Breaking down barriers and pushing for independence

Women dressed in black carrying placards and Iraqi flags demonstrating on Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq in 2019
Large numbers of women took to the streets and Baghdad's Tahrir Square for anti-government protests in Iraq in 2019 (image: Birgit Svensson)

After two incredibly tough decades for women since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it is now cool to be young and female in Iraq. A report from Baghdad

By Birgit Svensson

It's like looking at paintings in a gallery. The faces of the women here this evening are like works of art. The Iraqi Women Journalists Forum is hosting a gala in the city's most expensive hotel to celebrate its members and other women journalists from across the Arab world. The Iraqi women present have donned their most beautiful dresses and likely spent hours in front of the mirror. Femininity is wanted here — in journalism too.

Although men are also invited to the party, women are in the majority this evening. Even the miniature bronze trophy that will be presented to the award-winning women journalists in the course of the evening was inspired by a woman: Atwar Bahjat was an Iraqi journalist and reporter for the Dubai-based television station Al-Arabiya.

She was kidnapped and murdered while reporting on the al-Qaida attack on the Shia al-Askari mosque in Samarra in 2006. The attack triggered a bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shias. The capital, Baghdad, was hit particularly hard and is only now recovering slowly from the hostilities.

The Atwar Bahjat Prize is awarded annually on International Women's Day to women journalists from Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and, of course, Iraq, who show courage and fearlessness in their work. 

A group of musicians perform on stage in front of a screen showing the statuette of a woman in a darkened room in front of people sitting at round tables
The Atwar Bahjat Prize is awarded annually on International Women's Day to women journalists from Arab countries who show courage and fearlessness in their work (image: Birgit Svensson)

Journalism is still 'trying to find its place in Iraq'

"When we started the forum as a network for women journalists 13 years ago, there were ten or twelve of us," says chairwoman Nibras Al Mamory, who herself worked as a journalist for television and print media for 32 years. The German Embassy sponsored workshops and training events, most recently in 2020, and the US Committee to Protect Journalists provided support. Today, the forum is part of the UN Women programme and has over 400 registered members, women who are actively working in Iraqi journalism across the country.

Campaigns to raise awareness about violence against women, child marriage and freedom of expression in Iraq are now an integral part of the forum's activities – as is the publication of a periodical called Sawtuha (her voice). 

The only male speaker of the evening, Mujahed Aboalhail, of the state-run Commission for Media and Communication, praised the forum's activities and the progress made by women in Iraq.

He noted that it is now par for the course to see a woman's face on television or hear a woman's voice on the radio. At the same time, Aboalhail stressed that journalism in general is still trying to find its place in Iraq. There are virtually no independent media in the country. Instead, media are either aligned with a political party or religious group. In this respect, the situation is no different for men than for women.

Feminist graffiti featuring the words "we're unstoppable" and "Iraq" and the Irawi flag n a wall in Iraq
After Iraq was liberated from IS in 2017, a counter-movement began: 'Ever since, the influence of the religious has been steadily declining, divorce rates rising rapidly and women pushing for independence,' writes Birgit Svensson (image: Birgit Svensson)

Goal: gender equality in the media

Nibras Al Mamory says that the primary goal of the forum's work is gender equality in the media, which, she says, is still a very long way off. "Women are under much more pressure than men; they have to fight more." When asked about the close links between Iraqi journalism and politics or religious groups, she says that the discussion about the dependence of Iraqi media has yet to take place. 

Anita Arshagian, an Iraqi woman with Armenian roots, cannot imagine working as a journalist. She worked as an English–Arabic interpreter when the forum invited foreign trainers to its workshops. "Journalists are constantly exposed to criticism on social media," she says. Women in particular, she says, face constant criticism.

Rawan Al Zaidi also finds the pressure on women journalists extreme and made a conscious decision to avoid it. Born in the Karrada district of Baghdad, 26-year-old Rawan got a job at an Iraqi television station after completing her studies. "But as a woman in journalism, you face constant criticism from all quarters," she says of the situation in her country. She was unable – and unwilling – to put up with it, she says, and decided to be an entrepreneur instead. 

Hard-working and successful

Rawan founded a company that is reforesting the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, a region that has been severely affected by climate change. The trees her company is planting are date palms. Iraq is famous for its palm trees, which can be found on coats of arms, business cards, company logos and flags up and down the country. 

