Iraq is in the middle of a crisis again. In the past year alone, the UN estimates that 8,868 people, including 7,818 civilians, have been killed in violent attacks across the country. Which makes it important to hear what the Iraqi activist and author Haifa Zangana has to say. Because, as in any war, the majority of victim survivors are always women and children — whether as refugeess or survivors scraping to put their life together again. And yet, women's voices are seldom heard from that tortured land.
Ten years on, says Haifa, Operation Iraqi Freedom has left its women in a terrible state of regression. She rattles off the statistics — of the 650,000 casualties, thousands are women; the Iraqi Red Crescent estimates that two thirds of those displaced are women and children, and there are roughly two million widows and five million orphans today. Almost 92 per cent of Iraqi children suffer from learning impediments.
When I first met Haifa some years ago in London, she was busy with the international people's tribunal on Iraq. Over the years, this tiny Kurdish Iraqi woman with salt-and-pepper locks has deepened her activism. Involved in university politics in Baghdad when Saddam Hussein ruled with his small Sunni clique, she was imprisoned, abused, and had to finally leave the country for Syria and, eventually, London. She returned in 2005, after Hussein was overthrown.
It all started with the Iran-Iraq war, she says. As the men went away to war, the women had to come forward to care for families. “Today, the main concerns for Iraqi women remain security, health service, and employment. There is a general feeling of fear of what tomorrow might bring. Women and girls are bearers of the devastating effects of the civil war raging now.”
Haifa has documented Iraq's suffering in her numerous books: political repression under Saddam Hussein in Through the Vast Halls of Memory; repression of Kurds in Halabja, and the effects of sanctions on Iraqi women in Beyond Sanctions: Women's Voices on Iraq. After the first Gulf War broke out, she co-founded the group Act Together: Women Against Sanctions and the War on Iraq.
She recounts a typical day for an average Iraqi woman which begins with the struggle to get basic necessities — electricity, gas, water, food and medicine — for her family, and ends with a sigh of relief at making it through the day amidst death threats, violent attacks, and kidnap attempts.
“Women have been caught between the destruction of war and the feudalist and sectarian policies promoted by the political class empowered since 2003,” she says.
Most of Iraq's million-plus widows head their households, yet only 120,000 are estimated to receive State aid. A widow's monthly aid is $85, while the average monthly rent is $210. The Iraqi government has also stopped paying allowances for men injured or disabled and widows of the Iraq-Iran war, leaving those families destitute.
Iraqi women are suffering in another peculiar way — being imprisoned in lieu of their menfolk who have been identified as terror suspects — a form of collective punishment imposed on the entire household, says Haifa. Some of them have been tortured and/or raped. When the women relatives of prisoners go to the detention centres to enquire about their welfare, they are often asked for sexual favours, or money running into thousands of dollars.
But Haifa has not lost hope. In India, on an invitation from Women Unlimited, she claimed that the Arab Spring actually began in Iraq: “It is rarely reported that Iraqis have been gathering every Friday since December 2012 in five major provinces in an organically grown non-violent resistance, born immediately after the occupation of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.”
The first demonstration by approximately 200 people took place in Fallujah on April 28, 2013, outside the Al-Qaaed primary school, demanding that occupation troops vacate the building to ensure children could go back to school. US troops fired on the peaceful demonstrators, killing 17 and wounding 70. The second non-violent demonstration took place two days later, to protest the killings. Another massacre followed. “What started as a peaceful act in Fallujah ended with the destruction of much of the city and killings of 800 people.” Ultimately, “it was Fallujah that led to the subsequent military withdrawal and the re-structuring of the US presence in Iraq and the Middle East in general”, she contends.
Fallujah is again at the centre of a bloody battle between government forces and suspected Al Qaeda militants. “The occupation's brutality, its dependence on client parties and sectarian politics, the collapse of the State, the bloodshed, and atmosphere of terror — all these have contributed to the fast decline in citizenship rights,” she says. This was certainly not the Iraq of her childhood or youth, where inter-sect marriages were common, and minorities such as Christians were safe.
And how are Iraqi women coping with the current sectarian divide? “Most Iraqi women do not regard traditional society, exemplified by the neighbourhood and extended family, however restrictive at times, as the enemy,” she says. “The enemy … is the rise of sectarian, corrupt political parties enforcing their interpretation of Islam on women.” She points out that the Minister for Women's Affairs in the current government was the only woman minister, but without a portfolio. It was “a token department with hardly any budget”. The 25 per cent of representation for women in Parliament is cosmetic, representing merely the sectarian and corrupt agenda of the political parties. For instance, not a single woman Member of Parliament has spoken out against the practice of arresting women in lieu of their menfolk, she says.
As a writer and artist, she tries to focus the attention of the international community, especially civil society, on all this. As a founding member of Tadhamun: Iraqi Women Solidarity, she is documenting the creative expressions of various communities in the country.
She continues to write, documenting the effects of the war and amplifying the voice of unheard Iraqis to the world. Finally, she is active in the world tribunals on Iraq, with the next hearing scheduled in Brussels in April. “The tribunals are very important …it's a way of reclaiming democracy by the people and for the people.”