Interview by Karrar al Asfoor
“The hijab stands for empowerment and liberation – as a symbol of feminism.” With this slogan, the veil (hijab) is celebrated in the Western world as an expression of women’s rights and in campaigns, such as the so-called “World Hijab Day.”
This statement, which I first heard when I came to Europe, is radically different from the propaganda promoted where I grew up – in Iraq. There, power is attributed only to men, while women must be obedient. Gender equality is seen as a sign of social corrosion. Thus, feminist movements are suspected of seeking to destroy society.
This contrast in perception made me curious. Why does the religious symbol of the hijab represent such contradictory values in two different societies?
For this reason, I decided to do an interview with Maryam, a feminist activist living in Iraq, to learn more about the women’s rights situation in a country where the wearing of the veil is very prevalent.
▽ Hello, Maryam.
▷ Hello, Karrar.
▽ Would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
▷ My name is Maryam. I am an Iraqi feminist activist who was born into a religious family with a Shia background, and I have participated in several human rights campaigns. Among them were the campaign to demand laws for protection against domestic violence, the campaign to rescue the kidnapped Yazidi women, and the campaign to investigate patriarchal logic.
▽ So your family is religious. Are you religious yourself?
▷ No, I am an atheist. But I express my atheistic thoughts only in secret, through social networks and with a false identity. I fear for my personal safety, because of possible threats and also violations of the blasphemy laws.
▽ What would happen to you if your identity and atheistic thoughts were revealed?
▷ They could take away all of my vital resources, I could be imprisoned, or they could simply kill me if they were to discover me. There is no place where a woman can share critical ideas in absolute safety.
▽ How long have you been an atheist? What was the reason you left religion?
▷ I was a liberal Muslim and thought that the religion itself was tolerant and that it was only society that was living the religion improperly. Even then, I supported people who were part of minorities, such as LGBT, because I thought this was a private matter that was none of anyone else’s business.
With these ideas, I differed from the majority of society, which I believe holds extremist beliefs. Iraqi society is divided into two groups, an extremist majority and a progressive minority. I felt connected to this progressive minority.
I performed the rituals of Islam and read the Quran eight times. I also performed the prayer and fasted. But I also had questions that had moved me since childhood and to which I could not find logical answers. For example, to whom the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve were married, and the story of Yunus’ stay in the belly of the whale.
In 2017, I began to look critically at my religion and search for answers. It was extremist groups like IS, Al-Qaeda, and Shia militias that made me look neutrally at the meanings of Quranic verses and reevaluate them. Those verses that call for murder, jihad, and the degradation of women. All of these verses contradicted my ethical beliefs. That is why I lost faith in Islam.
▽ You mentioned that there are two types of societies in Iraq, one extremist and one progressive. Do you live in an extremist or progressive environment? Are the people in your daily life more modern or traditional?
▷ My current environment is of course extremist and if they mistreat me, they have the backing of society, religion and the judiciary.
▽ Can you share experiences from your extremist environment?
▷ I was subjected to psychological and physical violence, had to wear the hijab and was constantly threatened with forced marriage and deprivation of a free and self-determined life. Because the woman represents the honor of the family and because it is the custom and tradition that a woman is not allowed to leave her family home unless she is married and moves into her husband’s house. I am also not allowed to dress as I wish. Here, too, I have to follow the guidelines of my guardian.
My sister was forced into a “marriage” at the age of 15 after she tried to escape and failed. After her forced marriage, she also soon became pregnant.
▽ You say you were forced to wear the veil because in some Western countries the hijab is promoted as a symbol of women’s empowerment and a symbol of liberation and feminism.
What do you say about this statement and are there any experiences with the veil that you can share with us?
▷ The ideologization of the hijab begins in childhood, when children are pressured to follow the example of Zainab bint Ali and Fatima Al Zahraa.
This narrative continues throughout the school years and society continually reinforces it. Parents, neighbors, teachers, media professionals, and the writing on the walls all have one goal, to spread and solidify the ideology of the veil.
Then, when the girl reaches the so-called legal puberty period (when her period begins), more violent and severe methods are used to force her to wear the hijab. This is socially justified by the attainment of sexual maturity. The appearance of her hair could tempt men so that she would be raped and her family would be shamed. I have heard such statements myself.
That’s why I had to wear the veil at a young age, even though I didn’t want to. I, on the other hand, liked it when my hair was visible. That’s why I took every opportunity to take it off when my family wasn’t around.
When I tried to talk to my family about not wanting to wear the veil, I was beaten and my mental health deteriorated further.
