When you meet an extraordinary person, it can be in the most mundane of places. Our interview with Houzan Mahmoud, of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), a socialist-feminist activist, was carried out in a softly-lit, sleek little café, not far from Hampstead station.
Houzan was born in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1973; she is a socialist and campaigner for women’s rights in Kurdistan, Iraq and the Middle East.
A striking woman, with lots of beautiful, dark hair, sharp eyes, and a loud, happy laugh, there is something about Houzan that makes you recognise her as someone unique from the moment you meet her.
When we first met, the conversation was light, and jovial, and Houzan introduced us to her daughter, an intelligent girl not unlike her mother.
Despite the niceties and pleasantness of being in her company, we were well aware that sat in front of us was a woman who set out to try and change one of the most corrupt, war-torn and impoverished countries in the world.
Before we started, coffees and colas were ordered, and brought swiftly by a tired looking waiter. I set aside spare knives and forks to rearrange space for my writing pad. At the time, I found it strange to think we were about to be plunged, through Houzan’s eyes, into the darkness of women’s lives under occupation, while sitting in such quaint surroundings.
But as Houzan began to talk, and explain the difficulties and triumphs of being a part of an organisation that so many women living under such harsh conditions rely on, we are introduced into the true horror the imprints of dictatorship and war left upon the women of Iraq.
How did OWFI begin?
OWFI was formed in June, 2003, three months after the invasion of Iraq in March. That’s eight and a half years ago.
Under Saddam, there was no way of forming any women’s organisations, trade unions, or any other group independently. Under Saddam, they were controlled by the Ba’ath Party.
Saddam did form a women’s organisation called the General Union of Iraqi Women, but this was heavily monitored by the government.
When we set up OWFI, we were just several women who worked from exile, involved in political campaigns. That’s where I got to meet Yanar Mohammed (president of OWFI) when she was working in Canada. We got to know each other through our activism.
We formed a coalition of women’s rights in Iraq, before the invasion. In this coalition, there were meant to be women in London aiding us in our activity, but they became too close to the British agenda. Yanar went back to Iraq, and I became a representative of OWFI here in the UK.
Are there any other women’s organisations in Iraq?
There are hundreds across the country, from liberal women’s groups to Islamists and conservative women’s groups. However, in my opinion, there are two main types.
There are ones which are based on neo-liberal principles, which become enterprises without any political motivation, and ones like OWFI.
OWFI is different. It incorporates left ideals. Other groups and societies take western money, particularly US and UK government funds, and follow liberal agendas removed from helping women, wasting money and time to “educate” Iraqi women and engage them in the process of transition to so called democracy, i.e. voting, and participating in parliament.
We take an active approach in actually helping them and trying to change society by making women aware of their oppression and status in society.
Who joins OWFI?
We are not dogmatic. You don’t have to be 100% socialist to join. Our purpose isn’t to indoctrinate women into Marxist theory; we want to raise awareness of women’s positions and subjugation in the male dominated society!
We have young girls, older women, veiled women, and unveiled women… all sorts of females united to fight for women’s freedom!
There are women, however, particularly the younger ones, who enjoy the atmosphere of secularist and socialist views.
Some become interested in the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, and want to know more. They join out of their own interest. We do not actively recruit them.
I personally don’t find it impressive or clever to ask people to join organisations I belong to. I have respect for people and if you are an adult then you can make your own decision about joining groups or not!
[Houzan said this very firmly, as if the organisation had been accused of such behaviour before.
[This is not surprising — the Iraqi government is famous for accusing groups dedicated towards freedom of being fronts for other organisations. Recently, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, leader of the Islamic Dawa Party, accused all human rights groups currently working in Iraq of being fronts for terrorist activity.]
What issues do women in Iraq face?
Many: kidnapping, prostitution, sexual slavery, honour killings, stigmatising and marginalisation from wider society, as well as lack of employment and poor pay, so many different issues.
Also, women aren’t the only ones who suffer at the hands of patriarchy in the country.
OWFI was the only organisation that stood up against homophobia and the murder of homosexuals in Iraq. We raised issues homosexual Iraqis face with Shi’a Islamists.
How usual is it for women to be employed? Has it become less usual as Iraqi society moves towards Islamism?
It depends. Some places have always been deeply religious, while others are progressing towards Islamism.
If a woman finds a job, she works, but it is all about who you know. Even prostitution is now an income for some women, if they get paid at all.
Prostitution itself is illegal and we stand up for the welfare and employment and human rights of sex workers because they are victimised and dehumanised in such societies.
I met some ex-prostitutes, and they were still in danger. They sought help from many women’s groups, but were turned away for moral or security reasons.
Some groups claim to be for women’s rights, but in reality they themselves need to liberated because they are so judgemental and conservative.
We haven’t come across any issues surrounding abortions, but if we did, we would also fight for women’s reproductive rights. Abortions are still taboo in Iraq, and I suppose many women choose to have backstreet abortions due to the increasingly religious nature of Iraqi society.
Recently, OWFI has been dealing with the rising number of children born with deformities, particularly near the Hawijah military base. [The town of Hawijah became contaminated, due to the use by the American military of depleted uranium, a radioactive substance outlawed by many governments due to its high toxicity, causing a number of children to be born with severe deformities and health defects.]
There have been so many casualties. OWFI put together a report on a whole generation of Iraqi children born deformed. The report was compiled of records from our activists when they went to the town, to find out more information, and take pictures. They visited children in hospital, and talked to the people of Hawijah.
Our organisation always comes across problems. Our activists get kidnapped in Freedom Square; other were attacked, and harassed. We are intimidated, even threatened.
One of our activists, Aya Al Lamie, was kidnapped and tortured by associates of Maliki at 20 years old.
She is active and outspoken, and quickly became popular. She was kidnapped and tortured for her role and mobilisation during the Iraqi anti-government protests during the Arab Spring.
She was tortured horrifically by the Prime Minister’s men, and they kept telling her, “you have to stop your demands”.
She refused every time she was beaten and, finally, they conceded to letting her go, but not after telling her “if you continue your activity, we will gang rape you.”
When she was released, her popularity had risen and so did the popularity of OWFI due to the stands these brave women take.
But her life is important, and we told her to keep a low profile. Her nature is very outgoing and outspoken however, and after her Facebook account was hacked, she simply created another.
What do you think of women’s organisations in Britain?
I see hope in certain groups, like Feminist Fightback, and some individual campaigners. However, I don’t see a feminist movement as such, to be honest.
I find there are a lot of depoliticised charities which are removed from a political and feminist understanding of women’s situations.
This country needs a new wave of feminism, breaking away from the liberal and post-modernist feminist movements.
We can say that the post-modernist feminist school of thought sheds some light on the plights of those who were not included in the wider feminist struggle. However, I think too much emphasis on differences has fragmented the women’s movement. We need a class-based analysis, moving away from identity politics.
What can socialists, feminists and trade unionists do to support women’s struggles in Iraq?
In the beginning there was solidarity from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Socialist Party and other groups, but it faded after the occupation of Iraq had been going on for a while, due to the discontinuity of media reportage after the media had got bored.
We receive less solidarity than before, and solidarity is important: capitalists are sneaky, they’re sly, they know how to support each other. We need to do the same.
After the interview, many things became clear. We need more women like Houzan out there, not tied to lazy and effectively useless liberal ideology, but proactive and willing to risk all to change the way women are perceived in society. We also need to raise awareness of the situations of women across the world, in every society, in every household, not depend on the mainstream media to tell us about their lives.
Emily Muna gives an account of an interview with Houzan Mahmoud of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq.