Women's rights become a struggle in Iraq

By PAMELA HESS  |  Aug. 14, 2003 at 8:54 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter

BAGHDAD, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- Like Saddam Hussein, Yanar Mohammed tries not to sleep every night in the same place.

"For a different cause," she notes dryly, in the run-down barebones office she borrows from the Worker's Communist Party of Iraq.

Yanar, 42, left the safety and comfort of her life as an architect, wife and mother in Toronto to return to Baghdad to fight for Iraqi women's rights.

This is not an equal pay for equal work debate, or a campaign for a child-care subsidy. Her platform is elemental: Women must not be abducted, sold and raped. Those that eventually return to their families must not be murdered to restore the family's honor. Women must not be forced to wear an opaque veil over their faces and bodies.

She will not say where she sleeps because her life has already been threatened. She does not move without her bodyguard.

"Women activists are few. Most are very scared," Yanar says. "I do not have the patience to wait for 20 years," she explains. "If the Islamists are calling publicly for this treatment of women. ... I think I should use the same methods."

Yanar is Norma Rae -- tiny -- just 5 feet, with thick black hair pulled into a ponytail and a snug denim shirt and khakis -- and cut from the same revolutionary cloth. She is the founder of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, a Baghdad-based follow up to the Defense of Iraqi Women's Rights organization she headed in Canada.

The dingy walls around her are roughly whitewashed. Mismatched chairs pulled to a single desk make up her office and conference room.

It's a marked change from her life three months ago. When she left Canada with her husband, she was leading a design team to build a 50-story condominium in downtown Toronto for Burka Varacalli Architects.

Having lived through the 1991 war, she was an outspoken critic of the most recent one.

"Thank god Saddam was a paper puppet and not the power he was made out to be," she said, noting the low casualties in the city this time around.

Although she left a teenage son behind in Toronto parentless, she feels she is needed more here.

Up through the 1980s, women in Iraq, and especially the relatively cosmopolitan capital Baghdad, were free to wear what they chose and to work for themselves. Yanar earned both her bachelor's and master's degree from Baghdad University. She fled Iraq in 1993 and by 1995 had earned enough money in Lebanon to immigrate to Canada.

But in the years following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there was a change in Iraq. Saddam, an avowedly secular leader who regularly persecuted the religious and assassinated influential ayatollahs, sensed his days were numbered. To maintain his hold in Iraq in the face of what was considered an inevitable second war with the United States, Saddam found religion. He built mosques. He touted his direct genetic link to the prophet Mohammed. And he rolled back women's rights to mollify the traditional Islamic tribes.

Three years ago, in a display of "piety," Saddam's henchmen organized the slaughter of 200 alleged prostitutes around the country. They were beheaded, stripped naked and hung upside down or tossed in front of their houses with signs that said, "The evil is out of society."

Yanar is afraid the same thing is happening again. She unfolds a handwritten note that has just been brought from her supporters in Basrah, the oil city deep in southern Iraq. Armed men went into a house and shot four prostitutes on Aug. 6, the note reads.

"Umm Alla was shot walking with her children on the street," she says. Umm Alla means "mother of Alla," a girl's name. It is customary to refer to women as the mother of their children rather than by name.

"This is human life and we need to defend it," she says, helpless to do anything but. "I see women abused and killed every day. It is not something to turn your back to."

Women in Iraq are not necessarily equipped for the dangerous and difficult slog ahead of her, Yanar says.

"If you live long enough with no human rights, you get convinced you are the inferior party," she says.

Political operatives in the new Iraq do not have telephones and faxes, as there is no phone service. They do not have copy machines, because there is little money and electric power is intermittent. Yanar has only her friends, a trickle of funding, and a printing press.

The men she is working against have fatwas -- decrees that hold powerful sway over the religious -- loudspeakers, mosques full of congregants, and the Koran behind them, or so they say.

The average woman's situation in Iraq has grown even more precarious since the war. Women made up 40 percent of the public-center work force but now almost none has jobs, and the Coalition Provisional Authority is not providing social welfare payments. The military and former government workers are being given monthly stipends, but women only receive a small percentage of that. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women are single mothers and widows, given three successive wars in 20 years and Saddam's frequent executions. Others are second or third wives of the same man who does not take financial care of them.

Moreover, Iraq's borders are now open to what she calls "Islamist political groups" like the Iran-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Other fundamentalist clerics have also returned, like the young Shiite Moqtada Sadr, and they are agitating to get women under the veil.

"At the mosques, they are asking men to veil their women and take their daughters out of school after sixth grade," Yanar says.

Indeed, at Baghdad University, where it seems a roughly half the female students wear veils -- the others are conservatively but fashionably dressed in long skirts and long-sleeve shirts -- new posters that have been put up. They read: "Women without veils are fallen women."

