The fearless women at the fore of Iraq’s protests

After decades of war, violence and sanctions, women’s unprecedented participation in the protests is a remarkable development that brought a strong sense of belonging and pride.

Sunday 15/12/2019
An Iraqi protester paints on a concrete barrier on al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad, December 5. (AFP)
A watershed in history. An Iraqi protester paints on a concrete barrier on al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad, December 5. (AFP)

BAGHDAD  - Clad with the Iraqi flag, Oum Ali, 50, was operating two washing machines in her “laundry of fortune,” which she installed at a corner overlooking Tahrir Square, a main hub of the anti-government protests in Baghdad.

“I am washing the clothes of protesters who have been sitting for weeks, day and night, in the square that has become the home of all Iraqis. It is a small contribution compared to the sacrifices made by the demonstrators,” said Oum Ali, who asked to be identified by her nickname.

“I will not return home until the fulfilment of our demands. We will succeed, all of us, men, women and children. We all dream about a nation where we can live in security, dignity and with full services and rights,” she said, raising her hand in a victory sign.

Oum Ali has camped at the square every day from dawn till midnight. She is among thousands of women active in protests rocking Baghdad and southern Iraq to demand an overhaul of the political system. More than 400 people have been killed and thousands wounded by security forces and unidentified snipers since the protests started October 1.

After decades of war, violence and sanctions that have taken their toll on women in the patriarchal society, their unprecedented participation in the protests is a remarkable development that brought a strong sense of belonging and pride.

Some, like Dina Shaker, 35, have defied their husbands and parents to attend the protests, sometimes joining demonstrations in secret.

“I am present in the square since October 25 despite my husband’s disapproval. I help clear the space with other volunteers. During violent confrontations we help in assisting the wounded,” Shaker said.

“It is natural that my husband fears for my safety and is concerned about the society’s perception of my work but I feel proud to contribute in this national matter. We all want a country where our children can live peacefully and with dignity. Besides, society should acknowledge that women’s role is as important as men’s,” said the mother of five.

Women have been marginalised and silenced by conservative Islamists for too long and they have decided to make themselves heard, she added.

Near the Green Zone where government offices are located, Tahrir Square has become a smaller Iraq where people create a collective community and reclaim their national identity beyond sectarianism, divisions and fears. The abandoned building known as the Turkish restaurant, where protesters have taken control, has become a symbol of Iraq’s unity.

Commonly dubbed “October ladies,” female protesters increased in number as the protests escalated, noted Noor Ali, 26, a lawyer and activist.

“In the beginning female presence was shy, which is expected in Iraq’s conservative and patriarchal society, but the ‘October ladies’ have shaken the quagmire and proved to be staunch combatants against those who want to restrain their role in this unique popular movement in Iraq,” Ali said.

“Women have defied big challenges. Some were kidnapped. Others were threatened and intimidated or prevented from going out. However, their determination to participate broke taboos. Today, the mentality has changed and many people are against ultra-conservative religious trends that isolated women and confined them at home.”

The lives of Iraqi women are constantly threatened by militias and tribes. In October, a female activist was assassinated with her husband in her house.

Male protesters have been largely supportive of the women’s role in the uprising.

“Their (women’s) presence is very important in many aspects from donation collections to cleaning campaigns, cooking, baking, providing medical services to protesters and holding vigils to remember those killed,” said activist Hussein Habib.

“Women’s participation in the uprising is in fact a great test to the Iraqi society. The reality of the moment has overturned all expectations as no single case of sexual harassment was reported.”

The uprising may be a turning point for women but the road to their freedom and rights is still filled with obstacles, said Bochra al Obeidi, a former member of Iraq’s human rights commission.

“The uprising is about a national cause and public rights. All Iraqis feel concerned regardless of age, gender, restrictions and taboos,” Obeidi said.

“Women will eventually impose themselves as full partners in the society and in politics. They have made sacrifices and helped uphold the protests with great momentum,” she said, adding that “the era of Naziha al-Dulaimi (a pioneer of the feminist movement in Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s) will return in a stronger manner.”