Women and the Iraqi Uprising – Zahra Ali

Zahra Ali, Rutgers University

Since the US-led invasion, women in Iraq have been at the forefront of civil society activism, from social and humanitarian mobilisations to advocacy campaigns around women’s legal and political rights. Women activists also played a significant role in the emergence of massive protest movements since 2011 denouncing the ethno-sectarian system put in place after the US invasion in 2003, corruption and armed violence.

However, it is not the established and experienced activists who played a role in the uprising that erupted in October 2019, but ‘ordinary’ women. In fact, it is the massive participation of women that turned what could have been another wave of protests, such as the ones the country experienced in 2015 and 2018, into an uprising. While remarkable, this participation is not surprising, it only makes visible deep societal realities and transformations that have found their space of expression in the Iraqi streets and squares of protest.

Reclaiming public space

In October 2019, a massive movement of protest spread across the country, developing mainly in Iraq’s Shi‘a-dominated central and southern provinces, including cites such as Najaf, Karbala, Nasryia and Basra. While initially launched by youth and the disenfranchised, the uprising was quickly joined by people from diverse backgrounds. Unions, syndicates and students’ organisations have been on strike and have called for civil disobedience for months. One of the remarkable features of the uprising is the strong presence of women, especially young women aligning with the uprising unifying slogans ‘Enrid watan’ (‘We want a country’) and ‘Nazel akhuz hakki’(‘I am coming down to take my right’). They occupied Tahrir square in Baghdad and main squares in several cities, and established their miniature society for over a year.

Since at least the 1990s, wars and harsh economic sanctions impacted heavily on Iraqi women who had to carry the society’s livelihood and survival on their shoulders, as head of their households, workers and caretakers. Decades of wars and economic hardship also turned public spaces into militarised and male dominated spaces. Women are taking back public space in marching, demonstrating, occupying, organising and making them-selves visible and loud whether in the frontline facing Iraqi security forces’ brutality, or in their artwork decorating the squares of protests, and taking care of the wounded protesters, cooking and cleaning.

Young women and men are also creating a new ‘ordinary’ that challenges social hierarchies and societal norms including class and gender divisions. In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a young middle-class woman from al-Mansur befriend a working-class young man from Medinat al-Sadr. Lovers hold hands facing security forces live bullets. The everyday gender mixing is accepted and does not entail sexual harassment or disapproval.

In these spaces a new social fabric is woven through collective organising, the Iraqi society meet, negotiate and build new societal bonds and norms: where the uneducated poor is equal with the educated middle class, where men and women, young and old meet, share a common space and build a common movement. The protesters are, in effect, establishing new ‘state forms’ by providing free health and education services, street cleaning and re-paintings, as well as the restoration of public monument and beautification of public spaces through original art and design.

Since the beginning of the uprising, over 700 unarmed protesters, mainly young men, were killed by live bullets or tear gas canisters used by the Iraqi security forces and their attendant militias, over 25 000 wounded and hundreds kidnapped and disappeared. Lethal violence and intimidation reinforced protesters’ determination as honoring the martyrs of the uprising quickly became one of its main mantra. One of the early martyrs and important figure of the protests Safaa al-Sarai used to be ‘Son of Thanwa’ in reference to his mother Thanwa instead of referring to him as his father’s son. ‘Son of Thanwa’ is now a name commonly used to describe protesters and many of them use surnames that refer to their mother instead of their father’s names.

 The uprising goes beyond narrow political demands, protesters are not only questioning economic and political oppression exercised through corruption, nepotism and discrimination, they are also questioning the system’s social and societal norms imposing a normative and conservative way of life. Through the slogan ‘We want a country’ Iraqis demand social and economic justice, functioning state services and institutions such as health care and education, housing, employment and what is needed to live a good life. They also demand freedom, freedom not be killed for the religion or sect they belong to or refuse to identify with, freedom of being religious or not, freedom to dress as they please, and circulate across social and sectarian borders, freedom to be different.

‘A Woman’s Voice is a Revolution’

While the scale and level of this participation is remarkable, it is not surprising. One of the first demonstration organised in post-2003 Iraq was a women’s right protest against the Shi‘a political elite’s attempt to question the basis of their legal rights, the Personal Status Code[i]. Just a few months after the US invasion, the Shi‘a Islamist political elite, brought to power by the US administration and its allies, attempted to put in place a sectarian-based code instead of the one in place gathering Sunni and Shi‘a jurisprudence. While this attempt was blocked by feminists’ mobilisations, Shi‘a Islamist parties are constantly renewing their attempt to adopt a sectarian and conservative Personal Status Code, their last attempt being the Ja‘fari Law proposition.