I was bullied by the school guard, students and teachers when I tried to enter the school without hijab.
Nevertheless, I think that what happened to me is comparatively harmless to what girls in the south are exposed to, such as in the city of Karbala and the city of Najaf.
Perhaps the veil is a source of strength for some Western “feminists,” but here it is the reason for the murder of women, the erasure of their individuality and the annihilation of diversity.
Where is the diversity and uniqueness of a society that has colored everyone black?
Promoting the veil as a sign of freedom (this term, of course, appeals to people who can spend their summer on the beach) is the greatest hypocrisy.
Here, millions of women are forced to wear it – and at temperatures of up to 56 degrees Celsius.
And if you even think out loud about taking it off, you’re subject to all kinds of defamation and insults.
This is where all the men interfere and want to impose the veil on women. This is only one part of what is imposed on women in this society, but it is an important part. It allows men to have absolute power over a woman’s body. So he wraps her in black clothes to hide her identity – even if that woman is a stranger to him. You can imagine the authority he has if this woman belongs to his family.
The hijab is not a sign of freedom, it is a tool to control women and push them into a certain role and it will never be a source of power.
▽ Maryam, you mentioned that your sister was married off at the age of 15. Can you shed light on the incident and whether you and your other sisters were also subjected to attempts of forced marriage?
▷ She is my fourth sister, she was mentally and physically abused. She decided to flee from my family in 2018, but she failed. She was exposed to violence and torture. The was locked up at home for several months and continued to be abused there the whole time. Finally, she was married against her will.
When my sisters and I tried to defend them, we were also exposed to violence.
And all the time we hear these phrases, “Get married or do you want to stay with us all your life? Girls are meant to get married, live their lives with their husband, work in their husband’s house.”
The violence goes on and on. The escape from one hole, the home, to another, the husband’s, is risky. Because whether the next hole is the same as the family’s hole or not, you don’t know.
▽ By whom were you exposed to violence?
▷ When I was an 8-year-old girl, violence was done to me by my father. He wanted to punish me because I was molested (according to our customs, the blame of molestation always lies with the woman). He burned my hands with boiling water, which led to their disfigurement.
For a long time I had difficulty moving my hands, but I went to exercise therapy, physical therapy, and the hospital. After that, her condition improved a little, but half of the symptoms are still present today.
In another incident during school, my mother and father burned my feet and stomach because I failed an exam. The burns on my stomach and feet are minor compared to my hands, but the scars are still visible today.
Who encouraged my father and mother to torture me was my aunt. She told them how she tortures her children to discipline them. She also scalded them.
We are exposed to violence from several people, my father, my mother, my aunts and cousins.
Verbal violence and insults are everyday occurrences, while physical violence is sporadic. However, after my sister tried to run away, the violence increased.
The entire family participated in the chastisements.
Some times my mother defended me. Other times she beat me when I was looking for a job, for example.
But the most violence I got was from my father. Last September, I was beaten so badly by my father that I was no longer able to walk.
My mother then told me that I deserved it. My father was the only one who knew how to raise me.
▽ Are there any organizations you can turn to for protection?
▷ In Iraq, I would never trust such organizations. I would rather stay with my family than with an organization whose goal is to return me to my family. The consequence would be that I would be forced to marry or killed.
I’d rather hope for a coincidence. I do not want to die.
Once I tried to ask a distant friend of my family (a proposed husband) for help. He told me that my family beat me because they love me.
Besides, all relatives stick together.
▽ So there are organizations that are supposed to provide help and protection, but they do so only as a sham? They end up handing the people seeking protection back to their families, where they are at their mercy? Where they are forcibly married or murdered? Have I understood this correctly?
▷ Exactly .
▽ Maryam, You are facing all kinds of oppression, persecution, deprivation of liberty, guardianship, and the risk of forced marriage, and there is no organization you can turn to for help. I would be interested, have you thought about leaving Iraq for another country that respects your human rights and freedoms?
▷ Of course, the idea of escaping came to me, especially after my sister tried to escape and I saw what happened to her afterwards.
But for that I need money and I don’t have any money.
So I have to work first to save money. But my family prevents me from working. I already mentioned that I was beaten by my mother because of this when she found out that I was looking for a job opportunity.
Theoretically, the plan could be successful if I had the ability to get out of the house, work, and save money, but that is virtually impossible. I can thus save much less money than I would need. So it takes me far too long to save the amount I need.
Above all, who would allow me to get out of the house and work?
Unfortunately, I’m stuck here.
