Dr. Ilham Makki- October Protests Are A Milestone in The Iraqi Feminist Movement

Dr. Ilham Makki: October Protests Are A Milestone in The Iraqi Feminist Movement

Two years ago, when the Iraqi masses first took to the squares to speak out against corruption, oppression, poverty, marginalisation, and unemployment, it was a new turning point in the history of popular uprisings in Iraq. One of the most prominent features of this development was the participation of women of different backgrounds and ages, in a clear challenge to postulates about the social subordination and marginalisation of Iraqi women. The unprecedented and remarkable representation of women in the October demonstrations counteracted the masculinity that had prevailed over the protest movement. It has also raised many questions about the nature, objectives, and outcomes of women’s effective participation in Iraq. 

In a research paper entitled Women’s Participation in the October Protests: An Act of Gender Challenge and Resistance, Dr. Ilham Makki, a researcher and activist in the field of women’s rights and gender issues with a PhD in anthropology, answers these questions through feminist analysis and on-ground observations of the protests. 

We are pleased to have had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Makki about the main conclusions of her research paper, and her vision on feminist discourse and women’s active participation in Iraq more generally.  

Photos from Tahrir Square – The Creativity of Tahrir Youth

Iraqi Women in Tahrir Square participate in October Revolution – We want a nation free of corruption.

Dr. Makki, before we get into the details of the paper, can you tell us more about yourself and your career as a feminist activist and researcher? 

I was born in Baghdad to a family of modest economic means. Like any Iraqi girl, I endured many challenges. At home, I was inoculated with a very traditional outlook on gender, and my mother believed I would never achieve anything.  

My father passed away when I was six years old, and my mother was very reliant on the boys, believing that they would grow up and work to help her. There were four boys and four girls in our household, and my mother had little hope for the girls due to the conventional wisdom that a girl would get married and leave the family home. 

I remember that, when one of my brothers succeeded in school, my mother would be overcome with joy, and she would distribute sweets and ululate. As for me, she never even asked me about my grades. I kept asking myself why. Why can the boy leave the house when I am forbidden to do so? Why is their education important and mine not so? Why must I serve my brother? In short, I was brought up to traditional gender values in terms of perception of women and their traditional roles. 

Perhaps the fact that education is free helped me complete my education, as there was no economic burden for my mother to send me to university. I began working immediately after completing my university studies, and I did not have an opportunity to complete my higher education until 2003, when salaries improved to some extent.   

This cultural and educational background granted me an opportunity for a greater and deeper understanding of the groups of women. Knowing the issues faced by women in other segments of society, this feminist sentiment was natural.  

In my early years, I was a pacifist and I was trying to cope with the situation, as opposing it meant that my life would be difficult. However, when I came to choose a subject for my master’s thesis, I began studying feminist theories. My thesis was about the political culture of Iraqi women parliamentarians, but my feminist theoretical knowledge was somewhat scattered. 

During my PhD studies, and through my civic activity, I started taking on a new scientifically correct direction through readings, research and study. By the time I attained my PhD, I had been able to analyse and use feminist theories more scientifically. 

I have conducted substantial research into the conditions of women, and encountered many women like me who live in conservative and closed contexts, but where this sense of discrimination and injustice exists. This has granted me the ability, or skill, to analyse the situation of women in different contexts. My study of anthropology also helped me not to have condescending analyses.  

This is my humble family background, my life and personal experiences as a woman and girl who lived in this society, and my studies that gave me further sophistication. What has helped me the most, however, was my civil society activism, through which I was able to integrate knowledge, struggle, and cognitive development such that today I give hours, days and weeks of my time to volunteer in this field.   

What prompted you to write about the October 2019 protests? 

The idea started before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Many things had begun to change with the participation of women and girls, especially young women, in the protests. The rate of women’s participation increased substantially, and the roles in which women participated began to change.  

I have long observed how media, and social media, handle women’s political participation, but there was no scientific approach to find out the reasons, or a method for how to properly frame the participation of young women. The challenges facing women’s participation worsened in early 2020, especially the spreading of rumours and false news, while there was also an increase in political violence against women. 

All of these developments and observations occupied my thinking. When the opportunity came to write, I penned these thoughts on paper. There is another study that will also be published in two months in which we expand further. We tried to meet with young women who participated in the 2019 protests and uncovered some of the personal ideas and perceptions of these women. I cannot write about women without hearing their voices. 

For readers who are not very familiar with the political situation in Iraq or the feminist movement there, how would you introduce the significance of the October 2019 protests in terms of the role of women? How have these protests impacted, directly or indirectly, women’s presence in the public sphere? 

Here, we must discuss the period that preceded the October protests, and the period after. There are those who call it protests, or revolution, etc. each according to their vision of it as a social, political, and cultural event. I refer to them as protests.  

The October protests are a milestone in the history of Iraq. As a consequence of them, the political system and government have shifted. These young men and women, who had been described as ‘ignorants,’ managed to force the prime minister to resign and to bring about a major shift in political awareness. Based on a scientific reading, this shift has not occurred overnight, and is rather the result of accumulation over the years. I see this comprehensive change that occurred as having erupted during the October 2019 protests. 

