‘Last 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.’
He 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.
Before 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.’
But 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.
As 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 power?’
But 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?’
While 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.
In 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.
Two 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. Survivors 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.
Iraqi 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.
‘You mean the men could be afraid of us?’ asks Faten Abed, of the Engineers Gathering to Support Reconstruction, with delight.
Over 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.
I can’t 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 sharing tools that I’ve learned in organizing and training and seeing how they picked them up and applied them to their own reality, was incredibly inspiring.
Judy 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