Iraqi Feminist Yanar Mohammed Takes to the Airwaves
It is not unusual for millions of Iraqis to fix their television sets on talk shows and catch Yanar Mohammed, speaking forcefully in a tone that is polite but determined, serious yet animated, seated between a Muslim cleric and a representative of the U.S. position to her left, and a Kurdish political candidate and a Sunni opposition leader to her right. Yanar stands out for two reasons. She is a woman. And she does not wait for good questions. She asks them.
“How is a constitution democratic if it denies women the civil and social rights given to men?” “Which political parties are pro-women, and which will seek to subjugate women to the rule of ancient laws?” “How many women in Iraq have been murdered in honor killings this year?”
In interview after interview, Yanar, co-founder of the newly formed Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), answers with a call for a secular state where women are seen as equals in matters of marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, education and employment.
Her views are regarded, depending on the eye of the beholder, as outrageous, blasphemous, or intriguing, cause for hope or cause for death. Hers, that is. Newspaper editors routinely attack Yanar personally, using both words and illustrations to portray her as beastly, promiscuous, and pro-lesbian.
Neither death threats nor character assassinations have yet to dampen Yanar’s spirit. In the two and a half short years since OWFI has been active, thanks in part to funding from WFN member fund Mama Cash, Yanar has already succeeded in becoming something that Iraqi news media have never seen before – a secular feminist activist who is media savvy and ready to stand her ground in a battle of words.
“This was our mandate from Day One,” Yanar explained. “We speak openly and with no fear. We will not accede to taboo.”
Iraqi women gain a voice
Yanar is outspoken against the fundamentalists and reactionary forces vying for governing power, the broad slate of aspiring, well-armed would-be statesmen she refers to as “political Islam.” She also strongly opposes the U.S. occupation (“democracy at gunpoint” is a favorite phrase), and holds the U.S. government responsible for increased repression against women by Islamic forces and for complicity in an upsurge in gender violence.
One of OWFI’s earliest projects, the Anti-Abduction Campaign, was launched in response to evidence that hundreds of women were kidnapped and trafficked outside the country in the early days of the U.S. occupation.
Most recently, OWFI has turned its attention to the intentional omission of protections against gender discrimination in Iraqi’s new constitution, a frightening development that Amnesty International has called “a serious step backwards.” There are strong signs that the new governing coalition will reject international human rights treaties like the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), despite the fact that Iraq ratified these treaties in prior decades.
Yanar has been one of a handful of people who continue to sound the alarm that women in post-occupation Iraq will likely possess fewer legal rights and protections than they had before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Among other things, the expected reenactment of ancient Islamic law, known as Sharia, will make it legal for men to kill women who are accused of adultery.
Sisterhood is powerful
OWFI’s first $5,000 grant came from anti-violence activist and artist Eve Ensler, who met Yanar when both women were invited to appear on the same CNN program.
“We came from different parts of the world but we were speaking the same moral language,” said Yanar, who taped the show from a studio in Baghdad. She recalls Ensler as saying, “Get me that woman – I want to talk to her!”
Yanar says that the friendship she developed with Eve, and with other feminists outside her home country, has provided unexpected moral support and helped open doors for OWFI.
One of OWFI’s main activities is the groundbreaking publication and distribution of Al Mousawat (“Equality”), an 8-page newspaper. The paper features stories Iraqi readers won’t find elsewhere about, for example, rape cases in which the alleged perpetrators are members of the U.S. or Iraqi military. There are detailed reports about recent honor killings, retold in ways that focus on the horror of the violence and condemn the murder as a violation against the woman’s “right to life” and the human rights of all women. Much of the back page is taken up by an announcement that safe shelter is available to women who are suffering domestic abuse, including an offer to come to the survivor’s home to pick her up.
After the first few editions of El Mousawat were published, Yanar became the talk of the town in many mosques in the heavily Islamic south, where clerics warned worshippers to steer clear of her unorthodox ideas.
OWFI routinely prints 3,000 copies of the paper and as many as 10,000 copies when the printing budget allows. The organization is working to raise funds to expand circulation.
In addition to publishing the feminist newspaper and offering lectures and trainings, OWFI has opened the first shelters for women in central and southern Iraq – one in Baghdad and the other in Kirkuk – to aid women who are fleeing honor killings and severe domestic abuse.
Yanar’s personal quest for meaning
Born in 1960 into what she calls “a very regular middle class family” in Baghdad, Yanar came of age during the dictatorial Baath regime. In her twenties, she witnessed the war with Iran, the destruction wrought by Desert Storm later on, and widespread suffering under the economic sanctions that followed. Yanar and her husband decided to leave the country shortly after she completed graduate study in architecture in 1993. They went first to Jordan and then to Lebanon, where she worked as an architect until they could save enough money to emigrate to Canada. They settled in Toronto in 1995.
In Canada, Yanar met a group of Iraqi exiles from the Kurdish north. The exiles explained that they had been thrown out of the country for opening a women’s shelter and for publicly opposing the unjust rule of local authorities. Yanar was deeply impressed by the courage she saw in her new friends, and their stories of the women whose lives they helped save sparked a new sense of possibility inside her. She began to question her own purpose in life.
“Should I turn my life into a project that could potentially benefit millions of Iraqi women?” she asked herself.
After much soul-searching, Yanar decided that her future would best be spent in a public crusade against gender violence. After nearly a decade in Canada, Yanar left a comfortable life in Toronto and flew back to Baghdad, where she spends approximately seven months of the year.
The rest is recent history.
The death threats Yanar once received have nearly ceased, and a new sisterhood has taken root with OWFI at its center. Hundreds of women in different parts of the country have been inspired to join what may be Iraq’s only national independent women’s organization.
This comes as no surprise to Diana van Maasdijk, Director of Development and Communication at Mama Cash, which has supported OWFI since 2004.
“With sheer persistence and a rare, raw courage that some would call irrational, Yanar and her colleagues have succeeded in injecting discussion of women’s human rights into debates over who will lead Iraq and how,” said van Maasdijk. “They have turned the complexity and chaos of war into an opportunity to force issues about true democracy and rights of women.”
* To make a holiday donation to OWFI in the name of a friend of relative, send a check to MADRE, the New York-based women’s international social justice group, with “OWFI” or “Iraq” on the memo line. MADRE will send a beautiful card announcing your gift.
* Mama Cash mobilizes resources and provides funding for innovative, groundbreaking and taboo-breaking initiatives by women’s groups. For more information, see www.mamacash.nl.
* According to Amnesty International, violence against women and girls has sharply increased in Iraq compared to the period prior to the current war. The lack of security in Iraq remains a serious threat: many women and girls live under constant fear of being harassed, beaten, abducted, raped or murdered. To read copies of relevant reports, visit http://web.amnesty.org/library/index.