From where I stand: Yanar Mohammed

“The situation is very grim in Iraq. We run into many young women who have run away from their homes, who have been trapped by a trafficking group who have put them in brothels, who want to escape to have a better life, and they cannot go back home because they will be killed. Millions of women are being displaced in Iraq at this moment. They are vulnerable to trafficking because of poverty and having to feed their children.

We also have extreme violence against women under ISIS. We try to deal with all of it; we do outreach to women [in areas where ISIS is active] and we are getting ready to open a new series of shelters. When women stay in our shelters, in the beginning we take care of them, but eventually it’s about empowerment and political awareness, and we try to help them to become human rights activists and leaders in their community.

If there is a time in our history where we need UN Security Council resolution 1325, it’s this moment. It speaks about protection, empowerment, then legislation, then representation.”


Yanar Mohammed

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OWFI Statement

The need to create safe houses for women in the cities liberated from ISIS

The ISIS invasion to the Iraqi cities have caused much misery as a result of massacres and executions. In the same time it devastated lives of women who were forced into marriages, raped into pregnancies, many of whom gave birth to babies with no fathers. In the current and coming weeks, and by the progress of the Iraqi forces in the liberated Western Cities, a new set of problems have appeared to women who were compromised by ISIS, as ” honor killing” awaits them on the hands of their tribesmen. These misogynistic patriarchs did not protect their women in wartime, but come back after the defeat of ISIS in order to claim the lives of women who were forced into rapes, pregnancies, and marriages.
ISIS occupation of a big part to the Iraqi cities showed the Iraqi society the inhumane and misogynist practices of ISIS fighters who committing all kinds of crimes against women and young girls with no consideration or hesitation. Typically, they threaten to arrest or execute a male member of the family first, in order to negotiate ”taking” their daughters into forced marriages. Women’s bodies were and continue to be violated by ISIS in many Iraqi cities. In addition to their physical abuse and distress which lasts for many months, a year, or more, they are left pregnant or had given birth to so called ”illegitimate” babies.
Thousands of women find themselves devastated and broken in the cities liberated from ISIS, as a result of being pregnant or becoming mothers to babies without no legal papers or acknowledged marriages. After suffering long-terms distress which results from physical abuse, humiliation, and rape, they do not earn the respect and compassion which a victim deserves. On the contrary they get criminalized, degraded and sometimes killed under the pretext of ”honor killing”.
Iraqi women find themselves voiceless victims of patriarchal masculine violence of their tribesmen in times of peace, and also victims of ISIS human beasts in times of war. Their bodies were turned into battlefields of patriarchy and sectarian religious hatred one after the other. Moreover they get punished again by their tribesmen for being raped by ISIS as if the matter was of their own choice.
We in the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq undertook intervention to save women’s lives from “honor killing” and trafficking since many years, and provided safe houses to the threatened women, in humane ways which properly address the women’s right to respect and integrity. We also base our intervention on the fact that the women are victims who deserve all the respect and support. We find all these factor important and fundamental in the success of the task of women’s protection in this important moment of our history.
Therefore we demand the Iraqi State to facilitate our mission to rescue women and protect them from the ongoing cycle of sectarian violence.
We call for the establishment of safe houses for women in all the cities liberated from ISIS, and for these houses to be under our experienced supervision of OWFI and other women’s organization. We in OWFI find that women in Iraq have suffered repeatedly and heavily under the patriarchal sectarian wars of this political epoch, and we have the means of undoing the suffering for the women. Our shelters can do the job, provided that the Iraqi government ceases to put a ban on women’s shelters which are run by NGOs.
We remind the Iraqi State to perform its duties towards women-citizens according to the conventions signed by the Iraqi State to the United Nations, and in particular those which include commitments to protect and empower women in conflict and post-conflict zones.

Long live women, free and proud, in Iraq
Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq
24- 10- 2015

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OWFI held the founding event of organizing a Black-Iraqi Women’s gathering on 16th of February

OWFI held the founding event of organizing a Black-Iraqi Women’s gathering on 16th of February, led by Alia Ali (5th from left).

Alia championed running our shelter for Black-Iraqi women in Baghdad successfully for the last 2 years.

It is time for Alia and the Sisters in Iraq to defend their rights to dignity and equality against a highly racist and discriminatory environment.
Civil society, journalists and friends participated in a 2 hour supportive debate which led to the decision of founding Al Hurra (free woman) gathering.


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Shelter for Young Yazidi Victims of ISIS Now Open

We have recently opened a shelter for Yazidi women and girls who have escaped slavery by ISIS. OWFI activists rented a house, furnished it, and conducted many planning and training sessions with our new activists there.
I met with five ISIS survivors, mostly under 20 years old, and spoke words of support and apologized for the cruelty they witnessed by someone who spoke the same language as I.The young women are deeply traumatized. Many are not willing to speak, especially in Arabic, and it was impossible for some to even look me in the eye. They will need significant time and support to begin to recover and rebuild their lives.

Most of these young women have never attended school; we are providing literacy class in Kurdish for them.

In addition to medical care and psycho-social support, we are providing classes in basic literacy and sewing. The sewing activity in particular got the girls immersed; they are learning to sew their own clothes with the machine we brought. We also took them to the market where we bought a set of good winter coats and clothes for each; they all wore light clothes in the freezing winter.
The house is located in Dohuk in the Yazidi area of Iraq. One room will be used for meetings, computers and handcrafts. The rest of the house will be for their living. With four big bedrooms, and a good modern kitchen, the house can serve many women.

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The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq

Dear Friend, 
The horrors facing the women of Iraq continue unabated. Recently, three strong OWFI activists, Dalal, Ahlam, and Majid, travelled to the village of Rbaidha, just across the unofficial border from ISIS-held Hawija. They had heard of the arrival of a number of women who had escaped the ISIS controlled area, and wanted to check on their well being and offer whatever assistance they could.
What these women went through was shocking. To reach Iraqi controlled territory, the women, many with children, had to walk for 16 hours, in freezing temperatures, moving at night to try and avoid detection by ISIS snipers. In addition to the snipers, ISIS has also placed land mines along the only route out. Along this dangerous path, the women smelled the decomposing bodies of those who had tried, and failed, to escape before them, and occasionally stepped on body parts in the dark.

