Don't shoot the clowns!

Author Jo Wilding explains why the new stage adaptation of her book is so important to ordinary Iraqis.

J stands in one spotlight, speaking on a mobile phone to her sister Mary in another spotlight. Mary is in Baghdad, J in Fallujah, under US siege. Mary is a BBC politics correspondent. J is Jo, me in 2003-04 – an activist and clown running a small circus in Iraq and writing a blog about the people I met.

J tells Mary about the hellish scenes in Fallujah, the cluster bomb injuries, the use of white phosphorus, the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Mary tells J that the Americans totally deny the use of cluster bombs and phosphorus, that she can’t use reports from one uncorroborated source, that they, the journalists, have been excluded from Fallujah but will be allowed in tomorrow if the ceasefire holds. J tells Mary there is no ceasefire.

Don't Shoot The Clowns book cover

This is the stage adaptation of Don’t Shoot the Clowns, telling stories about the circus in Iraq and the people we met, asking whose stories become news and whose don’t. Ibrahim Odai, a lawyer executed by US soldiers who had mistakenly raided his home, Maryam, a two month-old baby who died of the cold, Marwa, an 11 year-old girl who was forced to quit school because of the serious danger of kidnapping on the way to and from.

It is not a play of unremitting grimness – the clowns make sure of that. There is playfulness as well as rage, reflecting my own experience of Iraq with joyful moments full of children’s laughter – children laughing from their bellies for the first time since the war.

But theatre and music and playfulness are largely lost to the Iraqis now. By the middle of 2008, at least 60 painters, 65 actors and 115 singers had been murdered. Most of the survivors had fled. By 2007 it was unsafe to sell music in shops any more. Not only the culture of the present but also the past was being ravaged, with 18 archaeologists and researchers adding to the toll. Even the flower shops had closed down.

It’s hard to imagine life stripped of all light relief. No singing, no dancing, no theatre, no films, no gigs, not even a bunch of flowers.

The remarkable and courageous Haider Munathir, whom we met while performing with a group of Iraqi actors, is still there, writing and performing. He put on plays throughout Saddam’s time and risked trouble from the Ministry of Culture, who checked all his scripts.

He told us after the invasion, ‘Iraq needs its writers now, to help people to rebuild the Iraq that we want.’ He believed that writing and theatre were crucial to that process. In 2008 he wrote, directed and performed in Jib al Malik, Jibu (Bring the King, Bring Him) at the National Theatre in Baghdad.

Things are said to be a little better in Iraq now. Civilian deaths from violence are down to 15 a day across the country, with the highest concentrations being in the ‘disputed provinces’ of Tameem (Kirkuk) and Ninewa (Mosul). Fewer people are dying in sectarian violence because fewer people live in mixed areas. Fewer artists and professionals are being assassinated because so few are left in the country.

But for most ordinary Iraqis it remains a true story of unremitting grimness, the light relief all gone and a constant struggle to survive, physically and economically. People I met urged me to tell the rest of the world what was happening to them. This play is for them.

Forward march!

As overwhelming as the bombing was in Iraq, if you were underneath it (like me) it was less than had been expected. And it was the world-wide protest by people like you that made it so. People often ask me what they can now do to help the Iraqis. Here’s seven ways to start:

ONE: Lobby politicians to drop Majority World debts unconditionally. Debt – created by arms sales and exacerbated by sanctions – laid the groundwork for control of Iraq’s economy and resources by foreign corporations, the International Monetary Fund and Western creditor countries. Following the invasion, Iraq was forced to privatize state-owned industries in exchange for debt relief, which benefits corporations (especially oil companies) and defrauds the people: a guaranteed way to cause anger, resentment... and therefore more conflict. (More reading: ; ; and )

TWO: Choose a local arms dealer, military base or dodgy transnational and do what you can to expose its complicity in the Iraq conflict. Amongst the top war profiteers in Iraq are Aegis, Bechtel and Halliburton. (More reading: ; ; )

THREE: If you can, transfer your phone service to a telephone co-op. Almost all the other telecommunications companies are huge and unpleasant transnationals, lots of which are investing in Iraq – Motorola, Vodafone, Argent (New Zealand), Alcatel (France), Nokia, Lucent and MCI WorldCom, for example. (More reading: ; )

FOUR: Join a car club or co-op if you only occasionally need a car. You’ll use it less, take up fewer parking spaces and promote common ownership instead of buying privately.

FIVE: Research your bank’s investment policies and priorities. If they’re using your money to bankroll arms dealers, dictators or sweatshops then harass them relentlessly till they stop. (More reading: ; )

SIX: Become a vegan or vegetarian. Just as they were centuries ago, wars today (particularly the one in Iraq) are still about resources. Your decision to switch from animal- to plant-based eating would immediately slash your dependency on resources by both saving hundreds of litres of water, and using less land and fossil fuels. (More reading: , )

SEVEN: Join a co-operative. It could be a food co-op, a credit union or even a worker-run co-operative. We won’t stop the next war unless we break down the economic conditions that demand wars. Belonging to a workers’ co-op means that you – not the boss or a group of faceless shareholders – will control your work, so you can’t be forced to make something unethical or trade on unfair terms. (More reading: NI 368; )

Jo Wilding is an activist, writer, trainee lawyer and clown who spent eight months in Iraq before, during and after the 2003 invasion.