As for women’s participation, such activities and demonstrations were not unusual in the 1940s and 1950s. But they used to take place strictly in city centres and included educated women, and those with politically active family members who involved them. These are the leading feminists we encounter today.  

This time, what was striking was that many of the young women were from outside political organisations, and even outside civil society, and perhaps they had never heard of feminism or gender concepts, or did not know any particular party. Generations have been born to the world of social media and the Internet. 

One hallmark [of these protests] was the volume and quality of women’s participation. The organisation of women has become more visible in society, such as the Girls of My Homeland march in response to one political leader’s call for gender segregation at the protests, accusing women and girls of transgressing society’s expectations of them. 

Accordingly, there was vital participation by women in terms of volume and the types of roles that women played during the protests. There were many young women in the lines of confrontation with security forces, and there were women paramedics, media activists, and other who gave economic support to the protestors demonstrating in squares, and so on.  

Iraqi women in Tahrir Square: Our revolution is peaceful

Under the slogan “Our Voice as Women of the Revolution, ” a mass feminist demonstration started from Victory Square towards Tahrir Square in Baghdad, on Saturday morning, 16 November 2019. They announced their support for the people’s demands for change in order to build a state of citizenship and social justice, and supported the rebellious youth in the sit-in. The participants raised the Iraqi flags, and their voices resounded with love for the country and its peaceful revolution.

A peaceful women revolution
A peaceful Youth revolution 

In the introduction to the paper, you emphasised your caution to avoid “forming generalised, lofty perceptions that place women within one group, taking into account the intersections of class, race, religion, ethnicity, and power structures.” Why was this aspect such a priority in your research, and how was it reflected in its contents? 

Through dialogues, meetings, and observations, I found, for example, a gender age gap between young women and veteran feminists, as well as differences between partisan feminist organisations and some young women.  

Let us consider the so-called white shirts revolution, for instance. These young women were in preparatory classes, less than 18 years old; they had special (social media) groups; and they had a specific time during which they participated in the protests. This movement gained momentum, and gave an impression of the peaceful nature of the protests; and protesters rejoiced in the presence of these young men. All of this caught my attention, as did the different gender gaps in the forms and types of feminist movements. 

 The presence of housewives was also remarkable. I did not have the opportunity to talk to these women, so my observations were based on common stories, and not on a systematic scientific study to discover the motives for these women’s participation. There were many different groups of women, each with their own reasons to participate, their own attitudes, and different aspirations as well. 

Therefore, in the second study, there was a direct question about the roles that women performed. Confirming what I had written in the first paper, we found many young women who were not comfortable with the traditional roles that women played in the protests, and they rejected them. One young woman said that she was behaving in the protest the same way she does at home. 

This intersectionality is an important feminist approach that I try to adopt in all my studies and research. The scientific value of many studies is undermined if such a method is not adopted. 

"The first time I set foot in Tahrir Square [Baghdad] with my colleagues, my feeling was indescribable as I heard the chants of the protesting youths, carrying on their shoulders the vigor of revolution and dreams of change. However, all of these feelings were suspended when one young man handed me a broom and asked me to clean and collect waste. I looked at him and said ‘No, I don't want my role to be to handle a broom and clean.’ He left, and handed it to my colleague who carried it and she was pleased and hurried to clean and collect waste with the rest of my colleagues. I found myself sitting alone, looking at my friends, and wondering: Why must we, women, fulfil traditional roles even in spaces that are, at least ostensibly, supposed to give us political equality?"

Quote by a participant in the study/paper

In your paper, you tackled the absence of slogans with feminist content in the protest squares. It was interesting how you interpreted this from a cultural and social perspective, relating it to Iraqi women’s ability to understand the context and develop their own local approaches to push for a “soft, silent and invisible” social transformation. Tell us about this argument, and how you came to it through your interviews and research. 

I discovered this during my PhD. I met women from very conservative communities in very harsh cultural and social contexts, such as Najaf and some other neighbourhoods in Baghdad. I found that, often, these women are effective and have a sense of agency. They may not be familiar with feminist concepts, liberalism, or Marxism, and have not heard of any of them. At the same time, however, they fought for their basic human rights without knowing the history of feminism, especially as acknowledged in Western societies. 

This also applies to the theory that Muslim women do not need liberal feminist theories for emancipation. We have this dichotomy, as if we have to decide if we are with liberal feminism or against it entirely. This is problematic. Theories are placed along two poles, and women live in the broad spectrum that exists between the two poles.  

We have to go back to the stakeholders. And I am seeking to mediate between the two camps to understand their contexts and the challenges they suffer from, in order to reflect this through my research and my readings. 

Simply put, women have a sense of injustice and discrimination, and as I repeat often, women do not need awareness-raising. I am against the phrase ‘raising awareness.’ Women have their own intellect, awareness, and knowledge. They don’t need me, or anyone else, to show them how they are being subjected to injustice.  

At the same time, women are a part of this society and this context, and frankly not many of them want to change these social relationships in which they live in their families, extended families and traditional communities. A woman who wears the abaya or the burqa is not interested in taking off the abaya or the veil, as these are not her priorities. Rather, her issues may be education, or finding solutions to economic problems.   

