Yanar Mohammed, one of Iraq's most prominent feminists, speaks to Ceasefire deputy editor Musab Younis about the Arab Spring, the withdrawal of US troops and the prospects for democracy and equality in her country.
MY: We recently saw a major women’s march in Cairo protesting against the brutal treatment of female protesters. What is your assessment of the Arab Spring in terms of its impact on women’s rights, specifically in the context of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Iraq?
YM: : I would first like to point out that women have proven themselves to be an agent of change in the times of the Arab Spring. Their participation in the arena of political struggle also revealed the heinous and misogynist characteristic of the police institutions of the Arab states, where despotism and misogyny walk hand in hand to maintain the status quo. While we speak of women’s participation in struggle, we should not expect the results to be immediate and unquestionable. I think it is premature to claim to have the final say regarding the impact of the Arab Spring on women’s rights in the region. Women’s freedoms can be achieved with the progress of the society towards human and civil rights, and this process has just begun in the Middle East.
I am no supporter of the viewpoint which says that women are the biggest losers of the Arab Spring. Dictatorship and despotism can never nurture a freedom-loving society. We should think along the lines of breaking the tip of the iceberg, which is to oust the head of the system first, then strengthen our tools of organising and struggle, and keep on stressing on an egalitarian and freedom-loving social agenda. Only then will we be a credible opponent to the despotic ruling systems of the Middle East, and may have a chance at giving way to an established women’s equality agenda.
Although our organization (OWFI) demands immediate full rights and equality for women, and we do not agree to a lower platform in the political and organizational arena, we know that revolutions can and have to be messy, including many stages of progress before the final results can be reaped.
It is true that the Islamist right had their political parties well established and were ready for a day like this, but they are just filling temporarily into the transitional vacuum which the revolution had created. Now that the rebel groups had their lessons about the importance of political parties, it is the time to mobilize, organize and constitute the political heirs of the new era of revolution, where the mandate will revolve around freedom and equality – in resonance with the French revolution.
MY: In a recent interview, you said that Iraq has “turned into a society of 99 percent poor and 1 percent rich.” Is the Occupy movement relevant to Iraq?
YM: The essence of the first demonstrations of the Iraqi Tahrir square in February 2011 was a revolt against the huge gap which was created between the ruling class in the Green Zone and the people who suffer to put a meal on the table. The main slogans were: Jobs, Services, Corruption, and Freedoms. The slogan which outlasted the rest was “corruption”, as the people could no longer accept that each PM takes a salary and benefits which equal 30 times that of a standard government employee, many of whom are threatened by privatization or lay-offs. And while widows can hardly get a monthly payment of $120, forty billion dollars got lost from the 2010 governmental budget without any trace of those who could be held accountable.
There are other similarities. The 1% of Iraqis who (mostly) live in the Green Zone were coached by American instructors on the responses they should give to the 99% of Iraqis who are working-class and jobless. And a huge governmental body was created to absorb all the ethnic/sectarian militia groups which currently seize 30% of the annual GDP, while its members mostly spend their time in their resorts in Europe.
And finally, the lessons learned by the 1% have been similar: creating anti-riot police, a huge police force, dozens of secret security and intelligence institutes, and a huge army which has recruited almost one million Iraqi men under the supervision of the prime minister. This gigantic security system stood helpless in confronting 16 terrorist attacks of ‘Bloody Thursday’, on 22 December.
In reference to the name ‘Occupy Wall Street’, I recall one of the biggest days of the Iraqi demonstrations. On the February 25, 2011, “day of rage” in the Iraqi Tahrir square, we attempted to push the concrete slabs which separated the Tahrir square from the green zone (via Al Jumhuriya bridge) so as to cross into the Green Zone and eventually to occupy what is rightfully ours. But CNN was not interested in showing this to the rest of the world. I also remember a point when we were watching the events of the Egyptian Tahrir square. I wrote a statement then that they needed to occupy the presidential palace, and not keep the demonstrations passive.