Women and children who fled ISIS with nothing but the clothes on their backs

We heard the heartbreaking story of one woman whose baby froze to death while making the journey. But our hearts were also gladdened by the sight of a woman and her two children being reunited with her husband.

Sadly, the safety these women risked so much to find is terribly limited. Right now, they have shelter from the weather in a school building, but little food or other support. Our activists did what they could in the short term, bringing biscuits and milk for the women and children. And we will find a way to do more. But ultimately, they should not be dependent on charity. It is the government’s duty to protect and support these women who have been prisoners of war. ReadOWFI’s statement on this issue here.
We ask your support in pressuring the Iraqi government to carry out its duty to these women, and in helping us care for them in the meantime.
~ Yanar Mohammed, President, OWFI

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OWFI condemns the terrorist Islamist ISIS attacks in Paris

The 2003 occupation of Iraq developed a second generation of Al Qaedas who can only be described as human beasts, with no consideration to human life, female dignity, or children’s right to safety or innocence. Our hearts go to the French victims’ families who begin to share our dilemma of dealing with Islamist terrorism. The solution can only be through the solidarity of a global working class struggling against the extremisms supported and empowered by the Imperialist and capitalist politics of the UK\US and its ally governments in the Middle East. ISIS was not created in vacuum; a decade of determined UK\US policies groomed them for their global role in terrorism of the people of the world. Down with ISIS blood-thirsty ideology.


Long live Freedom and Equality Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq 14 November – 2015

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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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Yanar Mohammed is the co-founder of the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (Video)






Moderated by Laura Flanders (The Laura Flanders Show) and Featuring:

  • Fartuun Adan SOMALIA
  • Suad Amiry PALESTINE
  • Kimberle Williams Crenshaw USA
  • Eve Ensler USA
  • Frances Garrett USA
  • Nimmi Gowrinathan USA/SRI LANKA
  • Yanar Mohammed IRAQ
  • Lu Pin CHINA
  • Thenmozhi Soundararajan USA/INDIA
  • Sara Milena Ferrer Valencia COLOMBIA
  • Monique Wilson PHILIPPINES


Building on our ‘State of Female Revolution’ series we are bringing together this formidable group of activists for a panel discussion on resisting the violence of police, states and empire.

We will explore why and how women experience violence at the intersection of multiple oppressive forces and systems and how they are RISING against imperialism, racism, sexism and neo-colonialism.

We will look to the women’s movements and activists working to change the narrative of violence against women across the globe, from Say Her Name and Black Lives Matter in the US, the Chinese Feminist Five, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, the Gabriela Women’s Movement and political party in
the Philippines, Elman Peace and Human Rights Institute in Somalia, RIWAQ: Centre for Architecture Conservation in Palestine, women activists in Afghanistan, the ‘Politics of Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka’, the Dalit Women Fight movement in India, and One Billion Rising globally.

Moderator Bio:

Laura Flanders – Laura is a best-selling author and broadcaster. After many years in public and commercial radio, she founded The Laura Flanders Show / GRITtv in 2008 to serve as an online channel for in depth conversations with forward-thinking people fromt he worlds of politics, economics, business and the arts. A primetime, daily broadcast, GRITtv with Laura Flanders aired for three years on Free Speech TV before moving to KCET/Linktv and teleSUR, as a weekly program. Flanders is a contributing writer to The Nation andYes! magazine (“Commonomics”). She is also  the author of six books including the New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species (Verso, 2004) and Blue GRIT: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians (Penguin Press, 2007). The Laura Flanders Show aired nationally on Air America Radio (2004-2008) before which she was the founding host of Your Call, on public radio, KALW, and CounterSpin, the nationally-syndicated radio program from the mediawatch group FAIR. Flanders is a repeat guest on Real Time with Bill Maher and appears regularly onMSNBC. She’s also served as a substitute host for PBS veteran, Bill Moyers. You can find all her archives and more at or via Twitter @GRITlaura

Activist Bios:

Fartuun Adan (Somalia) – Fartuun A. Adan is a Somali/Canadian humanitarian. She and her three daughters fled Mogadishu, Somalia at the height of the civil conflict and sought refuge in Canada and has since returned to Somalia. Fartuun is a recognized and leading expert in the reintegration and rehabilitation of child soldiers. In 2011 her organization was recognized for its relentless efforts since 1991, in providing children involved in armed conflicts with alternative livelihood by the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. In 2011 Fartuun also established the first rape crisis center in Mogadishu, Somalia. In the same year she addressed Prime Minister David Cameron at the conservative party in Manchester, England as a keynote speaker where she demanded international attention and support to the rapidly increasing number of victims of sexual violence in South and Central Somalia. Fartuun coordinated OBR in Somalia enabling women to RISE and DANCE on the streets of Mogadishu for the first time ever.

Suad Amiry (Palestine) ­ Suad Amiry is a Palestinian writer, a conservation architect, and a political and social activist. Suad Amiry is the author of the internationally acclaimed Memoirs Sharon and My Mother in Law (Random House, 2005) which uses humor and irony to describe the absurdity, and cruelty, of living under a prolonged Israeli Occupation. The book has been translated into 20 languages and has won the prestigious Italian Literary Award “Premio Viareggio” 2004.

Amiry is also the author of Nothing to Lose But Your Life: an 18 hour Journey with Murad (Bloomsbury, 2010) in which Amiry disguises as a male worker and accompanies a group of Palestinian workers “the illegal laborers in their homeland” across the “Separation wall” in search for a job in Israel. Her latest book Golda Slept Here (Bloomsbury 2015) which describes what it means to lose ones home and not to “feel at home” ever again, won the Italian Nonino Prize (2014).

