Author: Shermeen Yousif
On a strange sweet day in June 2007 when I arrived alone in the liberating land of Germany, flying from the oppressive, patriarchal, misogynist society of Iraq, something caught my attention. During my taxi trip to the German language institute where I later studied, a poster on women empowerment hung with the motto “Starke Frauen, Starkes Land”, which translates to “Strong Women, Strong Land”. I did not fully comprehend the meaning of that poster, until later, months after I was in Germany.
My story is not too different from many other ambitious female academics who wanted to flee a war-zone, a civil war, a persecuting government, and a male-dominated society. Many seek the dream of gender equality, freedom of decision making, and basic women rights that other women around the world enjoy. The only difference is that I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to pursue my master’s degree in Germany and later to receive admission to complete my PhD in America, the land of the free. My story is different because I had the opportunity that millions of Iraqi women never had. Therefore, I want to share my story of resilience, enlightenment, and self-empowerment. It is an ethical imperative for me to share my journey in hopes of increasing awareness and helping these issues through my writings.
The narrative of women’s rights violations in Iraq is similar to some other countries around the world. Women suffer from societal oppression, demonization, criminalization, authoritarian governmental discrimination, and other inter-related forms of oppression. Furthermore in Iraq, many factors complicate the situation for women including civil wars, governmental corruption, dominating tribal norms, and armed militias. The situation has only gotten worse after the 2003 war. In my home country, women are accustomed to layers of fear: fear from the government officials who might harass them at any time for any reason, fear from any perpetuator on the streets, fear from a corrupted police institution that is above the law, fear from armed militias who can abduct, kidnap, rape and kill any woman they want, and fear from their male guardians who hold absolute control. Unfortunately now in 2021, the once described Republic of Fear by Kanan Makiya, is becoming worse and worse every year. This can be seen through human rights in general, and the case is much worse in regards to women’s rights.
While complex and intertwined, the issues of women's rights in Iraq can be disentangled into a number of problems. At a systemic level, the oppressive and corrupt Iraqi government exploits women. When you see women assuming “seemingly” important positions, they are actually assigned to predefined roles with mandatory obedience and fear. In political circles for instance, women are manipulated like marionette dolls and everything they perform, dress, speak, or behave is orchestrated by their male fellows. Since the war of 2003, the falsely claimed democracy is actually a superficial cover to the inherently Iran-controlled government in central Iraq and the tribal Kurdish government in the north. In such a government, any voice of protest is silenced by violence as we saw in the 2019-2021 peaceful protests.
One of the other major oppressive forces of women in Iraq is the misuse and abuse of religion to control women. At the governmental level, Islamic parties continue to enforce the religious agenda that no one can oppose. Women suffer heavily under the regime, especially if they show rebellion or ask for basic rights. Such male-oppression in the name of religion manifests in institutional domains. Predominantly, the aim is to gain male-authority and supremacy by selectively interpreting religious teachings according to what serves their interest. Unfortunately, the dogmatic oppression is interconnected with and “justifies” the societal oppression.
Another big issue is the patriarchal society that enforces long-outdated norms to guarantee women’s inferiority and submission to their male society members. Starting with the process of girl-upbringing, every society member makes sure that those girls know that they are inferior to men, no matter what they do. Women’s behavior, outfit, language, or actions are censored, controlled, and judged. Any unexpected behavior deems a woman corrupt and is subjected to different forms of punishment. This has manifested in the recent pattern of killing outspoken and high-profile Iraqi women. It is always the woman’s fault when she is sexually harassed or raped. At another level, girls at the age of fifteen are married off to often much older men, and this marriage is approved by the government officials. In the north of Iraq, females suffer other issues such as genital mutilation. Overall, the continuing phenomena of honor killing, disobedience torture, and sexual exploitation, are all common in Iraq.
I have tremendous sympathy for my fellow Iraqis, and I have to acknowledge that violations of human rights also apply to men, although children and women suffer the most. Women’s issues in Iraq are intertwined. A change in these conditions potentially requires a governmental replacement, a revolutionary societal transformation, a generational change, and a women’s movement to fight for their rights. It is self-evident that rights are earned and not granted, and thus women need to fight for their rights. While I can only write about it now, I still have a hope: a vision of a “Strong Land, Empowered by Strong Women”.