The OWS movement has made a leap in identifying the movement as a class movement against the owners of the capital in the US, which echoed instantly in the biggest capitals around the globe, thus turning the movement into a global working-class movement.
MY: The ‘Arab Spring’ was repressed in Iraq, as it has been elsewhere, via modern methods of crowd control. There has recently been some controversy over the shipping of tear gas from the US to Egypt. Much of the police training and equipment in the recent repression is sourced from Western countries. Given this, what do you think activists in Europe and the US can do to help those in Iraq who wish to exercise their right to protest?
YM: The biggest factor in the repression of the Iraqi demonstrations was the detainment of thousands of organizers, subjecting them to physical torture, and keeping them for many months under surveillance. Many of our colleagues were detained many times and still went back to Tahrir square, but there comes a time when their families cannot endure the difficulty anymore.
Many of the organizing groups’ headquarters were raided, and the activists detained from there. Our office in central Baghdad was raided twice. Once it was kept under siege by the army, which closed the street in front of us. This was ironic, as we are a women’s organization and work mainly to empower abused women in our shelters. Two of our OWFI team were and still are residents in our shelters, and apparently disempowered by the tribal and religious scene. Yet both of them were leaders in Iraq’s Tahrir square, and organizers of Facebook groups of young women and men. For some young women the demonstrations provided a major opportunity, allowing them to go from being simply a trafficking victim to being a leader of thousands of protesters. This brought about one of our Tahrir square slogans: “Women have nothing to lose but their slavery.”
A new technique which the government used against the women of our organization was to assign a group of thugs, dressed in civilian clothing, to surround us and intimidate the woman activists, beating them, groping them, and trying to undress them. The governmental security system attempted to sexually shame OWFI’s women activists to prevent them from returning to Tahrir square. We wrote our statements and published them in Iraq and the US, but the American media was only interested in addressing questions to those who hold political power in Iraq. They were not interested in the Iraqi Spring. In their understanding, Iraq had already become democratic and those who demonstrate are not “thankful” of their so-called liberation.
MY: The nine-year occupation has fragmented Iraq. In your opinion, is Iraqi society now coming back together, or does it remain divided?
YM: Society at large, I think, now has more awareness about the purposes of sectarian division and its beneficiaries. We witnessed in Tahrir square that nobody identified themselves by religion or sect. The only ones to step into that practice were the few clerics who came numerous times and tried to hold the Friday prayers, but they were embarrassed when they were not followed by many, and did not repeat their visits.
The other big change was that when Ayatollah Sistani issued a statement against the demonstrations – calling them “suspicious” – that decree was not obeyed by the 75,000 people who participated in the demonstrations of all the Iraqi cities on February 25. Neither was Muqtada Al-Sadr’s suggestion to hold a referendum in six months’ time on whether to join the Arab Spring. These two facts had announced the beginning of a new era in Iraq, an Iraqi Spring if you may, where the religious figures seem to be losing their grip on their control of the political scene. Neither were the demonstrators sympathetic to any symbols of the previous Ba’ath regime, or the symbols of Arab Nationalist-fascists.
At Iraq’s Tahrir protests, we said many times that we were the shadow government members, the true representatives of the people. Immense repressive measures sent us back home and many young organizers were brutally tortured in the Muthanna airport detainment facility. We waited many days and weeks for those friends to be released, while being watched by the security thugs of our so-called democratic government.
This government of ethnic and sectarian divisions has proven that it does not represent the people in any way, especially now it has recently escalated the violence, killing almost a hundred civilians a few days after the US withdrawal for the mere reason that they needed military back up for their political struggle among each other. Nevertheless, we have a challenge ahead of us. We will undergo difficult times trying to organize and mobilize against the dividing lines that were planned and entrenched by the occupation forces.
MY: Thank you for talking to Ceasefire.