Yesterday, I had coffee and a good long talk with Yanar Mohammed, MADRE’s partner and the director of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). It was Yanar who first launched the OWFI women’s shelters that MADRE has supported since 2004.
Yanar showed me pictures of some of the women and girls at the Baghdad shelter. Two teenaged girls looking up and smiling from a computer. A middle-aged woman in jeans showing off a meal she had prepared for all the other women.
I wish I could post the photos here, but it would be too dangerous for the women. The shelter’s exact location and the identities of the women who are there have to be kept secret. That's standard for women's shelters everywhere. In Iraq, women on the run are at risk for “honor killing,” one of the forms of violence against women that's risen dramatically since the US invaded.
People often lump "honor killing" under the category of "culture" and leave it at that. But no behavior is purely "cultural," and rates of "honor killing" change along with policies and social conditions generally. In the case of Iraq, the US put in place a government including reactionary leaders who favor violence against women (even "honor killing") as a way to enforce their vision of Iraqi society. You can read the gory details here.
For now, the OWFI shelters that we are supporting keep the women safe. While they are there, some of them will learn skills to help them relocate, get jobs, and begin to rebuild their lives.
Talking with Yanar, I was reminded that the shelters provide more than just temporary refuge to women threatened by war and violence in Baghdad. OWFI gives the women “a sense of home,” as Yanar said, “a close network of sisters who are risking their own lives to stand up for other women in Iraq.”
Yanar told me the story of Fatin, a young woman who escaped from a Baghdad brothel with the help of an OWFI activist. At 16, Fatin was barely literate. She was physically and emotionally scarred from years of rape and beatings. The code of “family honor” meant she could never go home again. But thanks to Hind, an older OWFI activist who had infiltrated the brothel to reach out to women trapped there, Fatin is free. For now, she is living in the OWFI shelter. She is finishing her studies and working on OWFI’s newspaper, Al-Mousawat, which means Equality. “Fatin is no longer a victim,” Yanar said with a grin. “In fact, I think one day she may be a great journalist.”
*A version of this blog entry appeared on the Jolkona Foundation’s blog.