Amiry who says she had became a writer by pure accident at the age of 50, is a conservation architect. She is the Founder of RIWAQ:  Centre for Architecture Conservation. An NGO based in Ramallah, Palestine, which has won many international awards (the Prince Clause Award, the Carry Stone Social Design Prize, and the Aga Khan Award for architecture 2014). Riwaq has succeeded in transforming the concept and process of Rehabilitation (and gentrification) of historic centers and buildings into a vehicle of poverty elevation, job creation and a tool for social and economic development for marginalized groups (women and children) in rural Palestine, what Amiry refers to as “Public Spaces and buildings for Social Change.” RIWAQ has so far provided more than 100 community and cultural centers, revitalized and brought life back to 15 historic centers for the use and benefit of the impoverished rural communities (

To get to know Suad Amiry watch her TED Talk “My Work my Hobby: Simply Look Inside You Never at Others”

Kimberle Crenshaw (USA) ­ Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, is a leading authority in the area of Civil Rights, Black feminist legal theory, and race, racism and the law.  Her articles have appeared in the Harvard Law Review, National Black Law Journal, Stanford Law Review, and Southern California Law Review. She is the founding coordinator of the Critical Race Theory Workshop, and the co-editor of the volume, Critical Race Theory: Key Documents That Shaped the Movement. Crenshaw has lectured widely on race matters, addressing audiences across the country as well as in Europe, India, Africa and South America.

Crenshaw has worked extensively on a variety of issues pertaining to gender and race in the domestic arena including violence against women, structural racial inequality, and affirmative action. A specialist on race and gender equality, she has facilitated workshops for human rights activists in Brazil and in India, and for constitutional court judges in South Africa. Her groundbreaking work on Intersectionality has traveled globally and was influential in the drafting of the equality clause in the South African Constitution.

Crenshaw is the co-founder and Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum, a gender and racial justice legal think tank, and the founder and Executive Director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School. She is a leading voice in calling for a gender-inclusive approach to racial justice interventions, having spearheaded the Why We Can’t Wait Campaign and co-authored Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, and Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.

Eve Ensler (USA) – Eve Ensler is the Tony Award winning playwright, activist and author of the theatrical phenomenon, The Vagina Monologues, which has been published in 48 languages and performed in over 140 countries. Eve’s plays include Necessary Targets, The Treatment, The Good Body, and Emotional Creature. Her books include Insecure At Last: A Political Memoir; the New York Times bestseller I Am An Emotional Creature, and her latest critically acclaimed memoir In the Body of the World.  She is founder of V-Day, the global activist movement to end violence against women and girls which has raised over 100 million dollars to end violence and One Billion Rising, a global mass action campaign in over 200 countries. She was named one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Changed the World” and The Guardian’s “100 Most Influential Women.” Her play O.P.C. recently had it’s world premiere at  A.R.T. at  Harvard where she will also debut, In the Body of the World, based on her memoir in Spring of 2016 , directed by Diane Paulus. Her newest play Avocado premiered at The West Yorkshire Playhouse in May. and 

Frances Garrett (USA) – is the founder and former executive director of the African American Hispanic Health Education Resource Center. Diagnosed with HIV in 1992, Ms. Garrett became a prominent advocate for other women of color facing the unique challenges set them by social stigmas like HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, and criminal records. Fran was an initial member and co-chair of the Phoenix Women’s Task Force, the former co-chair of the Central Region Community Planning Group (CPG), and the founder/executive director of the Garrett House in Peoria, AZ, a welcoming residence for minority women. In 2004, Fran served as the State Director for AIDSWatch for in Arizona, the first African American woman to do so. On August 14th, Fran’s daughter Michelle Cusseaux was killed at close range by a Phoenix police officer who had been called to escort her to a mental health facility. Since then, Fran has been involved in calls for police reform, notably marching her daughter’s casket through downtown Phoenix weeks after the shooting, calling for an outside agency to investigate the wrongful death. Her efforts have been met with reforms on the part of the city of Phoenix, including the creation of the police department’s mental health advisory board and a seven-member police unit dedicated to crisis intervention. Ms. Garrett is currently working with the AAPF to develop the #SayHerName campaign, a multi-dimensional project focused on resisting police brutality against Black women.

Nimmi Gowrinathan (Sri Lanka) – Dr. Gowrinathan is an expert on gender and violence, and the creator of She is currently a Visiting Research Professor at the Colin Powell Center for Global and Civic Leadership at City College New York, directing the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative, a global study examining the impact of rape on women’s political identities. She is also the Executive Producer of the Vice News Women in/at War Series.

She has recently been the Gender Expert for the United Nations Human Development Report on Afghanistan, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Conflict, Negotiation, and Recovery and a policy consultant and analyst for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the International Crisis Group, researching and analyzing gender inclusion in peace-building and women’s insecurities in conflict zones.  She was formerly the Director of South Asia Programs and UN Representative for Operation USA.

Dr. Gowrinathan received her PhD in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles, which received the Jean and Irving Stone Award for Innovation in Gender Studies. She provides expert analysis for CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, and the BBC, and has published both academic articles and journalistic pieces on humanitarian intervention, militarization, gender, and political violence. Her  most recent articles are featured in Foreign Affairs, (“The Women of ISIS” & “The Missing Women in the U.S. Torture Report”), Outlook Magazine (“Artful Democracy”), Guernica Magazine (“Narrating Crisis in Sri Lanka”) and Vice News(“I Don’t Know Why I Come: Inside the UN Commission on the Status of Women”)


Yanar Mohammed (Iraq) – Yanar Mohammed is the co-founder of the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, which works to promote women’s rights and liberties in Iraq (OWFI). Eight years after emigrating to Toronto, Canada in 1995, Yanar returned to her native country to begin her advocacy work and help establish OWFI, whose office was first housed in an abandoned bank in Baghdad.

One of OWFI’s primary projects is to house women who have suffered domestic violence, honor killings, sex trafficking, and prostitution in secret shelters, located in places like Baghdad and Kirkuk. According to Yanar, as of 2008, an estimated 35 women have been spared death thanks to these shelters. Another OWFI initiative is the Women’s Prison Watch program, through which Yanar interviewed some 200 incarcerated women and shed light on their living conditions. Starting in 2005, Yanar began teaching courses on how to deal with local traditions and religious intolerance in Iraq to activists. She also operates a radio station and newspaper by the name Al Mousawat, meaning “equality” in Arabic.