The post-2003 system is ‘sextarian’ as defined by the feminist scholar Maya Mikdashi[ii] in the sense that the muhasasa system is not only based on ethnic, religious and sectarian difference, but it is also based on sexual difference. Sectarianism is gendered, identity politics are being played on gender norms and relations, especially on women’s bodies. If conservative gender politics already started during the sanctions with the Ba’th regime’s Faith Campaign, the exacerbation of social, economic and political fragmentation since 2003 and the nature of the political elite that came to power created extreme forms of social control and conservatisms.

Patriarchal sectarian religious forces not only dominate the political sphere, but also the streets through their armed groups and militias. The sectarian war of 2006-2007 and the Islamic State invasion in 2014 represented extreme forms of a sectarian and gender violence. The sextarian system asserts its power through a sectarian and heteronormative frame, visible through imposing strict dress codes for women, as well as for men, and limit both sectarian and gender mixing.

It is clear in the nature of the repression exercised by the Iraqi political establishment that is trying through their media channels and social media campaigns to undermine the uprising in portraying it as ‘immoral’. Protesters are accused of being sexually corrupt and depraved and all kinds of rumors are spread around supposedly ‘illicit’ behavior happening among the youth under the tents set in protests’ squares. The repression targets women, especially young women. Militia violence is used to prevent women’s participation in spreading fear and terror, kidnapping protesters such as Saba Mahdawi and Mari Mohammed or in killing them in the case of Sara Taleb and her husband ‘Adel and Reham Yaacoob in al Basra or Zahraa Ali in Baghdad.

Women are also being attacked on social media. The hashtag #بناتك_ياوطن “Your Young Women Oh Country) launched for the women’s protest of February 13th 2020 was turned into #عاهراتك_ياوطن ‘Your Whores Oh Country’. On the wall of the tunnel leading to Tahrir Square, and on signs held by young women during the protests, the following sentence can be read ‘Women of the October Uprising are revolutionaries not Whores’.

Protesters are not only asking for change, they are enacting it and living it, proposing new codes of conduct and building an inclusive sense of coexistence. Women participating to the uprising are diverse: from the uneducated middle-aged mother in her black ‘abaya cooking for the protesters to the sophisticated middle-class student leading debates on the reform of the electoral law. Young women from conservative families and those who challenge dominant dress code. All share a common space, elaborate strategies and organise the weekly protests. They chant together “No, no, no, don’t say it’s shameful, a woman’s voice is a revolution” aware of the subversive nature of their very presence.

Expanding the feminist imagination

The uprising produced an alternative space to the dominant post-2003 space characterised by warfare, violence and patriarchal domination. One of the consequences is how this different transgressive space blurs the lines and hierarchies between demands addressing government and electoral politics and ‘the right to have curly hair’. It is both in the collective corporeal occupation of outdoor spaces as much as in the cyberspaces that the lines and hierarchies between what are often deemed as ‘political’ and ‘societal’ are challenged. It is in this sense that the practices and mobilisations of the uprising can be described as emancipated and political.

The madaniyya (civicness) put forward in the uprising consists of ordinary people establishing a peaceful miniature society accepting of various esthetics and forms, providing essential services, and open to diverse opinions and beliefs. The space created by the uprising is thus a challenge to necropolitics. It offered the blossoming of life forms and an enjoyment of social life disconnected from utilitarian consumption. It is in many ways similar to how Henri Lefebvre has described la Commune de Paris, the uprising is a big celebration, a space where life is enjoyed[iii].

The gender and sexual dimensions of the uprising are central, and the sextarian and heteropatriarchal repression of the political establishment was challenged in many ways from anti-sexist slogans to women’s marches. Women’s massive corporeal presence in itself represented a questioning of sextarianism which relies on sectarian and sexual divisions. Women have not differed from men and members of different social groups bound to class, education and profession in justifying their participation in the uprising by the goal of ‘honoring the martyrs’. All of this can be seen as revealing both the existence of gender and sexual divisions as well as emancipated forms of dissent, in the sense of Jacque Rancière[iv], that are not simply bound to their identity as women.


[i] See Ali Z. (2018) Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation. Cambridge University Press.

[ii] See Mikdashi, M. (2018) ‘Sextarianism: Notes on studying the Lebanese state’, in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Middle Eastern and North African History, edited by Amal Ghazal & Jens Hanssen. Oxford: Oxford Handbooks Online. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199672530.013.42.

[iii] See Lefebvre H. (1965) La Proclamation de la Commune. 26 mars 1871. Paris : Gallimard.

[iv]  See Rancière. J. (1987) Le maître ignorant. Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle. Paris : Fayard.

Zahra Ali is a sociologist and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, author of Women and Gender in Iraq: between Nation-building and Fragmentation (Cambridge University Press, 2018)



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