Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), spoke to Martin Thomas when she visited Britain at the end of June. The following interview is heavily edited for space. For the full interview click here.
What does the OWFI do? For example, what were you doing in Baghdad in the week before you came to Britain?
Last week we started something new. In spite of our work for equality and a secular constitution, we know that if we do not do the daily outreach to women and people in general, if we are not becoming a social movement, then we are not getting anywhere.
We decided to do what we call a Thursday Evening. The name in Arabic means "Women’s Evening". We announced to all our friends over radio and TV that anyone interested in the situation for women should come to visit us that evening. We would be chatting over tea and cakes, and maybe have some live music.
Maybe in the UK you would find this something very ordinary, but in Iraq it was news. The only people who are talking about women’s rights, apart from us, put it in a very artificial way. They mention equality, but at the same time they base their ideas on religious law, Sharia.
Our major regular task is our newspaper, Al Mousawat (which means Equality). The second is the women’s shelters. We always have problems there because the shelters are underfunded.
You have had two death threats against you from Islamists. What precautions do you take? How much does that restrict your activity?
Soon after the overthrow of Saddam a newspaper showed a picture of a Shia pilgrimage procession where the pilgrims had self-inflicted wounds. It showed the blood flowing down their faces. I wrote that it was a scene I did not want to see because I don’t think it is civilised. The printers were reluctant to print our newspaper because they could see the reaction coming.
Later in 2003 political Islamists pushed through resolution 137 in the Iraqi Interim Governing Council [reintroducing Sharia law for family matters]. Women activists came forward to object. Around 80 women’s groups demonstrated in Al-Firdous square in January 2004. Some of them did it in a very timid way. The slogans were toned down so as not to get them in danger. But our group called things the way they were.
I was not in Iraq at the time. I was travelling abroad. When I returned I did a seminar about Sharia, and went on TV many times to do interviews.
Then I got an email, written in very good Arabic — which meant it was by someone who has been to a religious school. It said that if I did not repent of my psychologically disturbed complexes, they would have to kill me. It was signed "Army of the Prophet’s Friends".
I had to go into hiding. I had a bodyguard with me already, but my bodyguard is a volunteer from the workers’ groups that I work with, and our abilities in that respect are very minimal. The second death threat came 19 days later. They threatened to send a mujahed with a bomb to blow up me "and the prostitutes around me". It was before International Women’s Day, and their aim was to make sure that we did not organise any celebration or gathering.
What are the main issues facing women in Iraq now?
The first priority is to survive. The moment you step onto the street, you are an immediate target just because you are female. If a woman goes out, she may be assaulted, she may be kidnapped. The gangsters are very organised. Ransom is becoming an everyday thing. A gang kidnaps a woman and they contact her family to ask for a fat ransom. Unfortunately, some families will ask whether anything sexual has happened to the woman. If it has, they won’t want her back.
Even apart from this the streets are not women-friendly. Many professional women who drive to and from work get insulted by men travelling around in pick-up trucks holding machine guns and wearing black from head to foot. Going out in the streets is scary. Many females have stopped going to school.
Political Islam is taking away women’s rights to education and equal access to work. But I would not say that it was created overnight after the war of 2003. Before that Saddam had been flirting with Islamists so as to gain some support and replace the old Arab nationalist support he used to have.
After two years of war in Iraq, a lot of people don’t want the Islamists around any more. At the same time the hatred towards the occupation has reached a level that we could not have foreseen in the first days after April 2003.
Some of us thought that the US occupation was just there for a limited time; then they would leave and we would just have the normal social and economic conflicts of any society. That turned out to be a false understanding. They are there to stay, and they are there to force on us a political formula that will keep us divided and push us towards civil war.
Our first priority now is to end the occupation, and then we must attract people to a secular agenda and marginalise the Islamists. It’s not something that can be done with machine-guns. The rest of the story, after ending the occupation, has to be worked on socially and politically. We have to win the people over.
Can it really be done in stages like that: first end the occupation, and then win people to secular politics? As you have said, the Islamists already have large forces and control the streets in many parts of the country.
