be canceled from the knowledge of anybody who knew her so that nobody should ever speak about it. That is one side of it. But from the human rights side, why doesn’t anybody speak of it? It is because the American have favored this political group, they have relied on them in this campaign of war against Iraq and they have made them part of this Governing Council and they don’t care if they have killed thousands of women.
LM: While you were in Iraq, threats were made against your life. Can you tell me what happened?
YM: At the time, the Governing Council had proposed a resolution that said Islamic Sharia overrides everything in the civil law. What this meant was that men can marry four women, that all the rights are given to men in marriage and in divorce and in the custody of children and that there is no minimum age for the marriage of women. For example, a nine-year-old child can be given to a sixty-year-old husband. Under Islamic Sharia law, women are thought of just as breeders. So, turning civil law into Sharia law would have ended all rights for women in Iraq. We were one of many groups who spoke out against Resolution 137. I spoke very strongly with no compromise at a demonstration and they put it on all the local television channels, it was heard by many people. I got many good responses, especially from women, they were so happy for me to speak. But the next day, I received this letter by email. It described what I was saying as psychologically disturbed ideas to influence the women of Iraq in immoral ways and if I continued doing what I was doing, they would need to kill me under Islamic Sharia.
LM: That must have been absolutely terrifying.
YM: The internet cafe was close to my office, a five minute walk, but at the moment I read that letter, I cannot describe to you…
LM: Yet you continue your work, that takes much courage.
YM: Yes, but you know, it is life or death for Iraqi women. If I don’t do it, if other women don’t do it, we are falling into this dark pit, the darkest actually in the world right now. If women are being raped and nobody knows about it in the prisons and women are being abused in their houses, somebody needs to be brave and stick their necks out.
LM: What can be done to help women in Iraq without further endangering them?
YM: This issue of women being raped in prisons is horrific but also women are being raped and killed outside the prisons. The first thing is to make sure this Constitution protects the rights of women. It needs to be secular. One thing that many people do not know is that the previous civil law in Iraq encouraged honor killing, the criminal code did not put into prison a man who had killed a woman in his family because of honor reasons. So women have not previously been protected from honor killings by civil law. Even though it was civil law as opposed to religious law, that didn’t really matter. The civil law is based on religious law in many of its parts. And when Americans came and amended parts of these laws, they did not care about this part. For them, the lives of women and an article of law that encouraged the killing of women were not a priorities.
LM: I know this is one of the reasons you have worked so hard to open shelters for women at risk of honor killings, What have you been able to accomplish and what still needs to be done?
YM: We have just opened the first shelter in Baghdad that will take women threatened by killings and in Kirkuk we have also opened secret rooms where we also have a few women we have saved. In the coming month we will rent a house that will officially be a shelter for women in the city of Kirkuk. So then we will have 2 shelters.
LM: In all of Iraq, there are only two shelters that serve women at risk of honor killings?
YM: And these shelters are run by us, Lucinda, in very harsh situations. Managing the security for it, the expenses for it and we mostly have to work with volunteers. For months I had heard that the Americans had set up a women’s shelter and many women were asking where it was. It turns out they had decided to set it up in the Green Zone. The Green Zone is a location that nobody in Baghdad can dream of reaching, if you are a battered woman or a threatened woman, it is out of the question how you would get there.
LM: So it seems obvious that one the things OWFI needs is funds to run and expand the shelters.
YM: You know, even minimal funds translate into a number of women’s lives saved, otherwise there is no alternative. Just imagine a country that has no precedent of a woman’s shelter and you are beginning from scratch. That is what we have done in Baghdad and in Iraq in the last few months.
LM: Share with me your thoughts about what has happened at Abu Ghraib, the role of the women soldiers and what has happened to the women prisoners.
YM: In those same prisons, so many things happened against human rights (under Saddam) but it wasn’t as sexualized. It makes you wonder. I don’t approve of putting the women soldiers in the forefront of all these pictures, because most of the abuse was being done by men. It reminds me of the religious mentality. Whenever something bad happens, there is a big attempt to blame it on women. It’s like the honor killings, it perpetuates misogyny when you blame the victims. Under religious and political Islam and also under capitalism, wherever you go, it is not friendly for women.
LM: Given all the problems since the American occupation, what do you think would be the best course of action now?
YM: It would be a good idea to support substituting United Nations troops for U.S. troops. The American troops have to leave right away and they cannot leave if there is no peacekeeping force. The UN peacekeeping forces are more qualified in handling post-war zones; in administrative matters and even in political ways, they are more neutral. We do not want to see the Americans impose their political agenda on us anymore. They are bringing the most backward political groups to the forefront, imposing their political will on us, which is out of the question. The American plan of favoring some groups over others is taking us down the drain, especially women.
LM: What’s next for you, do you plan to go back to Iraq?
YM: Yes, but first I need to raise funds for our work. In the last few months we opened many offices, some we were able to pay the rent for, some are in the houses of our women activists, so we need money for rent, we need more money to distribute our newspaper more widely, we need help for the shelters. We need to make the base of women activists a bigger one so nobody can marginalize us anymore.