▽ What prevents you from going directly to an embassy of one of the countries that respect human rights and apply for a visa, asylum or something similar?
▷ This is not possible, there is no way to apply for asylum in this way, embassies do not accept applications for asylum. Moreover, the conditions for issuing a normal visa for me are almost impossible.
If it was so easy, it would have helped many abused women.
However, these are not the only hurdles for me. Maybe my family will find out that I am trying to travel and punish me for it. Or I will be taken back by the passport officer at the airport after he informs my family.
▽ Do you know the visa requirements?
▷ You need bank statements that prove a regular income.
It is also necessary to have a document showing that the applicant is connected to his land (for example, a certificate of ownership for a commercial property).
These conditions are easily met only by citizens from Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE passport grants its holder visa-free entry to many countries, while the Iraqi passport does not grant its holder visa-free entry anywhere – except for a very limited number of countries similar to Iraq, such as Afghanistan.
Iraq is also one of the countries where citizens have little access to banking services. Therefore, bank accounts are not common here, as they are in the UAE, but are limited to a small group of business owners and people with high incomes.
On the other hand, working for a company in the UAE is enough to prove the applicant’s connection with the Emirates. In Iraq, however, the matter requires more.
In my answer, I assumed that the applicant is a man. Imagine what it would be like if the applicant is a second-class citizen who is deprived of rights, such as a woman.
▽ In recent years, there has been an influx of refugees from Middle Eastern countries to Europe and most of these refugees have been Muslim men, while women have made up a very small percentage. For example, the percentage of women among Iraqi asylum seekers in 2015 was only 10% among those under 17 years old, only 10% among those 18 to 34 years old, and only 5% among those over 35 years old. I also got the impression that most came with their families.
Regardless of whether they came alone or with their families, these numbers still do not match the demographics of Iraq.
In my opinion, the percentage of women among Iraqi asylum seekers should be around 50%. However, if we take into account the sexual discrimination against women in Iraq, the percentage of women among Iraqi asylum seekers should be much higher.
So where is it that there are so few women? Where are all the women? Why are there so few in the statistics? Do you think this immigration policy is fair?
▷ The result is, of course, unfair. The reason is the difficulties a woman faces when she thinks about emigrating to seek asylum. For a man it is easy, there is no one to oppose his emigration, but a woman has to think about how to save money and how to escape without anyone from her family finding out. If she does not succeed, she will be punished, beaten, imprisoned or killed – and this is what happened to many women in 2014/2015.
Therefore, the main reason why women do not appear in the statistics for asylum seekers is that women are locked in their families’ homes, have no rights, are second-class citizens, are under guardianship, and do not have the opportunity to emigrate.
In addition, migration to seek asylum takes place through illegal routes, including crossing land and sea borders in dangerous areas full of gangs of human traffickers. There are women who have been raped or have fallen into prostitution.
▽ Maryam, at the beginning you referred to a law on domestic violence. Can you talk more about that? What is the current Iraqi law on domestic violence?
▷ Current Iraqi law allows violence in the name of discipline, as Article 41/1 of the Iraqi Penal Code states that “there is no crime if the act is committed in the exercise of a right established according to the law … and it is considered the use of the right … of the husband towards his wife and the parents, teachers and those who have the same status towards minor children. Within the framework of what is decided according to Sharia, law or custom.”
What I talked about at the beginning is a proposed law to stop domestic violence against children, women and also men. A year ago, there was a campaign that was launched after a tragic incident in the city of Najaf. There, a woman was burned to death by her husband. She died as a result. Then the voices of feminists rose to demand an end to violence against women and children. An electronic campaign was launched to put pressure so that this law would be passed. The campaign lasted more than 100 days and reached the parliament, but the deputies voted against the law. They argued that the law contradicted the provisions of Islamic Sharia law.
The leading media had also played its part in opposing this law. For example, a journalist on Alsumaria TV said: “What is the problem if the father beats his daughter? … With what justification do the institutions intervene between the girl and her family … In the end, they are then his family and they have the right to do with him what they want “.
Most Iraqi men opposed this law and became active on social media to oppose it. This took the form of a counter-campaign that, among other things, stole the private data, such as photos, of activists to post on websites. Many activists were blackmailed and many of them disappeared.
These actions were carried out by men from Iraq. But also by Iraqi men who fled to countries that are considered feminist, such as Germany, Norway or New Zealand. They flee there and talk about their sufferings and use the laws that guarantee them human rights – but when it comes to women they become monsters.
