By Qassim Khidhir*
In a historic decision, the Iraqi parliament passed a law on March 1 to provide reparations to survivors of Islamic State (IS) violence.
The law was “a victory for the victims of our daughters who have been subjected to the most heinous violations and crimes of ISIS genocide,” announced Iraqi President Barham Salih.
It was also a victory for Nazik Barakat, a Yazidi activist from Sinjar in Nineveh province who has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of women in her community who endured the IS occupation.
Key to her work has been the imperative that only by speaking publicly about these traumas would Iraqi society be able to overcome taboos around gender violence. This has been hugely difficult, given the issues of shame and social exclusion that still accompany survivors of sexual abuse.
Most recently, Barakat accompanied ten Yazidi women to Baghdad on January 28 testify to parliament about the abuse they had suffered at the hands of IS.
“Brave Yazidi women rescued from IS have been able to overcome a lot of taboos and restrictions only by deciding to share their tragic stories,” she said. “I know Muslim women from Nineveh who were forced to marry IS fighters against their will, and Turkmen Shia minority women who were also enslaved by IS, but no one knows their stories, because they are scared to speak.
“They think being a good woman means you must be silent.”
IWPR-trained activists in Iraqi continue supporting women to speak out and campaign on gender issues, amid traditions that still restrict their choices and personal freedoms.
One fundamental issue is that working outside the home is often deemed unacceptable by much of society. Jobs such as working in shops, restaurants or in the media were seen as somehow shameful, let alone involvement in local or national politics.
To counter such prejudice, Istabraq Al-Zubaidi, a young social media influencer from Diyala province, focuses on highlighting true life stories of local women’s achievement and empowerment. Herself a pathologist, she emphasises that women can take on a diverse array of roles in Iraqi society.
“I want to present an image that women are strong and capable of doing a lot of [different] work, that is why I am publishing stories about resilient women from Diyala,” Al-Zubaidi said.
She also criticised the role of traditional media in advocating for women’s rights.
“In Diyala, the media does not cover even two per cent of what women are going through,” she said.
This meant that women made appearances only in advertisements for makeup, food recipes and fashion, or in stories about domestic violence – but without any advocacy to raise awareness around combatting inequality and rights abuses.
Social media was therefore a good avenue for introducing new narratives, she continued, although in the past women were afraid to be visible on social media; even having a Facebook profile was not only taboo but presented a possible danger to their lives.
Al-Zubaidi’s goal was to gradually break wider societal prejudice, she continued. “What I am trying to do is not only to make women feel proud, but also to make the families of the women proud that there are strong women living among them.”
In the process, however, she came in for a lot of abuse herself.
“I am bullied almost on a daily basis, sometimes I feel isolated even from my own relatives. Several times I was very close to quit working as an activist,” she said.
Men also face barriers in promoting gender equality. Omar Al-Alwani, a male activist in Anbar province, said that he was guaranteed to get abuse when he published stories about such issues.
“Whenever I write about women’s rights, taboos around women, I get a lot of complaints from religious and tribal people, they accuse me of breaking up families and promoting ideas and traditions that are against Islamic values,” he said.
Al-Alwani warned that conservative elements in Iraqi society were doing their best to clamp down on any progress for women’s rights.
“When IS was defeated, religious and tribal leaders lost a lot of their powers,” he continued. “But now, with politicians’ support, they are getting stronger each day, especially as the country is getting closer to elections. Now they can easily interfere and have a say in every aspect of life and individual freedoms.”
International aid efforts supporting humanitarian efforts in Anbar often missed the point when it came to supporting gender equality, he continued, adding, “They should work to promote women participation in business and politics instead of the stereotypical classical workshops for women such as sewing, cooking and makeup.”
This article was published by IWPR