Yanar Mohammed returned to Iraq from Canada in 2003 because she thought the veil of tyranny had finally been lifted from her native country. She and two other women started the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), with the goal of fighting for women’s rights.
But since those days, her OWFI cofounders have fled the country, and Mohammed herself has received numerous death threats for her work. OWFI, one of the few remaining nongovernmental organizations left in Iraq, has been forced to operate in complete secrecy.
"We live in a state of continuous fear — if our hair shows on the street, if we’re not veiled enough at work," says Mohammed, 47. "It’s a new experience for women in Iraq. After four years, it’s turned into Afghanistan under the Taliban."
Throughout much of recent history, Iraq was one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East for women. These rights diminished somewhat after the 1991 Gulf War, partly because of Saddam Hussein’s new embrace of Islamic tribal law as a way of consolidating power, and partly due to the United Nations’ sanctions against the regime. Still, as bad as it was during Saddam’s time, women’s well-being and security have sharply deteriorated since the fall of his regime.
Furthermore, extremists in both Sunni and Shiite areas have taken over pockets of the country and imposed their own Taliban-like laws on the population. Women college students are stopped and harassed on campuses, so going to school is a risk. Islamist "misery gangs" regularly patrol the streets in many areas, beating and harassing women who are not "properly" dressed or behaved.
Zainab Salbi also grew up in Iraq, experiencing firsthand the oppression of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime as the daughter of Saddam’s pilot. When Hussein was toppled, she too began traveling back to Iraq to work for women’s rights.
"The violence during Saddam’s time was ... committed by the government, Saddam’s family, people in power. Now the violence is ... being committed by everyone around you," says Salbi, who founded the group Women for Women International in 1993. That organization now operates in nine countries, including Iraq, to help women survivors of war and civil strife rebuild their lives.
But today, most of her friends have left the country. Women for Women International keeps its locations secret and takes all sorts of security precautions. Salbi herself stopped traveling back to her homeland two years ago. "At first I was able to say I knew 10, 20 women who had been assassinated," she says. "Now, I’ve lost count. ... They are pharmacists, professors, reporters, activists ..."
"Often, the first salvo in a war for theocracy is a systematic attack on women and minorities who represent or demand an alternative or competing vision for society," wrote Yifat Susskind, Iraq coordinator of the international human- and women’s-rights organization MADRE, in a report she authored on "gender apartheid" in Iraq. "These initial targets are usually the most marginalized and, therefore, most vulnerable members of society, and once they are dealt with, fundamentalist forces then proceed towards less vulnerable targets."
Bay Fang writes for Ms. Magazine