It is also important to place each category of women, not just in Iraq, in their own political context. We need to understand the latter’s impact, as well as women’s means of facing all political, cultural, economic, and religious challenges, and how they affect their lives and positions. 

Does this mean that Muslim women are not active? No, it does not. When the women accepted to emerge in protest, they were under great pressure, but they still took any opportunity to raise their voice. We must understand these women, and the pressures on them, and refrain from accusing them of being reactionary by projecting a Western perspective onto them. 

The October 2019 protests challenged the dichotomy between the private and public spheres, enabling many women to overcome social barriers to their participation in politics, including through cyberspace. However, women continue to face increasing political violence, both physically and in cyberspace. Through your research and the testimonies you collected, tell us more about how Iraqi women managed to impose their physical and virtual presence during the events of 2019, as well as the challenges they faced. 

The public sphere is a feminist problem in all societies, the problem of the participation of women and marginalised groups in the public sphere as it is a domain of power, economic resources, and force. This is the problem of depriving women of the public sphere, and Iraq is similar to many other countries in this regard. 

In Iraq, the problem of women’s presence in the public sphere is influenced by the ideology of the regime. At some point in the 1970s, the regime was stable, and women’s presence in the public sphere was immense. During the Iran war, women were also needed to replace men’s jobs. We saw significant contributions by women through leadership within government institutions and local communities, for example the General Federation of Iraqi Women that, at some point, had access to women in the farthest stretches of the Iraqi countryside. 

During the 1990s, all of this changed; and with the embargo, things changed further. After 2003, and after the control of extremist parties and Islamist movements, the problems multiplied and the security situation worsened. As such, the public sphere became very dangerous for both men and women. From my personal experience, my brothers would stay at home and not work while I was working and buying household necessities, as killings targeted men more than women. 

The public sphere in Iraq is a violent space for women. There are many areas that we cannot enter, especially Tahrir Square where I cannot stay after four in the afternoon, or else I would be considered a sex worker. It is a purely male space. In general, since 2003, there has been a systematic exclusion of women from the public sphere. We are talking about a generation of girls and young women who do not know what school is like, even though their mothers had attended both school and university. 

When women and youths participated in the 2019 protests, this was a kind of challenge and a fissure in the concept of state control over the public sphere, as well as a challenge to security authorities. I heard from more than one young woman who protested that when the forces saw a young woman among the protesters, they ramped up the beatings, bombs, and violence. Various political parties that rejected the protests, and saw them as a threat to their corrupt regime, used militias to intimidate, kidnap, and sometimes kill girls and young women in order to return them to the private sphere. This violence was systematic, which is why I refer to it as political violence, and it was carried out before the eyes and ears of formal security forces. 

Despite the progress made by women in Iraq, you mentioned in your paper that traditional gender roles still haunt female protesters. Tell us more about this issue.  

This relates to the social, political and cultural contexts that are imposed on women. Some women welcomed these traditional roles because they wanted a foothold. As I mentioned earlier, Tahrir Square is a purely male space. Not many young women, girls, or women dreamed of walking around this area so comfortably. It was a dream, like a new world was there, a utopia where women walked the street without their physical presence arousing anxiety and tension for society. 

For some groups of women, due to their social and cultural backgrounds and the restrictions imposed on them, it was the case that their mere presence in the square, even in traditional gender roles, was an achievement. Whatever work the women did was to them a revolution. As for other groups that demanded active political participation, they expressed their priorities as being autonomy and political participation. This indicates the diversity of feminist demands, which corresponds to the diversity of women’s different priorities.  

We are discussing different levels. However, what happened during the protests was an exchange of knowledge between different groups of women, which made the regime ramp up its violence as it noticed a clear change.    

There is no doubt that the October 2019 protests represent a milestone in feminist mobilisation in Iraq. However, two years later, how has women’s presence and feminist resistance evolved further? Can we say that 2019 was a first step in an ongoing journey towards social, cultural, and political transformation led by Iraqi women? 

Unfortunately, the problem with the feminist movement in Iraq is that it is always affected by the structural contexts of the regime. We should always go to the roots. Nothing has changed in the regime, especially the economic situation, corruption, and the control of political parties and blocs over the levers of power and resources. 

I view that, after the October protests, the feminist movement has become more expansive. On a personal level, I am now dealing with many youth groups. It is unbelievable how they have now organised themselves. The monopoly by some civil society organisations has been broken. However, in my opinion, the Iraqi feminist movement still needs to develop in terms of theory, and this is what we lack, unfortunately. We need to renew our tools and techniques, as well as our knowledge, in order to live up to the responsibility here.  

The October protests broke many restrictions, and the monopoly by some parties over what is known as “the human rights revolution in Iraq” and increased political and local awareness. However, all of this is in need of continuous organisation. 

Dr. Makki’s full paper is published in a book entitled The October Protests in Iraq, issued by the Iraqi publishing house Dar Stoor in 2021. This interview was originally made in Arabic and has been translated to English.