Rahbiya Mohammed Latif

BAGHDAD (WOMENSENEWS)–Yanar Mohammed came back to her homeland after seven years in exile in Canada for a purpose: to lobby for a pluralistic and secular government that puts women on top of its agenda.

Mohammed is leading the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, a new group eager to play a role in the nation’s political future. As a member of Iraq’s Worker’s Communist Party, she is also one among many women struggling toinclude her voice in the hodge-podge of factions vying for power in the country now run by the United States.

Women in Iraq are nervously anticipating the formation of a new government. As the euphoria of change wears off and they contemplate an uncertain future, they are debating how much of a role religion should have in the government. While many urban educated women are lobbying for a secular government, many others say an Islamic state may provide the safety and respect they want.

“In the last couple of months, political Islamic groups have forced themselves into society and given orders that everyone needs to veil,” Mohammed said in an interview at the headquarters of the communist party.

An Islamic State Wanted for Safety

“They have gone into schools demanding that girls only stay there up to the sixth grade,” says Om Feras, the mother of four children and a full-time homemaker. She and her female neighbors, who all wear the Islamic headscarf, gather often in each other’s homes and debate the political landscape of Iraq.

“I prefer an Islamic government because crimes will be less, people will be afraid of God and behave well and will not be aggressive with each other,” she said. “But we want a moderate Islamic government that doesn’t force us to wear hijab (headscarf) or Islamic dress for women or force things on us, but gives us the choice.”

Regardless of their political leaning, the women interviewed say they are glad the Baathist regime has fallen. Under the former regime, women who make up half of the city’s 5.6 million residents, made up 40 percent of the military and received equal pay in the workplace. But even though they enjoyed freedoms under the Baathist regime that women in many other Islamic countries do not, Rahbiya Mohammed Latif, the head of the Iraqi Women’s League, argues that the lack of human rights overshadowed all else.

The league she heads has 50 members and has been active since 1952. Members worked undercover during the former regime to help women overcome financial, political and social conflicts. They aided many women whose husbands were political prisoners. Recently, they have participated in demonstrations for the speedy formation of a new government and met with other women’s and political groups.

Latif, 61, was jailed when she was 21 and tortured for six years for her connection to the Iraqi Communist Party, a moderate rival of the radical Worker’s Communist Party. Now, after U.S.-led coalition forces ousted Saddam Hussein, anything seems possible to Latif, still a communist and women’s rights activist. Her experience in Hussein’s prisons has made her a fighter.

She describes life inside the prison. “There was hanging upside down from the electric fan; there was beating by thick cables; there was torture by electric shocks and fingernail extractions.”

When she was released, Latif continued to work against the government with the league. The Baathists, who seized power in 1968, implemented reforms breaking away from Islamic traditions through the Iraqi Women’s Federation. Each province had representatives who investigated cases of abuse against women and lobbied for a gender-sensitive interpretation of national laws.

Secular and Islamic Groups Vie for Power

But men ran the state apparatus and filled most of the senior management positions as Iraq remained a largely patriarchal society. The Americans dissolved the federation and a new, rather disorganized, Iraqi women’s union is forming under U.S. guidance. The union is planning a conference for July. Meanwhile, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a popular Shiite-led Islamist group, seeks to establish a women’s committee separate from U.S.-led coalition forces. Many of the religious groups competing for a seat in the new government are likely to require women to cover their heads. Now and during the old regime, women here have had the choice to wear the Islamic headdress.

“We want a clear distinction between religion and state,” Latif said from the Iraqi Women’s League’s makeshift sparse office. “We are demanding that security be preserved. We are looking for and finding those who were executed and jailed during the dictatorship. And we are demanding a women’s conference to deal with women’s and children’s rights,” she said.

The returning exile Mohammed criticizes Latif’s organization for compromising its secular stance to avoid upsetting Islamic groups. Mohammed says Latif’s organization is too soft on Islamic radicals and only pays lip service to secular ideology. Latif, however, insists that the only way to avoid another dictatorship is to elect a pluralistic government representing all religions and ethnic groups in Iraq.

The most urgent issue for women, whether secular or Islamist, however is safety. The fear of abductions and harassment is keeping many women in the house and distant from public debate.

Atta al-Wahab is trained in agricultural husbandry. The mother of two daughters is eager to get out and become part of the reconstruction work in her country. But she’s afraid. “I want to go back to work but not in this condition. We’re all waiting for safety to return,” she said.

Sahar Jalil Mohammed, a 38-year-old divorcee with two small children, says that no matter what type of government fills Hussein’s place, women will not be considered equal in this country. Sexist attitudes overshadow equality laws and traditions against women rarely change, she said. She has custody of her children under Baathist laws, but in Iraq, being divorced is shameful. Mohammed is staying clear of political debates.

“I want to run away from my life,” she says. “Our social behavior is not like yours. Here in Iraq, it’s very difficult. They see the divorced woman as not good,” Mohammed said. She says the only way she will obtain her rights is to live in the West.

Fariba Nawa is a freelance journalist who writes often about women and Islam.

For more information:

Women for a Free Iraq:

Statement of Founding: Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq: