In Baghdad, not far from each other, there are two statues: on the bank of the Tigris there is a standing Scheherazade, who, in order to survive, is telling her 1001-nights long story to the femicidal king, depicted comfortably lying in front of her. In the Karrada district, there is Kahramana, a representation of the young slave Marjana, who burned the forty thieves hidden in jars with boiling oil. Feminists in the capital prefer the latter: “This is feminine intelligence against corruption. Not the statue of Scheherazade, that’s the mirror of patriarchy,” they joke.
There is a new atmosphere in the Iraqi capital, brought by a long tradition of feminist movements that today has found a foothold among the young women who crowd its streets. They are studying, working, protesting: in Tahrir Square there were so many from all walks of life—students, street vendors, housewives, workers. For many, that mobilization lasted almost a year and changed their perspective: “I am liberating myself a little at a time,” says Z., 22 years old. “In the square, I felt that the utopia I dreamed of was not unattainable. There were people who were interested in hearing my voice. After Tahrir, I changed my job: I quit my old job, I live by myself, I took off the veil. My father doesn’t know where I am anymore.”
“We women are being repressed,” explains Batool, an aspiring journalist, “and Baghdad is the best of the worst: the situation here is much better than elsewhere. But we have no protections. The only ones who can afford a free life are the rich girls. Because they can leave.”
There are lower wages for women, higher unemployment rates, and zero safe havens in case of violence. The Iraqi women’s movements have been pressing for a long time for a law that is already written, but has been left in limbo for political reasons: “If a woman runs away from domestic violence,” Batool tells us, “she has no refuge. We are in 2021, and unwritten tribal laws still prevail over those of the state. And there is no law in any case: it was drafted but never approved.”
The draft law envisages imprisonment for the abuse of women and children, adding a new type of crime to the Penal Code, but the Parliament is not approving it, blocked by the veto of some parties that are calling the legislation to fight violence against women a danger to society and religion, despite the increase in femicides during the pandemic: “In recent months, the violence that has been reported has not been followed by arrests or trials, let alone protection for the victims. It is all ‘resolved’ with tribal laws, money transactions that take place irrespective of what the woman would want,” explains Sahar Salam of Al Thawra al-Untha (The Revolution is a Woman), an organization established after the October 2019 uprising to generate awareness among women about their rights and the tools available for struggle.
“We count 120 activists in five different governorates, together with Un Ponte Per. We perform training, different depending on the region, because the needs are different, and we identify the needs of women. Based on these, we decide together on the activities to be carried out.” Different needs in different places, because Iraq is not all the same: “I lived in the south and then in the capital,” Sahar continues, “and in the south I saw the real condition of the Iraqi woman. In Baghdad, women go out alone, study, dress as they wish. In the south, they don’t, the family decides for them, and even the simplest activities are impossible: when going out, getting dressed, studying, they must be accompanied by a man or with his permission. There are cases of forced marriages of minors and teenagers forced to leave school to wait for the right husband.”
In this context, she says, “talking about political participation is science fiction.” The goal is to provide different role models that express the notion that it is normal to choose freely. In the south, they are fighting against a radically patriarchal system (“a mentality so old that women themselves have ended up considering it ‘right’”), while in Baghdad the young generations are opening new paths, inspired by the world outside and by the awareness that “gender inequality lies at the core”: “After the revolution, Iraq has changed irreversibly,” Sahar concludes. “Before, we were driven by fatalism and resignation. Now we know that if we cry out, the government has to listen to women too.”
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