Yanar received her bachelor’s degree in 1984 and her master’s degree in Architecture in 1993 from Baghdad University. In 2008, she was one of three recipients of the $500,000 Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation’s Women’s Rights Prize.


Lu Pin (China) – Lu Pin is program manager of Media Monitor for Women Network and chief editor of Feminist Voices. She has been working for women’s rights and promoting gender equality more than 20 years. She used to be a journalist reporting women’s rights issue and volunteer of  women’s organizations focusing on media and gender equality, violence against women, gender and development etc.  In 2009 she established Feminist Voices, an alternative media agency to raise awareness and develop advocacy for anti-discrimination and violence against women, as well as to support young feminist activism around all China.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan (USA/India)- Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a transmedia artist and activist who believes story is the most important unit of social change. Through her work across mediums she centers the voices of communities in the vital debates of our time. Her work has been recognized by the Producers Guild of America Diversity Program, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Annenberg Innovation Center, Slamdance, Chicken and Egg Films, MIT Center for New Media Studies, The Sorbonne, Source Magazine, Utne Reader, The National Center for the Humanities, The National Science Foundation, and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. You can follow her work as a Robert Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Fellow on twitter at @dalitdiva

Sara Milena Ferrer Valencia (Colombia) – Sara Milena Ferrer Valencia holds an LLB from the University of Cartagena and an LLM from the University of Notre Dame. She worked for five years at the Colombian Constitutional Court, where she focused on cases related with the rights of victims of forced displacement, prior consultation, rights to land and territory, and others entitlements to victims of historic and systematic discrimination. She has also specialized in public policy and its relation with economic, social and cultural rights. After her LLM, her work has been centered on the protection of human rights. Initially, she did an internship in Human Rights Watch, where she collaborated in the elaboration of the reports: “The Risk of Returning Home” and “The Crisis in Buenaventura.” Returning to Colombia, she worked with organizations aimed at protecting Afro-Colombian communities’ rights, such as PCN and Afrodes, on issues related to addressing the impacts of the armed conflict on Afro-Colombian communities and populations. She then participated in a project coordinated by the Education Department of Bogotá, to implement the “Cátedra de Estudios Afrocolombianos” (Afro-Colombian Studies Coursework). Additionally, she worked in a project coordinated by the OIM to settle standards for the participation of Afro-Colombian victims established in Bogotá. Currently, she is a researcher at Dejusticia and Racial Discrimination Watch.

Monique Wilson (Philippines) –Monique Wilson is one of the Philippine’s veteran theatre and film actresses – having acted professionally since the age of nine. At 18 she starred as the lead role in the original London West End production of Miss Saigon. In 1994, at 24 years old, she went back to the Philippines and founded the New Voice Company (NVC) theatre group, with a vision to awaken, inspire and transform Philippine audiences with socially provocative and innovative political theatre work. Her theatre group has produced The Vagina Monologues in the Philippines since 2000 and V-Day events since 2001, and helped change the laws on sex trafficking and domestic violence with performances in the Philippine Senate and Congress. Monique recently left a five year post as head of the MA/MFA Acting International course, which she spearheaded, at the East 15 Acting School in London – where she trained postgraduate international actors from over 45 countries, and where she organized V-Day events and directed political plays, to become Director of the One Billion Rising campaign.

Zoya (Afghanistan) – ZOYA is a women’s rights activist who has worked extensively in refugee camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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Yanar Mohammed OWFI’s president testimony at the United Nations.

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Lifting the ban on women’s shelters in Iraq: promoting change in conflict

There is a crisis-level need for shelter in Iraq, so why does the Iraqi government maintain a policy that stymies critically needed temporary housing and threatens the safety of those willing to provide it?

With the ISIS invasion and ensuing crisis displacing over four million people and leaving over eight million in need of humanitarian assistance, it’s no surprise that local authorities and the international community are struggling to meet the critical demand for shelter. This is especially true in hotly contested cities such as Samara and Hawija, where it’s too risky for most international relief workers and sparse access through ISIS-controlled checkpoints.

Yet, despite the overwhelming need, the Iraq central government policy does not authorize local NGOs to run shelters. With no end in sight to the conflict, and despite government obstacles, Iraqi women’s organizations have been stepping up to meet the needs of those most vulnerable – running clandestine safe houses that operate in the shadows.

Having seen these shelters first-hand and talking with the survivors they house, has led me to question: Why, if there is a crisis-level need for shelter, does the Iraqi government maintain a policy that stymies critically needed temporary housing and threatens the safety of those willing to provide it?



Yanar Mohammed leading a women’s rally in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Photo: Roj Women’s Assoc.

According to Yanar Mohammed director of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), “Shelters are thought of as encouraging women to disobey their husbands and daughters to disobey their parents. This leads to the presumption that a shelter – a place where a group of immoral women reside without a male guardian – is likely a brothel.” This is not the first casting of women’s shelters as houses of ill repute; the notion is not uncommon to the region. In Afghanistan for example, shelter providers routinely face harassmentfrom officials.

Clandestine shelters, while vital, are rife with risk. They offer meager accommodations in only a few places. Without policy protections, safe houses are left vulnerable to police and militia raids. This leaves women in hiding unprotected from family members or ex-boyfriends who track them down for escaping domestic violence, forced marriage or attempted honor killings. The only option for shelter staff and residents is to routinely relocate, avoiding unwanted attention from nosey neighbors who have occasionally mistaken safe houses for brothels. This adds to a cycle of making them harder to find by those in need.

Technically, nothing on the books in Iraqi law explicitly bars local organizations from running shelters. The quasi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq started to see a small handful of NGO-run shelters with the passage of a 2011 law prohibiting domestic violence that sparked new collaboration between women’s groups and the regional government. In central Iraq, the Combating Human Trafficking Law of 2012 states that the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs should create shelters. Unfortunately, central bureaucrats have interpreted this policy to mean that only the government can run shelters, which either do not exist or sit vacant. An exception is made for international aid agencies.