The Americans threaten us on a daily basis. Big parts of Baghdad, Fallujah, and Mosul have been bombed, and masses of people killed. We are the only political group which has stood very strongly against the Islamists. We are willing to take it all the way. If it comes to a military clash, we will do that. But it’s not just that the Islamists have the guns, the funds, and the support from the Americans. They manipulate the masses into their social circles. If we are unable to attract people to a progressive, life-loving agenda, we can do nothing. We need to win over the masses.
In the Iraq Freedom Congress [initiative launched by the Worker-communist party of Iraq to group together broader forces], we are getting all the secularists together with two missions: first, ending the occupation, and second, moving towards a secular, non-ethnic, non-religious government. We made it very clear: anyone who has an Islamist agenda for the government is not acceptable in our circles. But if this occupation does not end, it is pointless to think of winning any other battle. The occupation is the magnet which is attracting political Islamists from all over the world. The "resistance" Islamists, which are the scariest, are getting stronger by using slogans like "kill the Americans". Traditionally, the enemy of American hegemony over the world was the Communists. Now the Iraqi Communist Party has let everybody down. Our agenda is to get the secularists together to work on ending the occupation and win over the young men who are vulnerable to the agenda of the Islamists.
By ending the occupation we don’t mean military clashes. The beginnings will be political, civil disobedience, scandalising them...
As for the Islamists who are working with the Americans, like Dawa and SCIRI, the social support for those parties is already diminishing.
To those who consider themselves leftists in the UK, I would say: you cannot be a leftist, you cannot consider yourself a socialist or a secularist, and support a far-right agenda. A far-right agenda in this country might be the Christian right. In our part of the world it is the Muslim right.
We are not a nationalist group. Ending the occupation as an aggression against national pride is not our objective. It is the communists’ opportunity to give strength to a group that represents the class struggle, to end the occupation through a movement where the centre of it is those communist forces who are the organisers of the labour force.
The objective is not just ending the occupation. It needs to be done by a workers’ movement.
But with the Iraqi Freedom Congress you seem, in effect, to be launching another political party — it says its aim is to be the government — which is like the Worker-communist Party of Iraq except without the worker-communism. Notionally it is a project for a liberal bourgeois party, but everyone can see that it is launched by the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, so in fact it’s no more than a campaign of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, occupying the political space which should be occupied by a systematic policy of united fronts.
The way we have been putting the councils for the IFC is that although the Worker-communist Party of Iraq is the spine of these councils, but it is no more than 25% of the leadership of this movement. Many in the central council are secular people who come from other parties. Some are intellectuals or liberal thinkers. But do you accept Islamists into that alliance? People who want to see an Islamic government? No.
Although we need to achieve intermediate successes by putting united fronts together, that must not make us lose our main objective of creating a secular and progressive system that is for the workers and for the women. We have been pressured to accept reactionary forces standing with us for some minute reform or demand here or there, but it is very hard to work with a reactionary group. If you compromise once, you are done for.
But in the dark scenario there is no other choice but to put together a group with ourselves as the spine but surrounded by a large number of secular intellectuals and people who simply want to live in a decent, civilised society. The Iraqi Freedom Congress is about ending the occupation and moving towards a secular and non-ethnic government which will write a secular constitution.
In the first meeting of the central council of the IFC we had five individuals from the Iraqi Communist Party — some of them had defected from the CP, some not — all of them older than us. We had four academics who are strong leftists. The IFC is a tool for getting to these leftist people and organising them towards an agenda which is uncompromising on women’s and workers’ rights. We are extending the agenda of worker-communism by reaching out to people who do not recognise themselves as worker-communists.
But the only force that can fight the occupation without strengthening the Islamists, and fight the Islamists without strengthening the occupation, is a self-organised working class. The working-class issues cannot be separated off as extra issues to be taken up narrowly while the broad IFC takes the other issues.
I agree, it is the workers who should be the base of this movement. But in this situation of insecurity and military conflict, we want to include all the society around us. If you have put in place an interim government for six months, and then hold an election, and the Worker-communist Party of Iraq is strong, those will be different times. Sistani will not win the majority of the votes.