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Iraqi Women Seek Rights – and to be Part of a Change
Women march in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf on February 19, insisting on their right to play a central role in the anti-government protests that have swept the country. (Haidar Hamdani/AFP via Getty Images)

Iraqi Women Seek Rights – and to be Part of a Change

Amid attempts to transform the political system, feminists are looking for 50% representation in any new government

Hundreds of women and girls this week took to the streets of Najaf, a Shi’ite holy city in southern Iraq, asserting their right to participate in anti-government protests and demand political reforms.

Their march followed a call by Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shi’ite politician and militia leader, to “not mix between the sexes” in the protests, which have gripped the country since October in an effort to root out corruption and outside interference.

Bushra Al-Obaidi, a legal expert and member of a women’s advisory group to the representative in Iraq for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, told The Media Line that Iraqi women have already proved themselves through their wide participation in the demonstrations.

“What was really special about the Iraqi women protesters in Najaf,” she said, referring to Wednesday’s march, “is the fact that they were supported by their families. I saw girls with their husbands, brothers and fathers. What was out of the blue is the fact that such a conservative city like Najaf has reached this point of acceptance…. Iraqi women broke all restrictions.”

Obaidi explains that efforts by the country’s feminist movement, which began gaining steam close to two decades ago, have paid off.

“Today, the Iraqi woman’s voice is being heard, where she has participated in the latest wave of protests more than males,” she stated.

“I have seen more female paramedics and service providers than men,” she continued. “In addition, women have been in the front rows of the demonstrations, where six of them have been killed, besides others who have been detained and jailed.”

Obaidi says that Iraqi women have made the system sit up and take notice, adding that a new government to be formed by prime minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to replace that of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned due to the protests, is expected to have broad representation by women.

“Our demand is not only to have a number of women, but to have a qualitative number of women,” she said. “We aim to occupy 50% of the [seats in the] new government, and we have already provided our vision… to the secretary-general of the United Nations.”

The women’s demonstration in Najaf included university professors, students and housewives who marched to the square near the Najaf Provincial Council building. They carried banners saying “I was born an Iraqi to become a revolutionary” and “There is no voice that rises above the voice of women.”

Taybeh Imad, an Iraqi legal activist, told The Media Line that feminist demonstrations are very important for a democratic and free Iraq because they are disliked by the religious parties that have dominated in government.

“We strongly support protests by women to empower their position in society. Women are battered in Iraq, not only physically, but emotionally,” she said.

Imad believes that such protests are a slap in the face to whoever underestimates or undermines Iraq’s females.

“Iraqi women are revolutionaries. They say what they have to say in an infected environment that sees women as awra,” she stated, using a pejorative Arabic term for women that implies they are defective because of their gender.

Earlier in the week, hundreds of women demonstrated in central Baghdad to defend their role in the anti-government protests.

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