Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Women in Iraq’s Endless Fight Against Violence and the Patriarchy

Women in Iraq
Women demonstrate near the Kadhimiya court in Iraq’s capital Baghdad on November 21, 2021 AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Dana Hourany

Mariam Yaghi, a feminist activist and journalist from Lebanon, hasn’t seen her seven-year-old daughter Amidia in three and a half years.

Muntadhar Al Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist mostly known for pelting a pair of shoes at US President George W. Bush in 2008, is Yaghi’s divorcee. Though his shoe throwing antics did turn him into an overnight hero in the eyes of many, the man, according to Yaghi has been both abusive and controlling during their short-lived marriage. Now, Yaghi accuses Al Zaidi of kidnapping their daughter from Lebanon to Iraq, in a bid to inflict harm on her and sever her bond to her daughter.

According to Shiite religious authorities, a mother loses custody of her daughter at the age of seven, hence Yaghi, a Shiite Muslim, has no custody rights under Lebanon’s religious-based personal status law. As a result, Yaghi has now decided to fight for custody of her child in Iraq, where the law grants mothers custody of their daughters up to the age of 15.

Al Zaidi alleges that Yaghi was the one who relinquished custody of Amidia, and that he, as a result, had requested confirmation of her intention to reunite with the child by flying to Iraq, which she fulfilled. Upon her arrival, Yaghi was stunned to discover that her ex-husband had filed a legal request demanding that the mother sign a pledge promising not to publish any photos of their daughter on social media, thereby prohibiting them from taking photographs together.

Yaghi refused, and the father retaliated by denying the mother visitation rights and banning Amidia from going to school in a bid to prevent her mother from accessing her.  Yaghi’s plight is one of numerous examples of various forms of abuse that women face in both Lebanon and Iraq, as a result of oppressive tribal and patriarchal customs.

Feminist activists told Fanack that effective change can only be brought forward by amending discriminatory laws that perpetuate gender inequality and normalize physical, emotional, and mental violence. Until then, women continue to suffer.

“My ex-husband despises seeing me as a free woman who has pulled away from his patriarchal shackles. His desire is to have complete control over me, as if I were his own property. This is why he’s attempting to make me suffer by taking my daughter away from me; it’s the only way he can feel in control,” Yaghi told Fanack.

A brief background

Iraqi Women’s Rights, a social media platform and non-governmental organization, was founded by Tamara Amer, an Iraqi-Danish activist. Amer moved to Denmark 20 years ago, right before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Amer told Fanack that one major difficulty is that violence against women is deeply ingrained in society. This is reflected in the penal code, which allows men to physically attack women or girls in order to “discipline” them. Article 128 provides a list of variables that can result in fines being reduced or dismissed, including actions done with “honorable intentions.” This is an attempt to “protect” the tribe’s honor and reputation, which is a major priority in patriarchal societies.

Women are frequently stereotyped as housewives and mothers, rather than professionals and leaders. According to Amer, women in the southern region have a better chance of acquiring an education, whereas in the Bedouin western desert region patriarchal customs rule supreme.

Women are better off married than employed, according to the patriarchal playbook, Amer explains. As a result, in some instances, the law protecting girls from child marriages is circumvented by drawing on article 8 of the same statute, which permits marriages of girls as young as 15 if a judge authorizes it.

Furthermore, according to UN figures, illiteracy rates are greater among women in rural communities, making them less likely to participate in the labor market and lowering their employment rates.

“Illiterate women marry illiterate men; they are not taught how to be financially independent. As a result, they rely heavily on men to provide for their families and operate as housemasters,” Amer said.

A war-torn society

Iraq was once among the most developed countries in the Middle East, but it has suffered from many crises throughout the years, including wars, military occupation, economic sanctions, military dictatorship, insecurity, political instability, and terrorist attacks, all of which Amer and other experts blame for the country’s decline.

“Prior to the 2003 war, laws were more strictly enforced, and men were more fearful of the consequences of their actions. We now have a corrupt government that grants special treatment to well-connected tribes and individuals,” Amer said.

Amer tells the story of a financially successful female lawyer, Ibtihal al-Fartousi, who decided to move away from her family. She alleges that her well-connected brothers in parliament coaxed their sister back into the family by offering her safety.

The promises, however, were quickly broken, as evidenced by widely distributed photographs of the battered lawyer with her head shaved. The lawyer was forced to apologize to her brothers on national television. In addition to being subjected to various forms of violence by her three brothers for financial reasons, she was forced to give up her inheritance,  in an incident that is not the first of its kind.

The struggle of the most vulnerable    

Despite the fact that women gained 97 seats in Iraq’s 329-member parliament in the 2020 elections, Amer points out that these women are either susceptible to political pressure from their male peers or do not represent the feminist cause.

She went on to explain that discriminatory laws must be changed in order for society to follow suit. Her organization’s most recent attempt to modify specific parts of the penal code that tolerate honor killings was met with swift rejection by the government.

During the peak of Covid-19 lockdowns, Amer saw an upsurge in reported incidences of abuse on the organization’s social media pages. Increased violence presented yet another stop on the terrible route of survival in Iraq for the more vulnerable Yazidi and LGBTQ+ groups.

The northwestern area of Sinjar too saw an increase in domestic violence and levels of depression during lockdown periods. This came on the heels of the defeat of the Islamic State that subjected Yazidi women to years of sexual violence.

Similarly, queer and transgender women are constantly in fear of being hunted down and killed, with no legal protection provided.

Nevertheless, Amer is optimistic for a better future, which she feels will be sparked by the next generation of feminists. But in the meantime, men continue to hold the reins of power and authority in Iraq.

“Iraqi men are heavily dependent on patriarchal women without whom the cycle of abuse cannot be maintained. Internalized misogyny is real and must be tracked if we are to see real and sustainable change,” she said.

For the time being, Amer’s organization is assisting Yaghi with her custody battle by providing lawyers, connecting her with other support organizations, and sharing her story on their platform in order to garner public support. Whether she comes out victorious remains to be seen.