For the first time since the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, women in the country are celebrating International Women’s Day, in a way that is reminiscent of the celebrations that their own mothers and grandmothers might have witnessed. Finally, after an absence that was intended to last, women have returned to participating in public life.
Under the slogans “Protesting for my rights” and “I want a homeland” women chanted alongside the men for the right to regain public space in the squares and on the streets of their homeland. Their mothers and grandmothers helped to build the squares and streets from the 1920s onwards in the modern state. Now they have been demonstrating since last October to liberate their homeland from the US-Iranian occupation under the guise of democracy or religion. Women’s presence, attendance and ability to build the nation are currently, as in the past, determined by their struggle and by developing their abilities together with the men. The poet Jamil Sidqi Al-Zahawi was among the first to shed light on women’s situation. His article “Women and their defence”, published in August 1910, and his poetry, attacked the community’s backwardness in the name of religion, calling on women to fight for their right to freedom.
It is no wonder that more than a hundred years later, Iraqi women are taking to the streets again to call for their liberty and continue their revolution against politicians who are united by a combination of service to the occupier, corruption and using religion with increasing ignorance to prevent women from working alongside men as they demand independence, freedom and dignity. This has often been the experience of people living under colonial occupation. Women have participated in defiance of anyone directing tired, ready-made accusations at them, such as happened with the “master” recently; Muqtada Al-Sadr claimed that the women’s participation was a display of “nudity, promiscuity, drunkenness, immorality and debauchery”. He even went as far as to say that it was rife with infidelity, a violation of the foundations of Sharia and divine religions, and an infringement upon the prophets and messengers. All of this after women have studied, graduated and excelled during a period facilitated by the ability of everyone to work together, without discrimination, in order to build the future of Iraq across all levels of science, technology and culture.
The girls went out wearing the Iraqi flag to celebrate the unity of their homeland, against sectarianism, looting and bogus democracy established upon electoral fraud. They protested against women merely being a means for others to sit in parliament and against the violation of their dignity every time they go to a government institution. They protested against women being arrested, tortured, accused of prostitution and threatened with rape if they raise their voice to object. They protested against the official solution for a million widows needing help being the granting of the men’s allowance to take a second wife rather than empowering the women themselves, providing social care and providing work opportunities in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
We should celebrate with all women all over the world, say the Arab women. Let us join the world on a day of joy that we desperately need, not to alienate ourselves from or abandon our religion and our heritage, but out of the desire for women in the Arab countries to be at the same civilisational level as women everywhere, as long as they believe in justice, equality and human dignity.
Women in Arab countries, from Palestine to Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Lebanon and beyond need, in the midst of their struggle, to survive or obtain more than the basics; to be given the opportunity to take a breath and recharge their strength, exhausted as they are by daily life, the struggle with the past, imposed wars and the fight against all forms of occupation. Sometimes they need to fight in order not to lose what their mothers and grandmothers achieved over the generations. They deserve to be honoured and celebrated while they continue to live and struggle in a region embroiled in 40 per cent of the wars and conflicts taking place in the world today.
Let us celebrate the steadfastness of Palestinian women, who give us hope, wherever we are. They are the embodiment of the Arab woman, the woman of all struggles combined. They carry all before them with their presence, resistance and beauty, as they stay defiantly in their homeland determined to live a full life. We do not need to mention that they also carry an acute sense of belonging and identity.
Let us celebrate, say the women detainees and political prisoners, in defiance of the occupation and the oppressive local authorities. Both want to silence their voices and bury their opinions, marginalising or denying their existence. The oppressors want to turn them into mute machines who respond to what they demand with neither a voice nor a presence.
“Isn’t today Eid?” wondered the Tunisian fighter, Awatef Al-Muzghni, in prison, which the Ben Ali regime made home to those who opposed his authoritarian regime. In her writing published in Notebooks of Salt: Tunisian writings on the experience of political imprisonment she tells us how she decided, after she wiped her tears with the back of her hand, to regain her voice and determination and to celebrate the holiday along with her fellow prisoners. She decided to do so in order for the occasion not to pass without her celebrating it, leaving herself and the others as the victims of pain. She wanted them to have fun, even if for a few hours, with their children and families, chanting the Eid takbeers. They got what they wanted as, just minutes later, the prison hall was filled with Eid celebrations.
Let the celebration of International Women’s Day be a reminder of the millions of women who have been forced to leave their homes, as a result of an invasion, bombing or militia barbarism. In Syria, Yemen and Iraq, and before them in Palestine, they were forcibly displaced and they did not know what the coming days would bring for them and their families. They did not know that overnight they would be displaced in countries providing them with tents one moment and trading their lives the next. They escaped the danger in their countries only to face danger in places no less harsh and cruel than their own countries. They remain without any rights and are physically exiled, and so they fight to maintain their humanity.
“Happy International Women’s Day to you and our country” is the message I received from a Palestinian warrior, referring to the new generation of female Iraqi protestors demanding a homeland. This is how Arab women exchange greetings on International Women’s Day. It is a unique style among women of the world who usually content themselves with wishing one another a happy day. In doing so, they summarise an affirmation of cohesion between personal and public aspirations and the meaning of existence that is associated with the existence of a homeland.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 10 March 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.