▽ There are organizations that cooperate with the European Union. Their goal is to ensure the promotion and implementation of human rights, individual freedom and democracy around the world. For example, such as the European External Action Service. These institutions are official bodies and are funded by European taxpayers. Is there a department in these organizations that could help you? Is there someone who has asked for you? Or have they at least intervened diplomatically to support the Domestic Violence Protection Act? Is there a European initiative for Iraqi women that you have benefited from? Do you know of the existence of such an institution?
▷ If there was such an organization, I would have heard about it.
I am looking for organizations that could help me. But I have not found any information. Not even that there was even talk about it.
No one intervened to make the Domestic Violence Protection Act go into effect. Only the Canadian ambassador to Iraq, who participated in a tweet on Twitter.
And as far as the institution you mentioned, this is the first I’ve heard of it.
▽ You mentioned that you are a feminist activist. Can you talk about your political work and what the goal of your work is?
▷ I am active on social media raising public awareness about women’s and LGBT rights, freedom of expression and belief, gender equality. I also plan electronic campaigns and hashtags and equally support the campaigns and hashtags of others.
My goal is for women to be equal to men in society in the future.
My goal is not to wake up every day to the news of a woman being murdered, a woman being beaten, a child being raped, and an underage girl being married.
My goal is to get the kidnapped Yazidi women back from the hands of IS.
My goal is to stop the mistreatment of women because of the tribal system.
My goal is to end al-fasliyah. (This is a tribal practice that involves settling disputes by trafficking women. For example, if a man from one clan kills a man from another clan, the two clans meet to resolve the conflict. They reach an agreement through the handover of a sum of money by the killer’s clan to the clan of the murdered man. In addition, a group of women from the murderer’s clan are forcibly married to men from the murdered man’s clan. The number of women will be agreed upon during the meeting by a group of tribal leaders, clerics, and descendants of Prophet Muhammad).
My goal is to stop Al-Nahowah. (A tribal practice that is a veto power a man has to marry his uncle’s daughters. He can use it at any time. If this right is used, no one else can marry the girl).
My goal is to stop child marriages.
My goal is to end the shame associated with the body.
My goal is to provide women with medical care and guarantee access to the health care system.
My goal is for women to have access to education, sexual education, and breast cancer awareness. (Especially in rural areas with a high illiteracy rate).
My goal is to stop female genital mutilation.
My goal is to provide hospitals to women in rural areas, as women are more likely to die during childbirth and cancer rates are high in these areas.
My goal is equal opportunities for women in the labor market.
My goal is to publish statistics on the number of women who are persecuted, abused, raped, and victims of “honor” crimes.
My goal is to end gender stereotypes, guardianship, and all types of discrimination based on gender.
▽ Maryam, you are currently living under these terrible circumstances on a daily basis. Can you tell me what freedom means to you?
▷ Freedom means a lot to me, I really want to experience it.
I want to experience this feeling when the sun’s rays and the air touch my hair without thinking about the consequences. I want to experience this feeling of wearing beautiful clothes without being afraid. I want to experience how it feels when I make a decision and I alone take responsibility. I want to experience the feeling when my life is mine alone – without guardianship, force, coercion, constriction or pain.
I know many aspects of freedom only in theory. I really want to experience this feeling in a practical way. Everything I have learned about freedom from people who have experienced it is the firm conviction that it must be a beautiful thing if I were given the opportunity to experience it.
▽ Is there anything else you would like to share, Maryam?
▷ I have information that I would like to share. There are cemeteries for women called “The Cemetery of Guilty Women”. One is in the city of Nasiriyah and the other is in the city of Sulaymaniyah. They bury women there in nameless graves. These women are it victims of “honor” killings.
Some were killed by their brothers, others by their fathers, husbands or cousins.
Some were killed because blood did not come out of their vagina during the first sexual intercourse after their marriage. Others were killed because of their clothes, their words, leaving the house without permission, or suspicion of a romantic relationship.
But they all have one thing in common: they were all killed to preserve the “honor” of the family.
Everyone involved in the commission of these crimes – the politicians, the media, the clergy, the clans, the society – they all try to keep quiet about this issue.
Even hospitals cover up the “honor” killings. They claim that death occurred for other reasons, such as a short circuit or a fall from the stairs.
Our rights are disregarded, we are tortured, we are killed and we are buried in unknown graves to keep this quiet.
▽ Thank you Maryam for this meeting and I wish you very much to live in freedom and equality.
▷ Thank you, Karrar.
Karrar al Asfoor is an Iraqi activist. He campaigns for human rights, especially women’s rights. He is an atheist and lives in Germany.