Yet, the tide is turning, because the scale of the crisis demands it. Faced with an influx of displaced people, Iraqi NGO shelter providers have already successfully negotiated written agreements with local tribal leaders from the Karbala and Samara Governorates, permitting them to provide safe housing.

While women’s rights activists are working to obtain written agreements from other affected townships, they have also turned their sights to Baghdad. A coalition of local organizations led by OWFI is advocating for the central government to adopt a national framework allowing for NGO-run shelters. OWFI’s international partner organization MADRE has started working with key donor states and U.N. experts. CUNY Law School is helping to providedocumentation on human rights abuses to illustrate the need. The goal is to expand temporary housing in Iraq.

This is the paradox of catastrophe. The moments of our undoing are simultaneously our opportunities to remake ourselves and our communities. The challenge lies in spotting and seizing those moments. Local activists know that changing the shelter policy, in this moment of flux, could broaden the safety net for women fleeing all forms of violence. The immediate needs generated by the current crisis create the opportunity to push for longer-term policy changes. These agreements could remain in perpetuity and work to normalize the very concept of sheltering in Iraq.


Photo Yanar speaking at Irish UN Mission

Yanar speaking at the Irish Mission to the UN in New York this week. Photo: WILPF


This year marks the 15th anniversary of passing UN Security Council Resolution 1325, obligating the participation of women in peace building. On Tuesday, Oct 13th Yanar addressed the United Nations Security Council during its Open Debate on women, peace and security, where she called attention to the crisis that has ensued from ISIS and highlighted the Iraqi government’s prohibition on local women’s groups’ efforts to provide housing.

Changing Iraq’s shelter policy will save lives. It will enable local NGOs to come out of the shadows, secure new funding and spur local job creation. Women’s organizations not only provide shelter for the most vulnerable, they also act as first responders providing much-needed aid and peer-to-peer support – without the sectarian strings often attached to religious groups and associations. They help displaced children get enrolled in school. They offer assistance for reunification with family members. They help to reduce illiteracy and the spread of disease, and chip away at the number of women and children most vulnerable to violence. They also work to alleviate the economic burdens placed on local governorates left scrambling to address masses of fleeing people pouring into their townships.

By amending the shelter restriction to help meet the needs of conflict-related displacement, women’s groups can also help to those both directly and indirectly affected by the crisis, but more notable, they reach those left most vulnerable by the conflict including women escaping trafficking and honor killings as well as LGBT persons.

This is true today, it was true before the ISIS invasion, and it will be true tomorrow.

Tackling the obstacles to realizing basic rights that existed before conflict as a way of addressing immediate needs just makes sense. It leads to more effective, immediate-term solutions while also helping to dismantle long-term structural violence. The international community could take a lesson from Iraqi advocates working on the frontlines of service provisions. As Yanar points out “What is primarily lacking is political will by Member States and UN Leadership.” States would be wise to heed her words yesterday.

After all, someday when the war is over, and most of the internationals are gone, their work will continue.


LISA DAVIS 14 October 2015

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Iraq’s Female Citizens: Prisoners of War

Iraqi woman human rights defender Yanar Mohammed spoke to Jennifer Allsopp at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference about grassroots responses to the atrocities women are facing under ISIS.

On the second day of the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on building global support for women human rights defenders, the 100 participants delivered a sobering and urgent message: history is still repeating itself. Watching the military-industrial complex wreak havoc in the Middle East, reflected Shirin Ebadi, holder of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, is like ‘rewinding a movie.’ Women human rights defenders from across the globe were in agreement: the incalculable suffering of the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have taught us, once and for all, that bombs lead to suffering, and never peace.

In her keynote speech, Shirin reflected on what a different world might have looked like if, in response to the atrocities of September 11th, the United States and its allies had built schools in Afghanistan in memory of the victims instead of retaliating with war and occupation. ‘You can’t fight an ideology by bombing it’, she told us, speaking of the heinous war crimes currently being committed by the Islamic State. ‘If a terrorist is taken out, his children will replace him. We must throw books not bombs.’

One participant who knows first-hand the horrors that come from forgetting history, and from erasing women from history in particular, is Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and Director of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. I spoke to hear about the situation in her country 12 years after I first marched for peace in London, and 12 years since the war on terror began.

Jennifer Allsopp: Yanar, what is the situation of women’s human rights in Iraq right now?

large_52769_68277Yanar Mohammed: The new update of 2014-2015 is, of course, the attack of ISIS. But this is rooted in recent history. It is the direct result of all the politics that came into Iraq with the occupation. The US empowered the Shi’a Islamic political groups and marginalised a big part of the country who were recognised as Sunni people. It was only to be expected that the next step would be for the sectarian religious dynamics to surface, for one religious group to be fighting another religious group. The leading members of ISIS were either tortured in US military prisons or in the prisons of the Shi’a government which the Americans put in place. When you torture a person for long periods you might get a very passionate human rights defender but most probably you will get a beast whose only concern is to seek his revenge in the best way possible. And that’s what happened with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was in Bucca prison, being tortured by the Americans and being prepared for his next role in life, head of ISIS. Before 2003, none of us knew which part of the country was Sunni and which part was Shi’a. This was something new to Iraq and we are reaping the results at this point. Women’s wellbeing has paid the price.

As well as the crisis of ISIS we’re dealing with other fallout from the last war, like the ongoing crisis of Iraqi orphans. There are 5 million Iraqi orphans of war, and tens of thousands of them have been trafficked in the last decade. Five million orphans growing into teenagers is a very big difficulty for any society. Young women growing into situations with no parents are usually material for exploitation in the brothels. Many do not have proper identification papers. Although the law is not against giving them papers, whenever they go to any governmental establishment and ask for them they are asked to bring their father or their brother, when they don’t have anybody. They reside in the worst houses in Iraq and they are exploited on a daily basis because they do not have access to citizenship. It’s been more than 10 years since this started. The exploited female teenager’s right to citizenship is a major, major issue.

JA: Before the emergence of ISIS, were things improving at all for women in Iraq?

