Finding a Path Back to Iraq, and Toward Securing Women’s Freedom

UNITED NATIONS — YANAR MOHAMMED runs a secret network of safe houses in her native Iraq. The women who come through its doors are honor­killing runaways, rape survivors, war widows and assorted others who have been to the cliff edge of hell and back.

The shelters are meant to give them a second chance in life. Running the shelters gave her a second chance, too.

Ms. Mohammed left Iraq more than 20 years ago with her husband and their young son, and she tried for several years to settle into a life of quiet and comfort in Toronto. Exile did not settle well with her, however. “Have you ever been kicked out of your house?” she said in a recent interview. “Do you know what that feels like? You try one way or the other to get your place back.”

So she did, returning in 2003 after Saddam Hussein was toppled and finding herself at the center of the storm that set back the lives of Iraqi women in ways she could hardly have imagined. Worse still, she says, she witnessed how the Western powers that took over her country handed over the reins to conservative clerics and tribal leaders, who rewrote the laws, sowed sectarian divisions and helped give rise to the Islamic State. It chills her to think that it all could happen again next door in Syria.

Today, in Iraq, Shariah law is enforced, and so­called honor killings are rarely punished. So intensely has sectarian hatred seeped into the hearts of her compatriots, she says, that neighbors enslave one another’s daughters in the badlands controlled by the Islamic State, including in her father’s native city, Tal Afar.

“The steps backward cannot be counted,” she said. “There were too many.”

The group she co­founded, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Is  now preparing for the inevitable: If and when the Islamic State is defeated on the battlefield, in Iraq and Syria, the women they have abducted are certain to be ostracized by their families. Many, she fears, will be killed.

It did not have to be this way, she says, and she made this clear to members of the United Nations Security Council in mid­October, when she told them — in no uncertain terms, as is her way — that they were partly to blame.

“Ten years ago, Iraqi women spoke to the Security Council about the situation for us,” she told the diplomats in a recent meeting devoted to women in war, choosing her words carefully because she did not want them to be put off by her fury. “What would Iraq look like if you had heeded those calls then and promoted an inclusive process in which women and minority groups were fully engaged?”

Her testimony itself was an acknowledgment of how little the Security Council had done to take women’s rights seriously in matters of war and peace, despite a pledge made in 2000.

A review of its actions, released in October, concluded that sexual violence in conflict is still rarely prosecuted. Only warring parties participate in peace talks, and those usually include no women. Women make up a tiny fraction of mediators appointed by the United Nations, and the peace talks that are underway now to end the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen barely pay lip service to gender equity.

Ms. Mohammed, trained as an architect, chose this fight. The daughter of a Shiite father and a Sunni mother, she fled Iraq in 1993. By then, United States airstrikes had pummeled the country during the Persian Gulf war. International sanctions against Iraq made it difficult to buy milk. And there was the government repression. “Under Saddam, we couldn’t breathe,” was how she put it.

A new life began in Canada. It was safe and serene, but also, for Ms. Mohammed, meaningless. So when the Hussein government fell, she found herself drawn back to have what she called “a better start to the rest of my life.”

Even in those early years of rebuilding Iraq, it was clear to her that the path to women’s freedom would be difficult, and not just because of conservative social mores. Once, when she raised her concerns about gender equality with American and British diplomats, she recalled being told to take it up with tribal leaders.

“They had already chosen their partners,” she concluded from meetings like that. “Their choice of leaders for Iraq didn’t have much space for women’s issues. Those were secondary.”

Today, Ms. Mohammed, 55, splits her time between Baghdad and Toronto, where her now­former husband and her son still live. She wears her brown, wavy hair down to her shoulders — exposed, not covered. Under her eyes are deep, dark grooves. She speaks slowly, in measured tones. And she is unabashedly undiplomatic outside Security Council chambers.

She has blamed American forces for installing “despots” in her country. She has helped organize anticorruption protests in the center of Baghdad. She has spoken out forcefully for causes that are unpopular even with many women in her country, such as gay rights. Her Canadian passport — she became a naturalized Canadian citizen a few years after immigrating — has given her an exit route unavailable to many other leaders.

“When the heat got too hot, she was able to leave the country, which has given her a way to be really outspoken,” said Jetteke van der Schatte Olivier, who manages Women on the Frontline, a female empowerment project run by Hivos, a Netherlands­based rights group partly funded by the Dutch government.

THESE days, Ms. Mohammed devotes a lot of thought to what is about to happen in Syria. The Islamic State will be barred from political talks, sure, but some of the other hard­line Islamist groups may soon be at the table, jockeying for power in a new transitional government. They should not be allowed that privilege, she says, though she knows her warnings are unlikely to be heeded.

“For me, the Islamist groups on the ground are like the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S., or the Nazis in Germany,” she said on the phone from Toronto this week.

She cited the efforts of conservatives — so far unsuccessful — to legalize child marriage. “In Iraq, they wanted to legalize marriage for 9­year­old girls,” she said. “How can we live with that?”

As for Bashar al­Assad, Syria’s president, she calls him a fascist.

There are five shelters in her network now, housing roughly three dozen women in all. The shelters operate without a fixed address, in part because Ms. Mohammed has tried for years, and failed, to get authorization from the government. She hopes to open a sixth safe house soon for Yazidi women who have escaped sexual enslavement at the hands of the Islamic State.

Some of the women who come to her shelter have escaped brothels. One she found begging at the threshold of a mosque. Another ran away from home after her uncle tried to kill her.

One woman who came to one of her shelters recently had managed to escape a city held by the Islamic State. But her four daughters, the youngest of them 15, were kept back. The mother, Ms. Mohammed said, returned to try to negotiate for their release.

When the war against the Islamic State is over, and the women are released from their captivity, Ms. Mohammed’s main appeal to their families is only this: Let them live.


A version of this article appears in print on November 28, 2015, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Finding a Path Back to Iraq, and Toward Securing Women’s Freedom. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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