The 2019 October Revolution in Iraq has not only been a political revolution against government corruption and economic exploitation; it has also been a social revolution challenging the exploitative status quo of the poor and destitute, and of women and girls. The slogan of the movement – “We Want a Homeland” – has been trending as a hashtag: #نريد_وطن . This slogan is about belonging; belonging to a space and to a people that Iraqis want to call their own. It emphasizes feelings of exclusion. Among those who feel the most excluded from a collective sense of belonging are women and girls, especially those whose experiences are intersectional, such as Yazidi and Christian women. While minorities are isolated in internally displaced person (IDP) camps, majorities have taken to the streets.
As outlined in the previous installments in this three-part series, government institutions are designed to exclude and exploit women and girls. Therefore, it makes sense that the emerging stars of this revolution are women. Whether leading the chant in crowds or providing medical and logistical support to sit-ins, women and girls have been the backbone of the revolutionary movement.
Whether leading chants or providing medical and logistical support, women have been the backbone of the movement.
When the protests first began, many were discouraged and shamed by elders from joining protests under the guise that their voice is “a flaw” or an عورة which must be silenced, a concept common throughout the MENA region and its most conservative pockets. Supportive families also initially discouraged women and girls from joining protests due to genuine worry that they’d be subject to sexual harassment. In response, many women and girls found their way to protest squares with or without their families’ knowledge, covering their faces with scarves to avoid detection by cameras and media. Once reaching protest squares, women have been reporting nothing but respectful treatment and a warm welcome.
Women have received widespread support from their male counterparts, who have been willing to step back and follow their lead. Those partaking in the revolution are a new generation with a mindset starkly different from that of the elders of their society. They care not for traditions that they find misogynistic, and in fact challenge them openly. In sit-ins and tents, feminist agendas are common, tackling women’s rights issues and challenging the misogynistic status quo.
In conservative cities like Nasiriyah, Najaf, and Karbala, women’s marches have been most organized. Men eagerly walked side by side with their female counterparts, or behind in support. In a direct response to attempts of silencing women, men and youth have been pushing slogans like “Your Voice is Not a Flaw; it’s Revolution” and “You are Revolution”. On International Women’s Day, young men took to the streets, calling on women to be loud and lead the revolution. Never in Iraq’s history have men called on women to lead them in revolution until now.
On International Women’s Day, young men took to the streets, calling on women to be loud and lead the revolution.
A notable moment of resistance to the status quo is that in which Safaa al-Sarai, a fallen protestor, is consistently identified as “Son of Thanwa” in reference to his mother. Instead of referring to him as his father’s son, protestors challenge a patriarchal, tribal system which erases the mother’s role as a source of moral and tribal leadership in favor of the father. “Son of Thanwa” is now a title commonly ascribed to revolutionaries, many of whom now refer to their mothers’ instead of their fathers’ surnames.
This blatant challenge to the status quo has triggered a vicious response from conservative militia groups that have been targeting women activists. Character and physical assassinations have been common. On social media, the popularly trending hashtag #بناتك_يا_وطن (The Homeland’s Daughters) which was launched for the February 13th women’s marches, was turned into #عاهراتك_يا_وطن (The Homeland’s Whores).
Militias have been launching baseless accusations against activists, alleging promiscuity in protest sit-ins and tents. Sexual defamation has dangerous consequences in conservative societies, especially for women and girls, who are literally at risk of “honor killings”. To perpetuate this defamation, militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr called for gender segregation at protest sit-ins, which was not received well. It was strongly rejected and challenged with country-wide women’s marches.
Militias have also been threatening rape against women activists and against female relatives of male activists. The gendered attacks are intentional and malicious, targeting men’s and families’ “honor” which is sacred and traditionally embodied in a woman’s virginity. Among hundreds of male activists killed, a few women have been, such as Huda Khutheir, Zahra Karlusy, and Basra’s Jenan al-Shahmani.
The cruel murder of Basra’s activist couple Sarah Taleb and Hussein Adel al-Madani triggered anger among civil society.
Early in the revolution, the cruel murder of Basra’s activist couple Sarah Taleb and Hussein Adel al-Madani in a brutal home invasion triggered anger among civil society. Most recently, Nasiriyah’s prominent activist Anwar Jassem was assassinated in a home invasion. This is not to mention the kidnapping of some women activists who have disappeared after their release such as Saba Mahdawi and Mari Mohammed.
Evidently, there is a staunch, systemic desire to eliminate women protestors and activists. The danger women pose to corruption is greater than that of their male counterparts as corruption poses a more personal and direct threat to their well-being. The recent death of Malak al-Zubeidi highlights the need for mobilization against a sextarian system.
Malak al-Zubeidi immolated herself to escape the violent abuses of her husband and in-laws. Since her story has been made public, there has been growing public pressure for the legislation of a 2012 bill that criminalizes domestic abuse, and the revocation of dated laws from Iraq’s 1969 Penal Code that legalize it. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, protests have been put on hold, but the activism continues on social media, and the push for such legislative change is growing, especially from youth leading the revolution.
As the political elite struggle to form a government with a third designate Prime Minister, the people must focus on supporting the revolution through these difficult times. This is especially important during the pandemic lockdown, as domestic violence increases when women have no option to leave and seek shelter elsewhere.
Support for women in Iraq’s October Revolution and maintaining its momentum is crucial.
Support for women in Iraq’s October Revolution and maintaining its momentum is crucial. It is the only way to help the country move forward, as women’s and girls’ participation in the October Revolution shakes the foundation of a corrupt system built on their exploitation and deepens inequality.
Author’s Note: This is the third and last installment of a three-part series. The first discusses the gendered roots of Iraqi corruption; the second focuses on the deepening of corruption in gender-based inequalities in Iraq; and the third highlights the Feminist Spring of Iraq’s October Revolution and the challenges it faces.