YM: We saw some relative peace in the previous years, relative in the sense that the capital was in control and the major cities had peace, but the religious parties always held the upper hand. They didn’t let a single year pass without surprising us. The last time was in 2013 when the Ministry of Justice announced their intention to introduce the Al Jaafari law, which is the Shi’a Islamist law for personal status that rules family life. This law would allow the marriage of a 9 year old girl, the humiliating treatment of women in matters of marriage and divorce, and generally to treat women like objects, not as human beings. This law is hundreds of years old and they wanted to make it a reality for us now; they want to abort hundreds of years of improvement in Iraq.

JA: How did the women’s movement respond?

YM: We demonstrated. We spoke over our radio. We have a community radio in Baghdad called Al Musawat, which means Equality radio. We spoke out very strongly. We had slogans that said ‘we will not allow you to rape our young daughters.’ We explained to the public what the law means and we were able to gather quite some opposition against it so that the government eventually had to announce that it will not be passed “at this point.” They say it needs to be amended, but this is an excuse for them to hide the draft of the law. Eventually we were ordered to close the radio on the pretext that our “registration was not complete.” So yes, even before ISIS, the government’s attack on women’s rights and women’s status in law kept us busy.

JA: How has the women’s human rights movement in Iraq evolved in response to ISIS?

YM: When ISIS took over the Northern city of Mosul in June last year, which is the second biggest city in the country, that was a landmark for us all, that really was a landmark. We felt: the government is not the only oppressor of women, there is a new group which has emerged and which has turned gigantic, which is claiming a big part of the country. We were aware that the political situation was not secure and that our safety was not guaranteed. Many of us have our families in the parts of Iraq which ISIS has taken over. My father’s family is from the city of Telafar, which was taken by ISIS, and I have thousands of relatives who are homeless now.

And what has ISIS done to the women in the cities they have conquered? Direct enslavement, humiliation and turning women into concubines to be bought and sold. This was something nobody expected to see in Iraq. In the beginning, in 2003, there was the Iraqi resistance, which didn’t want the US occupation, then they developed Al Qaeda, but even then it was never this monstrous, this inhumane and as misogynistic as what we’re seeing now under ISIS.

We began immediately contacting the women in Mosul and in the other cities that were occupied. We set up a network of women in that city to whom we speak continuously. We try to be in touch with their difficulties and to be of use to those who face direct attacks. We also set up a coalition for ending the trafficking of Iraqi women and we came up with two recommendations. The first one was to gain legal status for our shelters for women and the second recommendation was that the Iraqi government recognise the Yazidi women’s enslavement and their status as prisoners of war who have been tortured by the enemy, and to give them benefits as such. We have had many wars with other countries and when a prisoner comes back they get many benefits, they get a house, they get a salary and we want the Iraqi government to do this for the Yazidi women so that they can have the social status that would allow a good future, a good family and a good status in society.

The women of Yazidi faith in my country have witnessed the most horrific practices, things that not many women in modern times have seen. A few months ago, I made a trip to the Kurdish part of the county, to where the women who were enslaved by ISIS had run away. I sat down with women in the Kadhiya camp and asked them about their experiences. A girl as young as 15 had been bought and sold more than ten times, from one ISIS fighter to another. She was raped by all those men. I asked her, “what was your most difficult moment during those two months that you were detained there?” She said, “it was the moments when one man would be selling me to the other and they would stand around me and look at me as a piece of meat on which they would be jumping the next day.” She told me that one of the fighters who had bought her would pray daily; after he finished prayer he would come and rape her. She told me stories that I would never expect to hear in a country where people were used to living peacefully with each other. We did have dictators, we did have times of war but it never reached the point where one person, or a group, would be attacking another group and would be enslaving all the women of that group.

JA: Are your recommendations being recognised, is the coalition having an impact?

YM: We’re still working on it. We started the coalition in its embryonic shape last September but in January and March the campaign picked up and we are beginning to see some results. The campaign has many aspects but the shelter is the most important one. At the very start of the war on Iraq our organisation made it known that we intended to start a shelter for women at risk, but the government did not allow us to do that, they said it was illegal. But from that time until now, with the support of our sisters in the international community and with the support of some actors like the Dutch government and the EU, we have been able to do it anyway. We’ve set up three women’s shelters in Baghdad and two in Karbala for the refugee women who are escaping ISIS, in addition to one LGBT shelter in Baghdad. So although they try to illegalise our sheltering activity, in practice we’ve persevered and we’ve been able to multiply them. This is crucial. It means that, at this moment, when a woman feels threatened by honour killing, by domestic abuse and political oppression, they are knocking on our doors and they know there is the network that will protect them and be there for them.

We see different kinds of things. Two months ago a woman came to me, her name is Zainab. She was in charge of a meeting hall in Baghdad and she’s extremely good looking. She was accused of being corrupt and of taking bribes by some officials who wanted to have sex with her. So they put her in prison, they made her go through very humiliating treatment, and when she left prison she felt she was threatened. She came and knocked on our doors and asked if we could protect her. So she is staying with us in one of our shelters and her daughter comes to visit her from time to time.

JA: And what’s the next step for you? What would you like to see happen in the next year?

YM: In the next year I would like to see a law legalising women’s shelters in Iraq. I would like to see our radio being opened again as a result of the pressure that we’re putting on the governmental body that could allow this. I would like to see the Iraqi government guarantee social insurance for the Yazidi women who were enslaved and to recognise their status as prisoners of war.
This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.



By Jennifer Allsopp | Interview

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Iraqi Activist Describes “Massacres Left and Right” as Civil Society Resists Takeover by ISIS

As Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and the director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, attends the Women Stop War conference in The Hague, she describes the current situation in Iraq. “The country is under a prevailing culture of militias, which have the upper hand. … They say, ’It’s either us or ISIS.’” Mohammed says civil society is sandwiched between Shia and Sunni extremists, and argues a secular approach is the only way to resolve the conflict in her country.

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Security is not just CCTV: valuing ourselves is security

It feels as if the entire world has been given over to the most perverse notions of ‘safety’  that are really about death and destruction, cruelty and conflict, grandiosity and greed. Marion Bowman reports from the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in the Netherlands.


It was a classic image of protectiveness. The figure of a soldier stood, fatherly, silent, unyielding, over a seated woman, small, lovely, smiling. But it was not how it seemed. The soldier was a full-scale replica of one of China’s Terracotta Warriors, one of several being used as ornaments in a country house hotel in the Netherlands. The woman was Dicki Chhoyang, a Tibetan politician who was leading a discussion at the 2015 Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on human rights.

The image was poignant, for China has illegally and forcibly occupied Tibet for 65 years and the armour-clad warrior of an ancient Chinese dynasty, with his clenched fists ready to grasp weapons, loomed over Chhoyang reminding us that what is often passed off as protection in the relationship between women and men and between countries is really control.

As in gender relations, so in international affairs. ‘Security’ is everywhere in official circles yet increasingly it feels as if the entire world has been given over to the most perverse notions of safety, notions of ‘safety’ that are really about death and destruction, cruelty and conflict, grandiosity and greed. From 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (ostensibly to win a war against terror but which have merely spawned ISIS and more violence), to increased efforts by the EU to control borders in response to the Mediterranean migrant crisis, while hundreds of traumatised and terrified people die,  governments around the world keep proving incapable of understanding what real human security is made of.

It’s a point not missed at the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference underway in the Netherlands. The people in the room listening to Dicki Chhoyang and her panellists were there to explore how women who promote and defend human rights can be protected.

They started with hugging. Each person, and they were mostly women, was asked to hug the people next to them. I hugged Zaynab El Sawi, who recently had to leave Sudan because the women’s resource centre she helped run for 17 years was finally raided and closed last year by the government. ‘We had been training thousands of women and youths to be human rights activists,’ she said. ‘They said we were creating a generation that doesn’t match the ideology of the government. They couldn’t tolerate us anymore. They took everything, our bank account, our computers, our library.’ I shared another hug with Heli Bathija on my left, a Finnish doctor who represents the Global Fund for Women. Hope Chigudu, a founder of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network and the first moderator for the day, chided everyone so that the conference could begin: ‘Once women start hugging they will never stop.’

This was not just conference group dynamics or New Age warm fuzzies. This was about women taking care of themselves and each other and keeping people alive. The theme of the conference this weekend is ‘Defending the Defenders! Building Global Support for Women Human Rights Defenders’. Chigudu’s first statement after everyone had sat down again and fallen silent was: ‘When we are being threatened, who will defend us? We have to defend ourselves.’

There was an unremitting focus on this reality. Research by the Swedish Kvinna Till Kvinna Foundation found that the women who face the most hatred, threats or violence are those working on violence against women, gender equality, gender stereotypes, LGBT rights, sexual violence, militarism, and corruption and organised crime. Fourteen percent of their survey’s respondents had survived murder attempts. Panellist Lisa VeneKlasen of Just Associates painted a picture of the problem around the world: ‘What we see now is patriarchy and capitalism on steroids.’  Sima Samar of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said: ‘The global war on terror and the emphasis on security has closed the space for activists to challenge power. When any woman confronts power, the closer they get, the more dangerous it is.’ While they spoke, a slide show silently rolled through on big screens either side of the platform, picturing women such as Ummaya Gabbara, women’s affairs adviser to the mayor of her town in Iraq , killed on 22 June 2014 defending it from ISIS; Nasseb Miloud Karfana, a television journalist in Libya killed for doing her job on 29 May 2014; and Farida Afindi, executive director of a human rights group in Pakistan, shot dead in cold blood on 7 July 2014.

Despite obligations on governments that are members of the UN to keep women human rights defenders safe, the women believe their own networks are their own best hope. ‘Networks are a historical tool of feminists,’ said Marusia Lopez of IM Defensoras. ‘Security is not just CCTV! Valuing ourselves is security.’ Since 2010, 39 women human rights defenders have been killed in MesoAmerican countries, she said. Women there have built networks in four countries which have varied activities, from registering attacks to supporting the self-care of women. ‘Women can go to a safe place and have some rest,’ she said. ‘We should recognise our own need for health and wellbeing, so each network has a small team assisting on health and healing.’ Such shelters and safe houses are replicated elsewhere. A system of Bamboo Huts has been created in Manipur, India, where an armed conflict has raged, forgotten by the international community and denied by the Indian government, for decades. ‘People bang with stones on lamp posts to warn women that armed men are coming,’ said Binalakshmi Nepram of the Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network.

Yanar Mohammed, of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, said that setting up shelters itself is risky. When she was preparing to set up the first one in Baghdad, the campaign against it claimed it would encourage women to be promiscuous. Then in 2003, in an internet café, she received an email. In the subject line was ‘Killing Yanar Mohammed within days.’ ‘It was like an electric shock.  I was too scared to cross the road from the café to go back to the office,’ she said. ‘I just had to go home and hide.’ She now lives in secret locations in both Iraq and Canada. ‘But we kept going and now there are six shelters including one for Iraq’s LGBT. We have tens of thousands of supporters in Iraq and thousands internationally. Women are not weak. They do not need defending, they just need to be supported and acknowledged. The future will be ours, it’s just a matter of when.’

The weekend’s conference had opened with inspirational speeches by three of the six Nobel Peace laureates behind the Nobel Women’s Initiative. After Northern Ireland’s Mairead Maguire and Iran’s Shirin Ebadi came the US’s Jody Williams. Williams approached the podium haltingly. She said she was in pain from a bad back. She was weary. ‘I don’t have the fiery energy of Shirin or the global love of Mairead. I just want to thank you for coming,’ she said laconically. ‘This is a lovely place and that’s not an accident. We need to nurture ourselves so we can continue the struggle. We are in beautiful surroundings because we want you to have the space to breathe and enjoy yourselves, to take care of yourselves. You are here to learn from each other, the things that have worked and the things that haven’t but,’ she said,’ take time to look at the ducks on the pond and the leaves on the trees coming into life because when we forget the glory and beauty of the world we lose hope.’

