Just as Iraqi women began joining street protests in southern Iraqi cities, a round of daylight assassination was initiated targeting them. This has happened a few times since the 2003 US/UK occupation. Whether carried out by militias, religious zealots or by political forces using these as cover, the effect is to terrorize and subdue half of society.
Dr. Suad Al-Ali, was the director of “WID” Organisation for Human Rights. She was particularly outspoken against corruption and the targeting of activists, during the protests in Basra, which erupted in July 2018, demanding basic services. Al- Ali herself was gunned down on 25th September.
Earlier assassinations took place in August in Baghdad. Two beauty experts, Rafif al-Yasiri and Rania al-Hassan, were killed in "ambiguous circumstances", unexplained by the authorities. The assassination of Dr Al-Ali was followed by another two women in Baghdad, Sahar Brahimi, who manages a massage centre, and model Tarra Fares who had a large following on social media. All killings took place in broad daylight and in some cases were videoed and circulated widely on social media. It looks as though a deliberate attempt is being made to kill women engaged in any public activity whether political or economic, thus, creating a climate of fear among them.
To be sure, scores of male demonstrators in Basra, Diwanya, Nassiria and Baghdad have been rounded up by security forces or sectarian militias following the protests, with some activists tortured, and others disappeared. But it was the emergence of women protesters’ angry voices on TV screens that particularly shamed the corrupt politicians.
The protests in the southern cities, described by many as an uprising, have been extremely difficult for the ruling parties and militias to suppress. Basic demands focused on a lack of clean water, after 15 years of corrupt rule, and only gradually extended to political demands. No minister could deny the facts about lack of water, electricity, jobs, health and school services. The south is also remote from central and northern parts of the country, where terrorist activities were used as pretexts to violently suppress similar protests there a few years back. Yet, the government’s initial response was to fire on demonstrators, killing 12 and wounding dozens.
Twenty-seven demonstrators were arrested. Subsequently, the peaceful demonstrations became more widespread, encouraging women to be involved.
In the absence of serious official investigation, the assassination of women caused an outcry on Iraqi and Arab social media. Some see it as a systematic political crime targeting the very nucleus of society. Others see it as an act to suppress women's freedom, keeping them locked in outdated tribal traditions and religious fanaticism, depriving them of their right to live - all under the pretext of defending honour, especially with the increasing number of young men joining sectarian militias and feeling empowered by divine power. Some attempted to legitimize the killing of women, accusing them of being prostitutes. Haider Zwaid, an anchor on the Iraqi official TV, tweeted after the assassination of Tara Faris, that she was “just a whore”, effectively justifying her killing.
This is not the first time when women have been targeted in Basra. Between 2003 and 2008, the city witnessed a campaign that left women trapped in their houses. More than 300 women were killed. Bodies were thrown in the streets after being tortured. Women’s lives were controlled by armed militias who wanted to subjugate them to a militia concept of Islam, forcing them to cower in their homes, shrouded in black. Wearing makeup became a crime against "our traditions, customs and religious heritage", meaning it must be punished.
Among those who pontificated about wearing the hijab in particular was Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement and of the Saraya al-Salam militia. In a TV interview he said every visible strand of a woman's hair would be a flame scorching the Martyr Hussain (grandson of the Prophet Muhammed, highly regarded as martyr of the martyrs) - a clear edict to severely punish women’s infringement of what’s considered to be an “Islamic” dress code.
It’s worth mentioning that labelling women as prostitutes is not confined to religious zealots and militias. Neither is it only directed at those working in fashion and cosmetics. It has been a common practice by security forces in various countries to denigrate politically active women. Listening to Palestinian, Tunisian and Iraqi women political ex-prisoners, confirms that the use of degrading language is a tool of humiliation and control and is almost universal in its use against women.
Women can only be free of such misogyny when a citizen-based rule of law guaranteeing equality to all is established and criminals do not enjoy impunity. It will also be only when “honour” as a highly regarded social value is applied to all citizens without discrimination, not just women.