Eve Ensler recently spoke with Yanar Mohammed about impacts of the US military invasion and occupation of Iraq, the people’s uprisings in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, and the horrific violence, fear and trauma that Iraqi women face daily.
The situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, under the looming threat of a violent takeover by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) and a corrupt government that perpetuates sectarian divides and neglects the population’s basic requests for services and security. Thousands women are experiencing horrific violence daily with little to no options of escape or justice. In spite of multiple threats to her safety and life activist Yanar Mohammed, an Iraqi feminist and founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), continues to fight for the women and girls of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2004, Yanar opened Iraq’s first women’s shelter in Baghdad, and has since opened shelters in four cities across the country providing shelter for women fleeing “honour killings”, trafficking, and systemic violence resulting from the war.
Two patriarchal forces, the primarily Shia dominated government and the Sunni Islamist extremist organizations, pitted against each other by the misguided policies of the U.S. administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, are battling for control of an ever-dividing nation. After years of a Shia dominated government led by the previous Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki which continued to alienate and oppress Sunni populations, the country has de facto divided into three sections: Kurdish North, Sunni West, and Shia South making it vulnerable to the invasion of the Sunni town of Mosul by ISIS in 2014. Even in primarily Shia regions of Iraq, including Baghdad where the population might be expected to be more sympatric to the ruling Shia parties, unrest and civil uprisings are constant.
Meanwhile, women across the country, in all three regions are threated by oppressive forces, unjust law, enslavement, sexual torture, and death. The Yazidi women of the North have faced unimaginable horrors at the hands of ISIS fighters, determined to wipe out the ethnic group, and disgrace and defile women along the way. OWFI is in the process of negotiating with the Kurdish forces that control the north to let her open a recovery center for Yazidi women in one of their relatively safe cities.
Following is their interview:
Eve Ensler: Good Morning Yanar, please introduced yourself.
Yanar Mohammed: I am an Iraqi feminist who started a women’s organization in Baghdad in 2003 for the protection of women and girls from violence, trafficking, and honour killing. My position on the war of Iraq was against both the US occupation and the Islamist political parties who were being supported to become the rulers of Iraq.
Eve Ensler: Can you describe the current situation in Iraq?
Yanar Mohammed: Iraqi people are getting tired of hearing corruption scandals of their officials over the media. Instead of serving the needs of the population for jobs, services and security, they are busy emptying the governmental assets into their own pockets, whereas becoming some of the wealthiest in the region. Power abuse has become the rule within a system which allows and encourages it. A political elite of few hundred individuals monopolize the revenue of oil while leaving thirty million Iraqis without adequate basic services of electricity, water, and hospitalization.
The previous Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki continued to established sectarian divisions where Sunnis were treated as second rate citizens and thought of as terrorists. He continued to alienate and discriminate against millions of people in western Iraq (in the so-called Sunni triangle[i]) until he turned them desperate for any kind of political change which does not treat them as inferior and “terrorist”.
On June 10th of 2014, a small troop of two hundred armed men drove their vehicles into the second biggest city of Iraq, the North-western city of Mosul. They did not need to fire a single bullet to conquer the city as the governmental army withdrew by itself, in a chaotic manner[ii]. A dysfunctional Iraqi government and army had no explanation for the failure which brought about and empowered one of the most criminal political forces of modern times, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) [iii].
The people of Iraq who gave the ruling Islamist parties their votes in two rounds of elections feel betrayed over a long period of 12 years. They have taken to the streets in most cities of Iraq. They have many lists of demands, but they all share the feeling that this political system which is based on religious and ethnic representation can only be corrupt governance.
When the US occupied Iraq in 2003, their main political achievement was to acknowledge and empower politics of religion and ethnicity, above and beyond all other kinds of politics. After 12 years, we are reaping the fruits of a most divisive and demoralizing plot against the Iraqi people. We do not have one Iraq anymore. We became aware and cautious of each others’ sectarian identities. And the economic gap between the masses and the nouveaux riches of the Green Zone is unbelievable.
Once again we find out that the oil of Iraq is not ours; just like it was not ours during Sadam’s dictatorship, or during the British colonial rule of Iraq. While the political form of ruling Iraq was different in these eras, poverty was always our share of the deal, whether democratic or not. Additionally, the current period is one which placed 30% of Iraqis under the poverty line.
Eve Ensler: There are mass demonstrations every Friday in Tahrir Square. Can you tell us what people are rising for, what has prompted these risings now. How many are rising, the response of the government and anything else you feel is pertinent?
Yanar Mohammed: The current demonstrations are the second round of uprising in Iraq. The first one was in 2011 and was motivated by the Arab Spring which started in Tunisia and extended to most Arab countries.