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

What price freedom?

On my visits to pre-war Iraq, it was safe, as a woman, to walk on the streets alone at three in the morning. Of course that’s partly because the Ba’athists suppressed any crimes other than their own. Now my women friends don’t feel safe on the streets at any hour. At the checkpoint entering Falluja, a US marine referred to the hijabs or headscarves all the women in our group were wearing, by saying: ‘You don’t have to wear those things any more. Women are free now.’ But in reality far more women go out covered up now than before the US invasion. My friend Layla said she had a letter from some women students in one of the colleges: ‘They are being threatened with suspension if they do not wear a veil.’

Layla is now vice-president of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI).1 Supporters of Moqtada Al-Sadr have threatened the organization and some individual women within it, including director Yanar Mohammed. Other women’s groups and labour organizations, such as the Workers’ Communist Party, have also been threatened.

Dancing in the dark – Asma’a and friends are confined to their home.

Jo Wilding

Marwa has had to leave school because the journey has become too dangerous.

Jo Wilding

Failure to protect women and their rights has been a feature of the occupation. Women’s political rights have been given little more than lip service. When the Coalition Provisional Authority named thousands of new judges in early 2004, there were only 15 women. Even so, some male lawyers protested that the promotion of one woman was ‘inappropriate’. Instead of defending her right to take that high-level role in public life, the coalition authority suspended her appointment.

This is in spite of the fact that there is a strong tradition of women involved in Iraqi public life, stretching back several decades. Zakia Hakki, Iraq’s first woman judge, was appointed in 1959. In that same year the Personal Status Law was passed, making women and men substantially equal in law. By 1970 they were declared as such in the constitution. Iraqi women were among the most advanced in the region in terms of education and rights. By 1980, women could vote and run for election – indeed, some 20 per cent of Saddam Hussein’s Government were women. This compares with 14 per cent in the US and an average of 3.5 per cent in Arab countries.

By 1991, the increase in fundamentalist influence which followed UN sanctions on Iraq was becoming evident. To mollify the shari’a (Islamic law) lobby, Saddam closed down nightclubs and decriminalized ‘honour killings’ by male relatives of women who had disgraced their families by, for example, being raped. Today, the Organization of Women’s Freedom is calling for a secular constitution to guarantee equality between women and men. Instead, in January 2003, the Governing Council, as it was then known, passed Order 137 which reversed the 1959 Personal Status Law and submitted family, matrimonial and related financial matters to religious, rather than legal, jurisdiction. In face of protest, the Order, passed by only 11 of the 25 Council members, was dropped. It is, however, aptly illustrated by a remark made by a representative of the interim Interior Ministry to the New York Times: ‘We don’t do women.’

With unemployment between 60 and 80 per cent, many women have lost their jobs. Men take to driving their private cars as taxis, cleaning shoes or selling on the street. Women don’t do these things. They have not completely disappeared from the streets: you still see them in the markets, on the buses, working in the banks, begging in the traffic queues. But there is nowhere to go. The coffee shops are the preserve of men. The streets are dangerous. The shops are just depressing if you haven’t got any money to spend. There are no cinemas. There are few places where women can meet and just share gossip and company.

In the Sufi mosque at Friday prayers the women greet each other with hugs and hundreds of kisses, whispering eagerly at the back while the kids jump about, until a woman in a huge white outfit which denotes her as a member of the Prayer Police, comes past to tell them to face the front, be quiet, keep their children under control. After prayers, begins the real business of exchanging the week’s news. Men gather outside waiting for wives and sisters and in-laws who are queuing for the return of their shoes, reluctant to cut short the only social occasion of the week.

Sabriya lives in a metal shack annexed to a relative’s house, her two children staying with her mother for lack of space. She interprets for foreign activists. For a long time she didn’t tell us about the death and kidnap threats she’d had by telephone, for fear that we would stop working with her. ‘If I cannot do this work,’ she said, ‘I am already dead.’

Apart from that, those without jobs disappear into the home. For lack of anything but housework to do, many of them are losing their minds. My friend Asma’a has been looking for work but can’t find any. She used to teach computing. It’s boring and frustrating to be at home all day. ‘We do all the work of the house and then we chat on the internet and we download music and dance and we watch TV.’ They know that, able to afford the internet in their homes, they are among the luckier ones.

Though girls are able to go to school – as they have for decades – increasingly, they too are disappearing into their homes. In the academic year after the invasion, far fewer girls went to school than previously. Marwa, a bright-eyed 12-year-old who lives in the squatter camp at Shuala, dropped out of school because it was too dangerous for her to travel there and spend the day unprotected.

Without the restoration of conditions whereby all girls can go to school, without an active stance in favour of women’s rights by the occupying powers – which they undeniably remain despite the June 2004 ‘handover’ of sovereignty – and without massive and active international solidarity with women’s groups like the OWFI, Iraqi women will lose all that they’ve achieved in the past few decades.

Jo Wilding has worked on various solidarity projects in Iraq, including running a small circus which worked with traumatized children and adults. After being kidnapped, briefly, she returned to Britain where she is now studying law.

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