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Iraqi voices: For women, freedoms under fire

Editor's note: Photojournalist Kael Alford spent 10 months covering the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath in 2003-2004. She returned this summer to see what has and hasn’t changed as the U.S. prepared to withdraw its troops. 

By Kael Alford

When I first met Yanar Mohammed in 2003, she was holding a megaphone and leading a women’s rally in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, standing in the shadow of a pedestal where a statue of Saddam Hussein had stood until U.S. tanks dragged it to the ground a few weeks earlier.  With a head of uncovered dark curls and a raised fist, she led chants demanding improved security and equal civil rights for women.

Eight years later, Mohammed is perhaps the most widely quoted activist on women’s rights in Iraq. A resident of both Iraq and Canada, she travels internationally, speaks at universities and conferences and has received prestigious awards for her service. And yet her message remains little known outside Iraq.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Yanar Mohammed rallies protestors in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, July 2011, calling for governmental reforms. She has been an activist since 2003 after the U.S. led invasion.

One of her main talking points is this: Iraq is a more dangerous place for women than it was before the U.S. invasion and it is getting worse. Reports by international human rights groups support her observations. According to the 2011 Iraq summary report by Human Rights Watch: “The deterioration of security has promoted a rise in tribal customs and religiously-inflected political extremism, which have had a deleterious effect on women's rights, both inside and outside the home.”

Today, in a country where women have served in Parliament since the 1960s – longer than in any other Middle Eastern country – they are increasingly targeted by militant Islamic elements for participating in government, holding jobs or violating conservative Islamic traditions, such as appearing in public without head coverings. Even secular women now wear scarves in hopes of avoiding dangerous attention.

Iraq also has seen a rise in the tribal tradition of honor killings, where women who have a love affair outside of accepted cultural or religious boundaries are slain by members of their own family. Often these women, fleeing for their lives, seek out the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), which Mohammed founded in the wake of the U.S. invasion.
 
When I tracked down Yanar this summer, she said the situation remains dire. She is the chief editor of the newspaper “Al Mousawat,” or ”Equality,” that devotes a full page to reporting violent crimes against women, along with phone numbers for OWFI offering safety in underground shelters for women looking for an escape from violence. She also helps operate a radio station that uses  female university students as deejays. 

Mohammed is still leading protests over the lot of women in Iraq, but is now surrounded by a new group of mainly young women.

When I visited the OWFI compound, not far from Firdos Square, on a Friday in July, about two dozen people -- mostly women but a few young men -- were buzzing about preparing signs, making jokes and chatting about strategy for the morning’s protest.

There was nervous energy in the air before the group ventured out to Iraq’s version of the “Arab Spring,” a weekly demonstration in Baghdad’s own Tahrir (“Freedom”) Square. Two weeks earlier state security officers who had been lurking on the fringes of the protests had moved in to teach the women a lesson.

“We heard them among themselves saying, ‘These are the whores, let’s go and get them,’” recalled Mohammed. “…We were beaten, our bodies were groped, we were humiliated … sexually harassed, and their message was to tell us that we are females who do not have the right to come in the arena of political struggle. We should feel ashamed and go back to our homes.”

Mohammed’s young protégés fled the square for various safe houses around the city, many of them bloody, bruised and shaken. Human Rights Watch interviewed the women afterwards and issued a report about the incident.

Despite the obvious risks, the protesters were ready to return to the streets.

“They tried to make us escape in humiliation, but the women are quiet fierce,” Mohammed said. “They gave them a good fight and today they’re back again.”

One of the younger women was 20-year-old Aya al Lamie, a thin, energetic woman in a long sleeved black T-shirt, jeans and oversized faux-diamond studded sunglasses. Head thrown back and long, dark, uncovered hair streaming down her back, she seemed to float on nervous energy as she led the women gathered in the antechamber of Mohammed’s office in anti-government chants. Mohammed stood back beneath large glossy color photographs of earlier protests, looking like a proud mother.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Women's-rights activist Aya Al Lami leads chants from the front of a bus headed to Tahrir square for a weekly Friday demonstration against Iraqi government policies, July 2011. The protestors, mostly women, were sexually harassed and groped by plain clothes security forces the previous week. Undaunted, most of the women are returning for another protest.

