By Manar Alzubaidy
It is hard for me to describe the joy I felt recently, when I saw that large crowd of Iraqi women, from many different age groups, standing together at the anti-government protests.
The participation of this group of youthful and feminist women painted a beautiful picture of Iraqi womanhood, as the sisters, mothers, daughters and wives supported the legitimate demands of their brothers, husbands and fathers.
I saw scenes I had never seen before: Teenage girls lining up at the front of the protest marches, carrying bold banners and demanding their rights. They were not shy about shouting for what they wanted.
To be completely honest, at the beginning, I was not sure that the participation of someone like my 17-year-old daughters in the protests would have any big impact. I didn’t think their presence would make a big difference. But later on, I realized I was wrong and that, as a mother, I had denied my daughters the honour of doing this patriotic duty.
I didn’t realize then that taking part in the protests would instil a sense of responsibility and citizenship and a love for our country in them, feelings that should be in the hearts of all Iraqis.
Which is why I took them to protests. I bought them Iraqi flags and as they began to cheer for our country, I couldn’t hold back tears of pride. I realized that this sense of pride is something that every free citizen of our country should feel, just for joining these protests. The participation of Iraqi women is an important factor on the effectiveness and ongoing impact of the demonstrations.
However I also know that this is not a safe pastime. There have been campaigns, both violent and intimidatory, to try and stop people from joining the protests and this is something that has affected female campaigners too. Some women have been kidnapped and even killed for taking part, others have been harassed and intimidated. Iraq’s human rights commissioner seems intent on ignoring these incidents.
Some of the worst harassment comes via social media. It’s dirty behaviour and is carried out by so-called electronic armies online, who are paid to try to undermine the anti-government protests. They try and defame the female activists by posting fake pictures of them, especially fake selfies, and other lies online.
These electronic armies, which are paid to agitate, try to ruin the women’s reputations by saying they have been paid by foreign powers or other organizations. They often use pictures of the activists at other, earlier events to try and make their point.
Add the online harassment and damage to reputations together with the possibility of physical danger and the harassment from families, who don’t want to see their daughters join the protests, and it makes it very difficult for Iraqi women to take part in anti-government protests. In fact, it has prevented some women and girls from returning to the protests again. That is despite the fact that they have already succeeded in breaking decades of stereotyping and prejudice about their role in Iraqi society.
As a group of activists, we recently issued a statement in which we have detailed the various methods of harassment of female protesters. In it, we also call upon the Iraqi government to hold those who engage in this kind of harassment to account. We also call upon human rights organisations and other non-governmental organisations to launch awareness campaigns, to teach tactics that could help female protesters deal with this kind of harassment.
Despite all of these challenges, Iraqi women continue to attend the protests, showing that they really are partners, the equal of their menfolk, in this quest.
And to all of those who are still targeting the brave Iraqi women, I would say that we are not your targets. These women are noble fighters who defend our homeland. If you want to target somebody, let it be the corrupt thieves and scoundrels who have stolen so much from us.