The current uprising started one month ago. In the burning heat of August, the government would only provide a few hours of intermittent electricity, thus jeopardizing lives and well being of tens of millions of people, many of whom cannot survive +55[iv] Celsius hot days.
A number of people gathered in the cities of Basrah and Baghdad demanding electricity. As a response, the local government of Basrah was violent, clashing with demonstrators and killing a young man who became the symbol of the following demonstrations. One Friday after the other, the numbers doubled, and so did the demands which became bolder and more political. The main demand became ending the corruption of a government which spends the equivalent of budgets of three countries in the region, while failing to provide the basic services, as their main goal is to steal and empower their sectarian and ethnic groups. While the parliament decided austerity for the people, billions of dollars of budget money was being transferred to foreign banks for the families of the main officials who had become the heads of a fully corrupt system.
Once the demonstrations grew into hundreds of thousands and expanded into all the cities of Iraq, it was hard to stop them with SWAT, army of any other security institutions. The governmental officials had to find solutions. It was then that they started to speak over media, scandalizing huge theft of public money in numbers that are hard for us to comprehend. It was then that the Prime Minister announced that many of the symbols of corruption “would” be fired. The previous Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki was included as all the demonstrators demanded it.
On the following days, Al Maliki took a flight to Tehran, held some meetings with the top officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and then came back to Iraq, with a “decree” that he is a religious symbol and should be respected. After two weeks, it became clear that none of the promised reforms were applied, which created a continuous state of public outrage, to which bigger numbers of apolitical individuals joined.
Eve Ensler: How has the US war on Iraq led to the current situation?
Yanar Mohammed:When Paul Bremer the US administrator of Iraq wanted the set up the first groups. Although hundreds of political groups were launched and established in Iraq, Bremer’s main interest was in the Islamist groups, ethnic tribal heads, and representatives of other religious groups. He made the effort to go and visit the top Shia clergy in his own home, thus spreading the message to the people that the Shia Islamist institution will be ruling Iraq.
It was only a matter of time before Shia Islamist leaders organized armies of religious militias, starting waves of mass killings against the Sunni population around the country. They also filled the prisons with Sunni youth accusing them of terrorist acts against the government. Many Sunni neighborhoods and city were emptied from its youth who were imprisoned long-term in the US bases and the newly set Iraqi prisons.
One of the inmates of Boka prison which was inside a US military base, was a young man who was surrounded by Al Qaeda leaders, discussing and debating on daily basis matters of religion and politics. Al Badri who was later known by the name Abou Bakir Al Baghdadi received highest Political Islamist training while inside the American Boka prison in Southern Iraq. By the time of being released, he already had ideological orientation of setting up a Sunni extremist organization which takes its revenge on the Shia Islamist government which was set up by the Bremer administration.
The US plan for Iraq was to give the upper hand to Shia Islamists, thus alienating the Sunni population of the country, and preparing the ground for the most fierce religious-sectarian war which Iraq had ever witnessed in its history. These policies also helped the Sunni Islamist resistance to recruit youth into their organizations for the purpose of defeating the US occupation military forces. Years of military operations in Iraq and Syria helped this group to grow into the so called Islamic State of Syria and Iraq-ISIS.
Eve Ensler: Can you describe what is happening to Yazidi women. The impact ISIS is having on women? The general feeling of Iraqis towards ISIS? What they would like to see happen? I know you have spent time with women rape survivors of ISIS. Can you describe what you are seeing? There are reports that Yazidi women are arming themselves and fighting back. What do you think of this strategy. How many women are involved. Are they effective?
Yanar Mohammed: Yazidi women are in state of shock and disgust at how the modern world watched the operations of their mass abduction and enslavement after killing the males of their families. The ones who survived ISIS and escaped to the Kurdish zone live in small women’s groups whether in camps or homes where silence, pain, and weeping is a regular routine of the day. On top of their trauma and suffering, they do not feel comfortable to step out of the door, as people’s looks follow them wherever they go. Mardene, a 23 year old woman from the abolished village of Kojo, says: “I was raised up in a proper and respectable way. My mother and my family were everything to me and they took such good care of me and my sister. I ran away from Mosul while both my sister and mother are still stuck there. I feel people’s eyes interrogating me here in the camp and that’s why I do not step out of this door. My life will be on hold until my mom comes back.”
Just like most surviving Yazidi women, she shut herself away from a criminal and unjust world. Her village Kojo was attacked by ISIS who detained all the males and threw them in a big hole and shot all of them dead. Only one or two men who were in the bottom of the hole stayed alive. Kichi is one of them. He is responsible of the Yazidi section in the Qadhiya camp.
In some parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, there are old leftist traditions of training women within militias to fight freedom wars. Whether in the Comala or the PKK (older socialist and nationalist organizations), Kurdish rebels have a long tradition of organizing and resisting, against local tyranny or against the racist attacks of a Turkish government which made the lives of Kurds difficult for many decades.
