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Caught in the crossfire


The Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) recently sent out a communiqué stating that: ‘Terrorist acts against women in Iraq by Islamic groups have increased dramatically in recent months and reached an unprecedented level under the rubric of “observing sanctities during Ramadan”. A fascist Islamic group called Mujahideen Shura Group has warned that it will kill any women who are seen on the street unveiled, whether by themselves or with a male companion.’

OWFI’s website and representatives inside and outside Iraq have, throughout the occupation, reported on violence against women, whether or not it is politically motivated. Yanar Mohammed, the group’s director, has received death threats for her work. Sakar Ahmed, chair of the Erbil branch, has been assaulted and threatened with death since July 2004 by male members of her family.

Yanar was not invited to the founding conference in July 2003 of Women for Peace and Democracy. This US-controlled organization was set up to co-opt women’s groups around the US propaganda agenda, ensuring that funding was available for – and only for – activities which were in accord with the White House message, and that projects not on-message were either toned down to access grants or marginalized altogether. Behind many women’s groups in Iraq, if you look, is the neocon antifeminist Lynn Cheney (wife of the US Vice-President).

OWFI criticizes the occupying forces for failing to protect women from abuse, for generally degrading women in their interactions with the public and particularly for mistreating those women in coalition custody. The group is unequivocal in its call for an end to the occupation, although it has been attacked by some for this latest communiqué, accused of lending credibility to US attempts to paint the resistance as a homogeneous terrorist bloc.

The group is somewhat compromised by the closeness of its links to the Workers Communist Party though, in fairness, it’s hard to find a politically active group that is not linked with a party in Iraq. It has also been criticized for focusing on the veil and domestic violence rather than other issues, choices which partly stem from its roots in the Iranian Organization for Women’s Freedom.

OWFI supports women students who have been threatened with suspension from colleges unless they wear the veil. It operates Iraq’s first shelters (outside Kurdistan) for women fleeing domestic violence, in Baghdad and Kirkuk. It also raises consciousness about violence against women, including among extremely poor women in the squatter camps.

OWFI blames political Islamist groups for killing professional women in Mosul and academics across the country. This is hotly disputed: many Iraqis are quick to point out that a lot of the scientists and academics killed had been pursued by the Americans, who demanded that they leave Iraq before the war. It is unclear how much of the killing and kidnapping is criminal and how much is ideological. The recent execution of Margaret Hassan shows just how far things have deteriorated. In a conflict which some sides want to present as simple and polarized, good versus evil, OWFI sits not on the fence but in the crossfire.

Jo Wilding

New Internationalist issue 375 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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