Women face grave dangers in Baghdad, says a July report from Human Rights Watch.

There are no reliable statistics about the rape and kidnapping of females in Baghdad in part because police stations are operating on skeleton staffs but also because rape is not taken to be a serious crime under the Iraqi penal code -- a rapist can get his sentence suspended if he marries his victim, according to HRW's translation of the law.

Anecdotal evidence suggests women and girls are being abducted in broad daylight and raped in alarming numbers. Many are returned to their families where they face the prospect of "honor killing" if it is known they have been raped. Therefore, some victims refuse to report the crime or seek medical attention. In many cases, hospitals refuse treatment to rape victims, citing an overload of patients, according to the report. A medical confirmation of rape can only be made at the city's forensic institute -- at the morgue.

There are 5,000 Iraqi police in Baghdad, a city of 5.5 million people. Iraqi-on-Iraqi crimes are generally left to Iraqi police to solve, rather than the American military police and soldiers who man and guard the police stations.

Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer reported Tuesday the Iraqi police had broken up two kidnapping rings in Baghdad. No further details were made available.

Yanar says abducted women and girls are being sold -- $100 for a married woman, $200 for a virgin. Human Rights Watch's investigation turned up evidence to support that claim.

Yanar is planning an Aug. 24 demonstration in Baghdad for women's rights and has her sites set on influencing the newly formed Iraqi governing council to codify protections for women and girls.

She differentiates between the strictly religious and those who use religion to further their political agendas. The council is now headed by Ibrahim al-Jafari, the representative of the Dawa Party, an Islamist political party.

"It's one of the oldest Islamist groups. They try to look modern but if you go to their houses their women are under veils," she said.

At his first news conference as chairman of the council on Monday, al-Jafari -- in a Western suit and tie -- denied that women are being forced to wear the veil or are in danger of being sold.

"It is very personal. It is left up to every woman to wear what she likes," he said.

"That is a big lie," Yanar said Wednesday, having watched the news conference on television. "Women in the streets are under social pressure."

She is doubtful the governing council will take up women's rights. There are three women on the council but two wear the veil and the third "is not known as an outspoken figure for women's rights." The woman, Akila al-Hashimi, was an adviser to former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

Yanar has met with American civil affairs military officers but has been told not to expect an audience with Bremer to press her agenda. One of her top priorities is to get women a monthly payment of $100 from the CPA as a form of welfare, because millions lost their jobs when the war came and have been without work for four months.

"They told me, 'Good luck, we haven't even seen his face,'" Yanar relates.

"The CPA will have to respond, if not fully then at least partly," she said. "They can not keep us quiet forever."

She met with some officials when the CPA was still the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. She insistently pressed her case with the Americans. One of them -- apparently exasperated -- told her, "Do you want to cooperate or confront?"

"At the time, I didn't know if I should feel very hopeless or very powerful! There I was asking for help for women in need from the biggest military machine in the world, who can invade a whole country in no time" she says, still in wonderment that she could be perceived as a bully. "Look at my size!"

Yanar has about 200 members in her organization, many of them operating in the far freer northern provinces, where Kurds built their own autonomous society free from Saddam's interference by dint of the U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zones.

"That's not a lot of members, I know. There's a very good reason. Women are afraid to step into our office," Yanar explains.

Yanar has political ambitions. She plans to run for an office in the Iraqi government that deals with women's issues when elections are held. That process -- which requires a constitution be written and a census taken -- could take more than a year.

Most of Yanar's supporters have come to her through her Arabic-language newspaper, Equality. She has published two issues and a third is due out soon with a run of 3,000 copies.

Her friends in the Communist party -- the pure, grass-roots version organized in 1993, she explains, not the compromised old Iraqi Communists -- distribute the papers for her.

She is almost apologetic about her association with the Worker's Communist Party as she knows it taints her organization. But when pressed, she is defiant.

"I look at myself as a woman activist in the first place, but later on I became a member of the party. I will not be ashamed of being affiliated with them," Yanar says. "It does deprive me of many supporters I could get from parts of North America. But for me, there is no choice. I have no other support here in Baghdad. They work for human justice and equality. I am proud to be affiliated."

Iraqi women are different from women elsewhere in the Middle East, she insists. Some 45,000 Iraqi women demonstrated for equal civil rights in Baghdad in 1958, years before the American feminist movement of the 1960s got publicly organized.

"We are not the (stereotypical) submissive women of Islamic society," Yanar says.

She doesn't know how many women to hope for at her Aug. 24 march. She believes the crowd will be primarily men from the Worker's Communist Party. The women are not brave enough.

Trending Stories