Struggles and challenges for feminists in post-invasion Iraq

by Dr Zahra Ali   Getty Images  


As the battle against the Islamic State organization (IS) in Iraq is progressing, normalization of armed violence shaped through a sectarian discourse are common features of Iraqi social and political realities. The invasion by IS of parts of Northern and Western Iraq since the takeover of Mosul in June 2014 has materialized in horrific terms a fragmentation that started since the US-led invasion and occupation of the country in 2003.

The imbrication of militarization and sectarianism have specific gender impact and shape the context in which feminist activists mobilise and organize since 2003. In the past few years, feminists in Iraq have mobilized to push for the adoption of legal protection against violence as well as for the preservation of their legal rights under threat by sectarian politics. These recent mobilizations occur in a context of civil society mass protests against the Iraqi political elite in power accused of corruption and sectarian nepotism.

Mobilizing against violence

Since at least 2008, the adoption of a legislation that would protect victims of “gender based violence”, and constitute a legal basis for the struggle against domestic and sexual violence has been an essential project for feminists in Iraq. A law “combatting domestic violence” was adopted in 2011 in Iraqi Kurdistan that encompass a wide meaning of gender based violence that includes “any act, speech or threat that may harm an individual of the household physically, sexually and psychologically and deprives his/her freedom and liberties”. The law implies a criminalization of forced or precarious marriages, female genital mutilation and many forms of what is commonly defined as violence against women. A special court and a general directorate specially in charge of “Combatting Violence against Women” working in conjunction with the Ministry of Health in coordination of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs as well as the Ministry of Interior assure both the implementation of the law through sanctions of penalties and/or imprisonment and the protection of the victims with the appropriate support such as shelters, health and social services. The adoption of this law was the produce of the activism of women’s rights and civil society organizations, as well as the participation of Media networks, prominent politicians and a significant part of the Iraqi Kurdish government in conjunction with NGOs and UN-Women.

In the rest of Iraq, such law does not exist and women’s rights activists have drafted several versions of a law comparable to the one in Iraqi Kurdistan in an attempt to submit it to vote in the Iraqi parliament in vain. The debate around the legalization of shelters for women victims of abuse emerged several times since 2010 in Iraqi public and media discourse. The most recent attempt to legalize shelters was launched in the context of the invasion of IS at a time when shocking images of Yazidis women enslaved by the terrorist group were spread out across the media. Launched by the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) in late 2016 with the support of MADRE and despite involving a very wide range of women's rights and civil society organizations and being supported by prominent NGOs, the campaign did not receive any positive answer from the Iraqi central government. OWFI is the only organization that has opened shelters for women victims of abuse as they are still illegal in Arab Iraq despite being sponsored by the government in Iraqi Kurdistan. Since the invasion of Mosul, OWFI has also open shelters for women and children victims of violence and sexual abuse in the hands of IS soldiers. The organization carries on its activities with the help of NGOs and European funds, the Iraqi central government dominated by the conservative Islamist parties brought to power by the US-administration in 2003 does not support them but instead stigmatize their work condemning it as “a threat for family cohesion”.

Since 2016, women and civil society organizations have renewed their attempts to propose a legislation to “combat gender based violence”. Their former attempt was in 2015 and the law proposition stayed in the Iraqi Parliament without ever being submitted to vote. Conservative Islamist parties that came to power through the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq opposed any attempt to adopt such a legislation considering it as “against religion” and a threat for the “integrity of the family”. Bushra Al-Aubadi prominent lawyer and member of the Iraqi Women Network (IWN) ) -the main platform gathering independent women’s rights activists and organisations in the country-  explained in a meeting organized by the Iraqi Women Journalist’s Forum in May 2017 that some leaders of political parties objected during their meetings with women’s rights activists that such a law would not only be against religion, but would also question the Iraqi Penal Code that allows “taadib al-Zawja” -the correction of the wife-. Men of the leading Islamist political parties insist on privileging of “al-sulh” -reconciliation of spouse-  before any separation, and on naming “shelters” “dur amina” -houses of protection- intending to “islamize” the terms of the campaign that they perceive as too secular. However, most religious authorities were less reluctant than the Islamist parties in power, and as it is often the case Ayatollah Sistani expressed his will not to interfere considering that in a civil state, such matters should be agreed on by the people.  

Facing conservative political forces, feminist activists have chosen a new strategy in order to reach an agreement with Iraqi dominant political forces before the next legislative elections expected in 2018. Activists of the IWN held several meetings with most prominent members of Iraqi political parties and religious authorities throughout 2016 and early 2017 to discuss a new draft of a law that would target “family violence” instead of “domestic” or “gender based violence”. Shifting from a legislation directly targeting women as victim of patriarchal oppression to a law dedicated to “family violence” is thus a pragmatic and strategic move for feminist activists in Iraq. Militarization, sectarian violence and the rise of social and religious conservatisms have shaped gender relations during the past decade and the political parties that came to power since 2003 through the US-led invasion and occupation have proved to be both sectarian and conservative. This new strategy also echoed public debates on children victims of abuse that followed the scandal of horrific photos of molested babies and children that became viral across the Iraqi media and social networks. In such context, many feminists fear that a law that would directly target gender based violenc  would be rejected by these political groups and that insisting on preserving the family in its entire composition from violence might be an appropriate strategy to convince them and reach a vote in the Iraqi parliament. For Amal Kabashi coordinator of the IWN, after months of social and political campaigning around the protection of society as a whole from violence and the promotion of a “culture of peace”, and through the widening of the law to all members of the family, there is a good chance that the law proposition will finally pass in the Iraqi Parliament.

