Iraq should protect its women from fear of violence
Last month in Iraq was appalling for human rights in general and women’s rights in particular because a top female activist involved in the Basra protests in the Shia-dominated south was assassinated.
An Iraqi beauty queen and social media influencer who has been outspoken on women’s rights and other social issues related to her experiences of abuse and domestic violence was gunned down in Baghdad not long after.
These women were targeted, alongside others, by ultra-conservative militants who hold sway in Baghdad and Basra and who have a vested interest in cowing women to keep them out of public life.
Masked gunmen killed Soad al-Ali, a well-known human rights activist, outside a Basra supermarket in September in a brazen assassination that could inflame already fraught tensions in the restive southern city. A police official said Ali, 46, died instantly when she was shot by assailants who fled after shooting at her and her husband, who was wounded, as they were getting in their car.
Ali was heavily involved in organising anti-government protests in Basra and called for a restoration of basic services, including water and electricity, and for corrupt officials to be put on trial.
The assassination, on a street in the Abbasiya district in the centre of Basra, was the first such overt incident since protests erupted in the summer, though activists have described a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by powerful pro-Iran Shia jihadist militias and political groups that control Basra, a city of more than 2 million people.
Militia leaders in Basra accused protesters of colluding with the United States, a favoured excuse used when targeting perceived anti-Iran sentiments with deadly force. Ali was photographed during a meeting she had with US Consul General Timmy Davis in Basra more than a month ago.
In August, Rafif al-Yasiri and Rasha al-Hassan, who owned popular beauty salons, were killed. Again, the prime suspects were radical Shia militants who wanted to impose their version of societal purity on everyone by strength of arms and brutality.
Again, investigations led nowhere and, again, this was because Shia jihadists linked to Iran can get away with anything, particularly as many of them work in the police and military.
The highest profile victim of violence against women is perhaps Tara Fares, a former Iraqi beauty queen and social media sensation who had millions of Instagram followers. Although she spent most of her time abroad or in the Kurdistan regional capital of Erbil, she was reported to have been making more regular visits to Baghdad. There she met her end at the hands of masked gunmen who gunned her down as she sat in her car days after Ali was killed.
While these killings have brought women’s rights in Iraq to the fore once more, it is important to note that violence against women is nothing new and women’s rights have fallen precipitously since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Late last year, Shia Islamists linked to Iran almost pushed through legislation that would have effectively legalised paedophilia, allowing men to marry girls under the age of 9. These extreme conservative factions have repeatedly attempted to push this law through, which sets a frightening scene for the state of children’s and women’s rights in Iraq.
If Iraq is to be taken seriously as a modern democracy, it needs to make sure women are protected and allowed to express opinions freely without fear of violence.