Haifaa Nour, 33-year-old president of the Women’s Freedom Organisation (WFO), one of the few women’s rights organisations in Iraq, said the threatening letters she had recently been receiving would not deter her from her job, even if it cost her her life. However, she acknowledged that for a woman activist the risks of doing humanitarian work were increasing daily.
“After the US-led invasion in 2003, women’s rights were well recognised… but unfortunately in the past two years our situation has deteriorated and the targeting of activists and women aid workers has increased, forcing dozens to give up their jobs,” Haifaa said.
“I know my life is under threat and I might be killed at any time especially for refusing to wear a veil or other traditional clothes, but if I do so, I will just be abetting the extremists,” she said.
Nour, who was recently made WFO president after the previous president, Senar Muhammad, was killed by religious zealots on 17 May, said the WFO’s effectiveness was being restricted by the day.
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“Our organisation is being targeted, and our employees are scared to leave their homes after threatening notes left on doors,” Haifaa said. “My husband was killed a year ago when I started working as an activist. Since then I have got more strength to fight for my rights and those of millions of women in Iraq.”
The WFO president, who is also a member of the Iraqi National League for Women’s Rights, said discrimination against women and the targeting of them were the main problems facing organisations affiliated to the league.
“The threats are clear. [The insurgents are saying:] `Women should stop fighting for their rights, and should only look after their children and husbands.’ We are also held responsible by the extremists for the spread of ‘incorrect behaviour’ by women in Iraqi society,” she said.
|After the US-led invasion in 2003, women’s rights were well recognised… but unfortunately in the past two years our situation has deteriorated and the targeting of activists and women aid workers has increased, forcing dozens to give up their jobs.|
Lack of support from government
Women’s rights organisations said they were being poorly assisted by the government.
“Our situation is critical,” said Mayada who showed threatening letters she had received in the past five months. “We asked the government to take more interest and raise the issue in parliament, but the government has the same old answer - that the violence is general and not just about women.”
The Ministry of Women's Affairs said it was looking into the targeting of female activists and aid workers in Iraq, and agreed the problem was getting worse.
Female aid workers
Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are obliged to keep female employees inside their offices to prevent them from being targeted.
“We didn’t have a choice after so many reprisals against our organisation and our women volunteers,” said Fatah Ahmed, spokesperson for the Iraqi Aid Association (IAA). “They were being targeted and we had to keep them inside our offices to save their lives.”
“Psychologically speaking, it is important to have women work alongside us in providing aid, but because of the violence this has not been possible,” he added.
Dozens of women aid workers have been kidnapped since 2003 and a number gave up their jobs after they were released.