Against sectarian laws

This spring, conservative parliamentarians attempt to re-introduce in a new form the previously rejected Ja’fari law. On the pretext of reforming the Personal Status Code relying on the very polemical article 41 of the Constitution, they are willing to introduce a sectarian family law breaking with the existing one that applies for Sunnis and Shi’as alike.

Challenging the Law n°188 of 1959 that gathers the legislation related to personal status such as marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance etc. constituting the Personal Status Code (called Family Law in other Arab countries) is not new in Iraq. Since 2003, Shi’a Islamists political parties that came to power with the US-led coalition forces, pushed for a reassessment of the unified PSC that relies on both Sunni and Shi’a jurisprudences through different propositions that all introduce the possibility of a sectarian based PSC: Decree 137 proposed in 2003, Article 41 of the new Iraqi Constitution adopted in 2005 and more recently in 2014 the Ja’fari Law proposition. The former named after the main school of jurisprudence of Shi’a Muslims in Iraq the Ja’fari mazhab contains articles that can allow the marriage of girls from the age of 9 years old considered as sin al-Balagha (the age of maturity) in the Ja’fari jurisprudence. It can also allow precarious forms of marriages in which women could lose basic legal protections. The Ja’fari law represents a rupture with the PSC, on the one hand it questions what is considered by Iraqis as a historical gain in terms of legal rights such as the minimum legal age of marriage fixed as18 years old for both sex, and the limit imposed to polygamy and unions contracted outside the civil court. On the other hand, it also constitutes a rupture with the unifying and non-sectarian nature of the PSC that gathers both Sunni and Shi’a jurisprudence and thus is applied to both sects and renders possible intersect marriages.

Activists of the IWN, as well as the Iraqi Women Journalist’s Forum, and OWFI and prominent civil society activists firmly opposed all the measures that break with the unifying and relatively egalitarian nature of the PSC. They have all expressed fears over both the adoption of a system based on a regressive and conservative reading of Muslim jurisprudence and the sectarianization of women and family issues in a context marked by social and religious conservatisms, sectarian conflicts, political instability and the absence of a strong unifying state. Significantly, Sunni Islamists also opposed these propositions, siding instead with the preservation of a unified code that facilitates intercommunal marriage and unites all Muslim Iraqis. All these law propositions have been very unpopular among Iraqis, Sunnis and Shi’as alike and most Shi’a clerics also opposed it. The fact that most of the Shi’a population and clerics also oppose the sectarianization of the PSC shows how much this issue does not divide Sunnis and Shi’as on strictly religious-sectarian lines, but rather on political-sectarian lines. Only the conservative Shi’a Islamists parties that came to power in 2003 push for a sectarianization of the PSC which is synonymous for them of more autonomy and signal an affirmation of their politico-sectarian identity. It is clearly an opposition between divergent political models between a conservative and sectarian one and an egalitarian and unifying one.

The struggle for a civil state against a sectarian and conservative political system

The US-led invasion and occupation administration has institutionalized communal-based identity as the basis of the Iraqi political system. This very polity constitute the raison d’être of the sectarian groups that came to power in 2003 as their very political power would not be possible without a communal-based political system. It is precisely this system that Iraqi feminists and civil society activists are combatting through their recent mobilizations in Tahrir square. The popular movement of protest that started in late July 2015 expresses its revolt against the communal based post-2003 political system and the corruption and nepotism that characterizes the new political elite. In claiming their demand of a dawla medenya -civil state, demonstrators also express their denunciation of the instrumentalization of religion in politics. In response to the use of a sectarian discourse by the Iraqi government in its war against IS in the North of the country, Iraqi demonstrators have insisted on the fact that corruption and sectarianism have created this terrorist organization and that only social justice and equality can adequately resolve the issue of terrorism and sectarian violence in Iraq.

Henaa Edwar, head of the al-Amal organisation and a prominent figure of the IWN is very hopeful regarding the developments of the popular protests. Like many other activists she emphasised the importance of linking gender equality advocacy with the struggles for social and class equality. Feminist activists insist on the preservation of equal citizenship for Iraqis from all ethnic and religious backgrounds as a cornerstone of the preservation of women’s legal rights. For them, as for youth and civil society activists who participate to the protest movement, only a deep questioning of the sectarian, conservative and corrupted nature of the post-2003 regime can realize their demands for social, religious, gender and class equality.