Those fighting traditions provided the opportunity for women to be organized within militias to fight ISIS in Kobani and other border cities.
The leftist factions which empowered women to lead the fighting have attracted the attention of the world, because it is a realistic model of defeating ISIS through the militias of the local people themselves. Although their ideology is not the best when it comes to women’s freedoms, they are many steps ahead of others in the region.
In the other Iraqi battlefields with ISIS, women took to arms and stood fighting for months in the city of Alam, Dhlou’iya and Amirli, but they were fighting among their families and tribes. There was no political framework for organizing them. Iraqi women are known to be tough and to fight on the front line, in spite of the discrimination they witnessed in the post-occupation era.
The Iraqi government has poured all its resources into arming a people’s militia (Al Hashd Al Sha’bi) under the command of governmental officials. The problem with the Hashd is the prevalence of Shia Islamists of its leadership which adds up to the sectarian conflict in Iraq. And of course, women are formally acknowledged in it.
Eve Ensler: You have been an activist for many years in Iraq? Can you describe the work you have been doing and tell us the change you have seen on the ground?
Yanar Mohammed: The society has been through many stages of war and relative peace since 2003. In 2005, when the Iraqi state was launched and the constitution written, the blue print for sectarian divide was completed and gave way to fierce internal militia mass killings, done mostly by the Shia militias against Sunnis, and of course against women. It took three years for the dust to settle, and for the security institutions to impose some relative peace, and for the militias to be forced to leave arms and take to the parliament seats.
Eventually, the militias conflict turned into a parliamentarian conflict, which drew clear lines of sectarian division into the political process. Between 2008-2011 Iraqis became aware that the western part of the country was of Sunni origin, especially that the Shia dominated government practiced all kinds of discrimination against them. By 2012, and with the Arab Spring, Western Iraq started demonstrations where voices of dismay were clear. The previous Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki would not listen and negotiate. On the contrary, he continued imposing sectarian discrimination against them, accusing them to be terrorists and Al Qaeda’s. By 2014 June, people of Mosul were so sick and tired from a despotic and sectarian government that they were ready for anything else.
The fall of the city of Mosul on June 10, 2014 was a landmark of disaster. Iraqi people lost all faith in the political process which made us vulnerable to enslavement and medieval criminal practices under Isis.
In addition to Yazidi women, thousands of Turkmen, Christians and Arab women and girls have been enslaved by ISIS, and they continue to live in the worst conditions and under the most despicable sexual torture.
In the other parts of Iraq, Baghdad and the south, a general dismay accumulated against the corrupt government which stole hundreds of billions of dollars from public money without providing the basic services that the people need. Temperatures of the Summer in Iraq are around 55 Celsius\130 Fahrenheit, which is very hard to tolerate, especially when you are displaced and living in a tent. The lack of electricity was the first trigger to start mass demonstrations which demanded electricity, security and end to corruption.
People are tired of a dysfunctional government which cannot provide our needs, but is very active in stealing the resources of oil.
Eve Ensler: How has the US war on Iraq undermined women’s rights and equality and birthed ISIS?
Yanar Mohammed: The occupation of Iraq was a landmark of change from dictatorship to a new era, which could have balanced the different political tendencies in the society. It could have empowered progressive and liberal groups, and eventually women’s groups. Nevertheless, the favorite choice of the US administrators of Iraq were the Shia Islamist groups who were given the upper hand and the freedom to mess with Iraqi resources and the destinies of women.
It was not a surprise to women of Iraq, when the Shia Islamist ruling parties suggested the Jaafari Law which allows the marriage\rape of female children. We were expecting it to happen after the American administration had empowered them against us.
The US occupation orchestrated a kind of democracy which gives full freedoms to Islamist groups to oppress women and other minorities, with laws that keep us marginalized and disempowered. Paul Bremer repealed some of the laws and introduced others, but did not want to trouble himself with repealing laws of honour killing, polygamy, wife battering, and rape. It seems that he thought that Iraqi women’s rights are not urgent issues, and that his debate was with the patriarchs of Iraq only.
In spite of all our campaigns for freedom and equality of women, his preference was to meet the Shia Islamist clerics and the Sunni Arab Nationalist groups. In other words, his partners in Iraq were the male religious and tribal heads.
The following US administrations of Iraq was no different.
Eve Ensler: What are your greatest fears at the moment in Baghdad?
Yanar Mohammed: ISIS is knocking on our doors. They are only 50 kilometers away from Baghdad in Falluja. They have full arming, ammunition and financing from other countries which are US allies in the Middle East, and happen to be Sunni Islamist countries.
