Women are bearing the brunt of Iraq’s disastrous modern history.
Despite early advances in women’s rights, including the fact that Iraq was the first country in the Arab world to have a woman serve as cabinet minister back in 1959, and that Iraqi women have been allowed to train as doctors for almost 100 years, society has taken a number of steps backwards in gender equality and women’s rights in recent decades.
Today, many Iraqi women try to meet overwhelming work and family obligations with little assistance from men. Some are forced to care for their children, parents and siblings all by themselves, as men in their lives continue to fight and die on ever-shifting military fronts. To make matters worse, most extreme forms of gender-based violence are also prevalent in Iraq. In recent years, religious militias massacred dozens of sex workers and tortured journalists in Baghdad. Meanwhile, ISIL enslaved thousands of Yazidi women, many of whom are still missing today.
In the last couple of months, another worrying trend has emerged. Between August and September, four high-profile women have been assassinated. They lived in different cities and had different occupations. They only had two common traits: They were all women and they were all successful in their respective fields.
Tara Fares, one of Iraq’s most prominent social media stars, was assassinated in broad daylight on September 28; Suad al-Ali, a human rights activist (to whom I do not have the honour of being related), was killed on September 25; Rasha al-Hassan, a plastic surgeon and public figure, was killed on August 23; and Rafeef al-Yassiri, also a plastic surgeon with her own clinic, died under mysterious circumstances on August 16. Authorities initially called al-Yassiri’s death “a drug overdose”, but have not offered an update, leading to rumours that she might have been poisoned.
On October 7, two more women, one an owner of a beauty parlour and the other an activist, were killed in Basra. In all of these cases, the assassins appeared to be highly trained, leading security forces to believe that these were not random attacks. A number of other high-profile women have also received death threats.
It is still unclear whether these killings were part of a single conspiracy, but together they sent Iraqi women an undeniable message: “You should not seek to break out of society’s traditional limitations.”
To this day, many Iraqi men suffer from fragile masculinity and view women’s professional success as a threat. This may translate into physical threats and attacks in certain cases. The fact that Iraq is awash in weapons as well as regular and irregular armed groups adds to the volatility of the situation. This makes some Iraqi women reluctant to pursue their professional ambitions. This is why it is reasonable to assume that the latest wave of femicides will add to these worries and make some women reconsider their career aspirations.
Nevertheless, there is some cause for optimism, as the killings provoked a promising social response. Iraqi society has widely condemned the murders and rounded on the few commentators who tried to brush them off. Haider Zaweer, a TV presenter, tweeted that people should stop worrying about Ms Fares, describing her as a “prostitute who was killed” (implying first that she deserved to be murdered and second that it was not worth investigating). The response was fast and furious, especially on social media. His remarks were condemned by thousands and eventually, his employer was forced to pull him off the air. High profile figures, including some of the country’s most popular social media personalities, have stated that any attempt to justify the murders is tantamount to complicity.
These reactions demonstrated that attitudes towards women are starting to change in Iraq and larger segments of society are refusing to tolerate violence against successful women. This is an important if small, step; a larger effort will be required to make further progress. Iraqi society is awash with hard barriers for women, and subtle and unsubtle gender-based discrimination. The men and women of Iraq are scarred by conflict and close to no effort has been made to study the effects this has had on women’s rights. Moreover, nobody has attempted to outline, let alone implement, a convincing strategy that could improve women’s rights in the country.
Rule of law
One obvious, partial remedy to gender-based violence in Iraq would be to improve the rule of law. Iraq’s human rights situation is notoriously fragile. Dozens, if not hundreds, of reports detail how ineffectual the police, prosecutors and judges have been in prosecuting criminal behaviour. Investigatory methods remain limited, prosecutions still rely heavily on forced confessions and allegations of torture are generally not investigated by the authorities.
Just as importantly, however, is the sense of impunity that dominates Iraq’s political class. Hardly any action has been taken to address the questionable actions of armed groups that are connected with the country’s main political powers. Following the most recent round of protests in Basra, a lawyer who offered to defend protesters and protest leaders (of whom Ms al-Ali was one) was killed. After each high profile assassination, government officials invariably announce that investigations have been launched, almost all of which fizzle with the passage of time. Even investigations that are concluded hardly ever lead to any form of political accountability.
Iraq’s current government-formation process is an opportunity to move state institutions in the right direction. Iraqi women from all levels of society are in desperate need of protection, and the state now has an opportunity to kick-start a necessary process of change by reforming judicial institutions and improving the rule of law. None of Iraq’s previous governments have ever committed to a coherent strategy to improve women’s rights, so if there is one thing that the next government can do it is to prioritise this one area, for the benefit of Iraqi women.