BEING WOMAN IN IRAQ
Rebick is the publisher of rabble.ca, where this article first
appeared. She holds the Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and
Democracy at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her most recent
book is Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution.
This article is published with the permission ZNET.
time we were here, we were worried about the terrorists killing
people," Ayas J. Majyd, General Secretary of the General
Union of Students in Iraq said, explaining what life is like
in Baghdad. "Now it is just people killing people."
was speaking to a gathering of leaders of Iraqi social movements
held every two months in Amman, Jordan. I was invited there
in mid-April, at their request, to do training on what they
call gender and what I call feminism. It is a mixed group of
student, worker, women's and ethnic organizations that are trying
against unimaginable odds to build a civil society in Iraq.
In this group there are three generations, 13 women and seven
men. The gathering is organized by Alternatives.
I went, I started to feel that I was giving new meaning to the
cliché "fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
After all, what do I know about organizing in a war zone where
there is almost total lawlessness and where, as one woman said,
"Every day we leave our house, we don't know if we will
get back home."
using the tools of feminist organizing and popular education,
I figured I could share some tools and strategies and maybe
be of some assistance. It seemed to me that a lot of the feminism
brought to the Middle East by Western feminists through NGOs
and the United Nations is about increasing women's participation
in society through appointing and electing more women into public
institutions. While important, this does little to immediately
improve the lives of ordinary women.
we began our discussion, 27-year-old Wafaa Mohamad of the group
Iraqi Rising Women, (who had just survived an attack by a taxi
driver who robbed her and was certainly intending to assault
her until she jumped from his slow-moving car) said, "How
can we talk about gender equality, when we have to rely on men
to protect us." So one of the strategic questions of the
day was, "How can we organize without giving men all the
in the discussion on what the major barriers are to women's
activism, the answer that came through loud and clear was "tradition,"
by which they meant patriarchal tradition that wants to keep
women in the home. As one young woman said, "I feel the
courage to do my work because it is so important; in my own
organization I can stand up for myself but how do I stand up
in my family without being a bad girl?"
we are all aware of the chaos in Baghdad, we hear very little
about what is happening to women there. Women in Iraq probably
had more access to education and work under what they call "the
X regime" or Saddam Hussein's regime than anywhere in the
Middle East. Half of all university students were women. Three
of the 13 women in the room were professional engineers. Now
they are facing a terrible backslide from that equality.
the new Iraqi constitution, it is illegal to pass any law that
contradicts the Koran, which is interpreted to mean that men
beating the women in their families are legally protected. Moreover,
because of the danger in daily life in Baghdad, fathers, husbands
and brothers wanting to protect their female relatives want
them to stay home. Patriarchy can be both protective and abusive
but in both cases it limits the opportunities for women.
of the older women there, Fatima Jassim and Shameran Adesho,
are well known feminist leaders who appear regularly in the
media speaking about women's rights. Survivor of the X regime,
Fatima wears a chador to cover the acid burns on her head from
the torture she suffered. Every time we speak, says Shameran,
there are death threats. Between the violence mostly coming
from the supporters of the Saddam regime and the Islamists (fundamentalist
Muslims), organizing women seems like an almost impossible task.
Rising Women has developed house-to-house organizing as a technique
so we talk about consciousness-raising groups and developing
political strategy based on women's lives and the barriers they
face. These women had read a lot about feminism. They knew about
all the issues like day care, equal pay and so on but this was
the first time they had heard about such ideas as "the
personal is political," or "consciousness-raising
groups." It is also the first time they have heard about
Wen Do or women's self defense.
mean the men could be afraid of us?" asks Faten Abed, of
the Engineers Gathering to Support Reconstruction, with delight.
two days we developed a series of strategies based on mobilizing
to stop the violence against women in the streets and in the
families. The first step is to do a public campaign to train
women in Baghdad in Wen Do, women's self-defense. Deb Parent
who has been doing Wen Do training in Canada for decades has
agreed to set up a "train the trainer" program in
Amman next fall. Then the Iraqi women's groups will lead a public
campaign so that everyone in Baghdad will know that hundreds
and maybe thousands of women have been trained in self-defense.
This will begin a campaign to take back the streets and make
them safe again, led by women.
think of two days that were better spent in my life. Meeting
such brave women and men, who are organizing against so many
odds, being able to work with them and sharing what I've learned
in organizing and training and observing them applying it to
their own reality, was incredibly inspiring.