After a few minutes of singing and anxious strategizing, the 30 or so protestors piled out of the offices behind Lami and boarded the bus that would take them to the square. I climbed aboard too.

As we approached the square, the protestors grew quiet and began peering out the windows to assess the situation. The protest seemed smaller this week. Perhaps the rash of criticism from international observers would keep the security personnel at bay.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Protestors arrive in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on a minibus, July 2011. Protests in Iraq have been dealt with harshly by the Maliki government since February but protests have continued every Friday, with varying turnout.

The protestors entered the square, passing several Iraqi soldiers in uniform who checked their bags for weapons. The square was alive with several hundred people of all ages and types. An older women in a long black abaya posed solemnly for photographs, pictures of her missing relatives in hand.  Boisterous young men in western clothes would who fit seamlessly into the protests in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, climbed onto a wall overlooking the square. People chanted and shouted, protesting corruption, judicial impunity, state torture and limitations on free speech.
Aside from a Human Rights Watch observer, I appeared to be the only American in the crowd.

Mohammed and her followers pulled out the megaphone and began stirring things up.  I was struck by how little has changed. Eight years ago, I made a photograph of her just like this, standing next to a red and white banner, megaphone in hand, fist in the air. It was like a flashback to an OWFI organization in 2003.

I recalled Janar’s words during our interview earlier that morning. “(After the invasion) we had a lot of worries,” she said. “There were abductions of women and we were protesting against them. … Now we have a dictatorship again and this dictatorship is exercising to take us back to Saddam’s times.”

Lamie, her young protégé, the took the megaphone,  a wide smile on her face and pumping her hand rhythmically in the air. 

I didn’t want any run-in with state security, and Sami, my driver, had been circling the square in his battered Mercedes, begging me to get in.  It was my last day in Iraq and I had more appointments, so I left the women mid-protest, hoping all would go smoothly.  I later learned that their bus was stopped as they left -- not in the square where the lone Human Rights observer was watching,  but on a side street a few blocks away. The bus driver was questioned and some of the men were taken to an abandoned building for interrogation. One of the women on the bus called the Human Rights Watch observer, who soon arrived on the scene to ask why the women are being detained. Shortly after that, the bus and protesters were allowed to leave.

But that was not the end of it. In November, four months after my trip and one month before President Barack Obama’s promise to complete the withdrawal of U.S. troops before the Christmas holidays, I found this story about Lamie, Yanar's young protege, on the OWFI website:

20 Year old OWFI activist Aya Al Lamie Kidnapped from Tahrir Square and tortured
Although the numbers of demonstrators became much less in the Iraqi Tahrir square, Aya Al Lamie insisted to join [sic] the demonstrators every Friday of the last months. She insisted to put a woman's face on the Tahrir demonstrations and cooperated with all the organized groups in the square.

On Friday 30-9-2011 afternoon, towards the end of the demonstration, a group of security men dressed in civilian clothing surrounded her, carried and threw her into the trunk of a car which they parked next to the square, in what looked like sectarian mob kidnappings, under the eyes of the police and the army - which had become common practice in the last months in Tahrir.
20 year old Aya was taken to a security facility in Jadiriyah-Baghdad where she was beaten by a mob of torturers using sticks and whipping her back and arms by cables.

She was released at 5:00 pm after being told:" This was a first warning!"

A pattern is emerging in Iraq related to the treatment of demonstrators, journalists and social critics. This September, Hadi Al-Mahdi, a journalist well-known for his public criticism of the government on a popular radio show, was shot in the head in his apartment. Al-Mahdi had been helping to organize a large protest on the first Friday after Ramadan. He’d been abducted from a demonstration earlier this year, beaten and threatened with torture. It makes me fear for Aya and Yanar's bnd of brave, outspoken women.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Anti-American banners decorate Tahrir square in Baghdad during anti-government protests, July 2011. The abuses of the Iraqi government are often considered partly as a consequence of American intervention in Iraq.

 

More from the series:

Introduction: As U.S. withdraws last troops, the people speak
Suspicious minds in a squatters' camp

Colonel helped with the ‘Surge,’ then his past came calling
Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects
A new day for culture and consumer goods