Once the US and their allies agree that the Iraqi government is not worth keeping any more, ISIS will conquer and enslave all of us, and there will be a new era. All our recent past of a modern and educated society will become history. And just like the Yazidi community, we will be the new victim of ISIS and will endure their same suffering under the human beasts of ISIS, who were nothing other than the creation of the US occupation of Iraq.
The current state is a formula of destruction for the society, and has no chance of protecting us against ISIS.
After our demonstrations of the last month, the Prime Minister Abadi promised to fire the symbols of corruption from their posts, but was unable to keep his promise after the intervention of the Iranian politicians.
Eve Ensler: You have told me that women are being stolen from their families who are fleeing ISIS and that families are not talking about their disappearance. Can you talk about the double trauma women are facing, first being raped then being stigmatized and abandoned?
Yanar Mohammed: One of the major cities which was attacked and devastated by ISIS was Telafar, where Turkmen of both Shia and Sunni Muslim faith reside. ISIS invasion divided the population upon sectarian lines, to Sunnis who thought they would be safe under ISIS, and to Shias many of whom were attacked immediately by ISIS. The males were killed, while the females abducted into public building in special locations, where the dilemma of enslavement awaited them.
Telafar community is a religious and tribal community where the sexual violation of their daughters gave traumatic shock waves in their ranks, and they were unable to deal with it. The traditional response to any sexual interaction for an unmarried woman would have been “honour-killing”. Nevertheless, the fact that they were forced to sexual slavery creates a dilemma which the community avoids to deal with. While expressing her anger a refugee from Telafar said she wished that the government blows up all school buildings of Telafar where the women are detained.
Fareeda, was able to escape ISIS, and was re-united with her sisters in Karbala after eight months of enslavement. She was in trauma and unable to speak about her misery of the last two seasons. Helpless and penniless, she tried to claim financial compensation from governmental offices as an ISIS survivor. They immediately took her address, and began sending her repeatedly security interrogators to inquire about military logistics of Isis locations in Mosul. To add insult to injury, she had another set of visitors; a few male cousins threatening her: “if you identify as an ISIS survivor, you smear our honour, and we will have our way with you”.
Just like Fareeda, thousands of women were subjects of political revenge of the Sunni Islamist Isis against the Shia Islamist government. The sectarian division which the US occupation started in Iraq arrives to an ugliest chapter where our bodies became the battlefields of groups which were created by and after the occupation.
Eve Ensler: What do the Iraqi people want to be done with ISIS? What do they want from the international community?
Yanar Mohammed: We definitely want to get rid of a most criminal ideology which tortures our sisters daily. But do we want to initiate another World War on our lands? Definitely not.
American military means could have stopped the few hundreds of men who drove their vehicles towards Mosul on June 10, 2014. American politicians who gave ISIS financial and military support against the Syrian government, were aware of how extremist and criminal Isis was. The immediate way of defeating ISIS is for the US allies in our region to stop their financial and military and logistic support for ISIS. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey cannot support ISIS against the US administration will.
Once all kinds of support for ISIS stops, and they get weakened, defeating them by the locals or a more functional Iraqi government can be easier.
Eve Ensler: You are opening an Empowerment Center in Kurdistan for escaping Yazidi women. Can you tell us about the center? How can people support your efforts?
Yanar Mohammed: Close to 50 women and girls, as old as 82 and as young as 1, who had been kidnapped, enslaved and suffered horrific amounts of violence and repeated rape hve returned to the northern city of Dhouk and are living in caravans at the Qadiya refugee camp. Many of them were unable to return home, because their extended families and tribes have rejected them because they are seen as dishonorable. Others have no home to return to after ISIS fighters massacred or displaced their families and destroyed their villages. In collaboration with the Yezidi community, OWFI is setting up Yezidi Women’s Empowerment Center in the Qadiya Camp, where sessions of psycho-social support will be provided to the women by Yezidi doctors and psychiatrists. The center will also provide support for the women in their daily lives.
We in OWFI continue to open safe houses and centers for empowering our sisters who were victimized, throughout different rounds of governing parties. We are determined to stay and grow into stronger and more established organization of women, who will shape a future of freedom when we get a chance in the future. We need all the support from the outer world to become a bigger and more influential voice and existence.
[i] The Sunni triangle is a name which was created by the US administration of the occupied Iraq. Nobody in Iraq was aware of it beforehand.
[ii] Until now, nobody is able to locate the orders of withdrawal and who it was issued by. An elongated governmental investigation did not make it any clearer.
[iii] Isis or Isil. in Iraq we use the acronym Daesh, which is translated to Isis and not Isil. The L stands for the Levant which is a historic naming of Syria. Isis claim historic authenticity, while Iraqis refuse it and will prove that Isis are nothing more than temporary parasites.
[iv] equivalent to 130 Fahrenheit.