Once upon a time, the best dates in the world came from Mesopotamia. But those days are long gone. Today, the roads are lined with dead palm forests. Rawan wants to change all that. In 2018, she hit on the idea of planting millions of palm trees in her native country, thus improving Iraq's CO2 balance, and decided to turn the idea into a business.

It all began with a bank loan. "I wanted to cover the entire chain: from planting to harvesting right up to the consumer," she says. An in-depth knowledge of the properties of the soil in different regions, water requirements and the right irrigation are prerequisites for good palm growth. 

"We take care of the palms from A to Z," she says. Al Nakhla (the palm tree), as Rawan calls her company, now employs 50 people and operates right across the country: from Diwaniya and Kut in the south to Mosul in the north. Mosul, she says, used to have a much cooler climate, but the city has got warmer as a result of climate change. 

"Today, we can plant date palms there too," she says. In 2022, Rawan won the Austria Energy Globe Award, Austria's most important environmental prize, for her sustainable work in the field of climate protection. 

Rawan Al Zaidi, dressed in pale grey with a red headscarf sits in a grey wickerwork chair and smiles
In 2022, Rawan Al Zaidi won the Austria Energy Globe Award, Austria's most important environmental prize, for her sustainable work in the field of climate protection (image: Birgit Svensson)

A regression in women's status and rights

It has been a roller-coaster ride for Iraqi women over the last 20 years. Although Saddam Hussein's dictatorship did not specifically target women, it targeted anyone who questioned his authority and power. Those who did were mercilessly persecuted – including women. Nevertheless, many say that women had more rights in society under the tyrant than in the intervening period.

After the religious hardliners won elections, entered parliament, formed a government and filled the power vacuum in the wake of the US invasion in 2003, it was women who suffered the most.

Exiled Iraqis who returned from Iran and introduced the customs of the Shia mullahs turned the southern city of Basra into a city of "penguins" – women cloaked in black abaya and black veils with white headbands. Even Christian women eventually succumbed to the pressure and began covering themselves in black garments. 

The Sunni extremists of al-Qaida further tightened the rules for women. Driving was no longer permitted, and the showing of any bare skin at all became absolutely taboo. Even portrayals of Inana, the goddess of the ancient Sumerians 5,000 years ago, who is generally depicted naked, was covered up or removed from public places such as museums or the foyer of the Ministry of Culture.

IS terror and domestic violence

Books and other publications were scrutinised for religious content and illustrations and often taken off the market. Some women were so intimidated by this new situation that they didn't leave the house for months on end. Then came the terror of the Islamic State (IS) militia – which Iraqis called al-Qaida 2.0 – which further aggravated the situation for everyone.

But women didn't just suffer from the violence of the Islamic extremists. Domestic violence also increased during this period. The liberation from IS in 2017 was, therefore, also a very special relief for women. A counter-movement began.

Ever since, the influence of the religious has been steadily declining, divorce rates rising rapidly and women pushing for independence. More and more of them are working, more and more are removing their veils permanently, want to live alone and are questioning authority. Even if the protest movement that drove masses of young Iraqis – male and female alike – onto the streets in 2019 and 2020 failed, the revolution within society continues. Rawan is just one of many.

Nibras Al Mamory (left) and a woman in a pale pink headscarf stand at a table
Nibras Al Mamory (left), chairwoman of the Iraqi Women Journalists Forum, says that the primary goal of the forum's work is gender equality in the media (image: Birgit Svensson)

Successful Iraqi women are inspiring others

There is Alaa, a fashion designer, who has set up her own label, owns a workshop and a studio and now employs five people. Or Ghada, who runs the largest media company in Iraq and has become a role model for many women. 

Or Heidi, who at the age of 24 is currently Iraq's most sought-after female solo violinist and is not only in the spotlight at concerts, but also very active on social media. And last but not least, Suhad, who is breaking down barriers with her cultural centre in Basra in southern Iraq because she is committed to dialogue between the sexes.

There are many more examples of strong and influential women in Iraq. Being a woman and young in Iraq is currently cool. Successful women are courted, presented with awards by old politicians and dignitaries, cheered by young Iraqis and celebrated as icons. Fusty old organisations are reinventing themselves with women's committees; chat groups for women are springing up all over the place – as are women's events for almost every profession. 

Women's rights activists such as the writer Nazik Al Malaika (1923–2007), who was born 100 years ago in Baghdad, are experiencing a rare renaissance. Everyone who is anyone in Iraq at the moment – even those who for years had a reputation for oppressing women – attend an evening dedicated to her memory in Baghdad.

Birgit Svensson

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