Under the dead-eyed gaze of the Terracotta Warriors, guarding the power of their ruler even in death, Dicki Chhoyang later told how she had met Yanar Mohammed for the first time over breakfast and, making conference small talk, asked where she lived in Canada. ‘I can’t tell you that,’ said Mohammed, ‘because it’s where I go when I get death threats.’ And they just carried on drinking fresh orange juice and eating lovely food off fine china at a table spread with crisp, fresh table linen as the spring birds sang outside in the morning sunshine.



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Islamic State and the changing rights of Yazidi women

Rachel Browne on the future faced by Yazidi women recently released from Islamic State captivity.

After a violent takeover of Yazidi villages in northern Iraq in October 2014, Islamic State proudly declared in its online magazine Dabiq that its fighters had captured and enslaved Yazidis as “spoils of war.”

“This large-scale enslavement . . . is probably the first since the abandonment of this Shariah law,” the article says.

Islamic State has continued torturing, killing and enslaving tens of thousands of people from minority groups in Iraq, especially Yazidi women and girls. Yazidis—ethnically Kurdish and one of the oldest religious minorities in the region, with an estimated population of 700,000—adhere to a complex belief system that combines aspects of Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity. But members of Islamic State see them as nothing more than worthless devil worshippers.

Over the past couple of months, Islamic State has been releasing its captives en masse. Last Wednesday, the group released more than 200 Yazidis who were abducted near Sinjar in northern Iraq in August. This follows another 200 Yazidi captives released in January. Common themes among the Yazidi girls and women enslaved by Islamic State fighters who have spoken out about their experiences include horrific accounts of rape and abuse.

Islamic State has no doubt crippled the Yazidi community. In March, the United Nations office for human rights released a report saying Islamic States’s actions against them may amount to genocide. At the same time, many activists with local NGOs and health-care service providers see a faint glimmer of hope coming from the Yazidi community about the future of these women.

In September of last year, and again in February, Baba Sheikh, a Yazidi religious leader, released a statement to his community in response to the kidnappings and acts of sexual violence being committed against Yazidi women and girls.

“These survivors remain pure Yezidis,” the statement reads. “And no one may injure their Yezidi faith, because they were subjected to a matter outside their control . . . We therefore call on everyone to co-operate with and support these victims, so that they may again live their normal lives and integrate into society.”

His unprecedented call for Yazidis to accept and care for victims of sexual assault was a welcome surprise to women’s rights activists in Iraq. The Yazidi community has long been criticized for practising honour killings and harshly punishing women who disobey the strict codes of sexual conduct or who marry outside their faith. When Yazidi women were sexually assaulted in the past, before Islamic State came to power, they would typically be ostracized or even put to death by their families, said Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, in an interview in Toronto. Her group is working to eradicate the honour-killing provision in the Iraqi penal code, and has set up shelters and provides services to Yazidi women who have escaped Islamic State captivity.

It’s one of the first times a religious group in the region has taken such a stance on sexual assault, according to Mohammed. “It’s setting a very good precedent for the rest of the communities in Iraq and beyond,” she says. During her work with Yazidi women in refugee camps in Dohuk, Kurdistan, over the past few weeks, Mohammed says she has seen numerous examples of Yazidi families adopting girls who escaped Islamic State.

By the time one young Yazidi girl arrived at the camp after she was held prisoner and raped by Islamic State fighters, she was pregnant. “When she came to Dohuk, she was adopted by a Yazidi family who didn’t know her before. They got a doctor to come and abort the baby,” she says. For Mohammed, this is another example of how Yazidis are adapting to atrocities committed by Islamic State. “In our current era, it’s not easy, or necessarily legal, to get an abortion,” but Iraqis and Yazidis are having these conversations now, because they have to, she says.

She predicts that more women captured by Islamic State will return pregnant. “This will be a big issue soon,” she says.

“What we’d like to see now is that state adopting an official position that would encourage even more families to take these girls, to treat them as prisoners of war who were subjected to torture, and to provide some sort of compensation,” says Mohammed.

For Samer Muscati, a Toronto-based researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch (and a former adviser to the Iraqi government in Baghdad), it’s statements such as Baba Sheikh’s that will encourage more of these women to speak out about their experiences and to seek help to overcome the trauma. “This has been a dramatic and welcome development that normally we haven’t seen in a place like Iraq,” he said. “When you have such a large number of people affected by something like this, the society has to change, because you can’t isolate or ostracize a huge portion of your people.”

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released a report about Yazidi survivors of rape and the social services they require to recover. It includes research Muscati conducted in Dohuk this January and February. Muscati and other researchers interviewed Kurdish officials, medical workers and 20 women who escaped Islamic State captivity, 10 of whom had been raped by Islamic State fighters. An estimated 3,000 people, mostly Yazidis, remain in Islamic State captivity, according to a recent UN report.

A doctor working with women and girl survivors of Islamic State captivity told Human Rights Watch researchers that, of the 105 women and girls she examined there, 70 appeared to have been raped. The report describes a 12-year-old girl named Jalila, who says she was raped by four Islamic State fighters on multiple occasions. “Sometimes I was sold. Sometimes I was given as a gift. The last man was the most abusive; he used to tie my hands and legs,” she says in the report.

The report recommends that the Iraqi government urgently reconsider its stance on abortion, which is illegal in the Kurdistan region, even for cases of rape, except when the mother’s life is in danger. “In addition, [the Kurdistan regional government] should encourage religious and community leaders to welcome children born from rape, if the mothers freely choose to raise them in the Yezidi community,” the report says.

Mohammed says she and her group are working on bringing the topic of abortion as a basic right for women out into the open. “There are doctors already doing this without fees. And many Yazidi families are taking it upon themselves to bring doctors in for these services.” As for whether the government will acknowledge abortion any time soon, Mohammed says it’s unlikely, but she remains hopeful.

“These massacres have shown us there is more reason for a women’s movement in Iraq now, because we see thousands of our sisters being enslaved and the unexpected consequences.”


Rachel Browne   / April 15, 2015


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