Eve Ensler recently spoke with Yanar Mohammed about the impact of the U.S. 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 of women are experiencing horrific violence daily with little to no option of escape or justice. In spite of multiple threats to her safety and life, activist Yanar Mohammed, an Iraqi feminist and founder of the Organisation 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 organisations, 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 sympathetic to the ruling Shia parties, unrest and civil uprisings are constant.
Meanwhile, women across the country, in all three regions are threatened 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 them open a recovery center for Yazidi women in one of their relatively safe cities.
Following is their interview:
Eve: Yanar, can you tell us a little about yourself.
Yanar: I am an Iraqi feminist who started a women’s organisation 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: Can you describe the current situation in Iraq?
Yanar: There are mass demonstrations every Friday in Tahrir Square. The current demonstrations are the second round of uprisings 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 in July. 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 that 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.
Eve : What are your greatest fears at the moment in Baghdad?
Yanar: 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 starting in July, 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: 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?
Yanar: 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 organisations), Kurdish rebels have a long tradition of organising 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 organised 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 organising 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: 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 stigmatised and abandoned?
Yanar: 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 into sexual slavery creates a dilemma which the community avoids dealing 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: What do the Iraqi people want to be done with ISIS? What do they want from the international community?
Yanar: 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: 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: 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 have 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 Yazidi community, OWFI is setting up Yazidi Women’s Empowerment Center in the Qadiya Camp, where sessions of psycho-social support will be provided to the women by Yazidi 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 victimised, throughout different rounds of governing parties. We are determined to stay and grow into stronger and more established organisation 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.