Feminist Activisms in Post-Da’esh Iraq

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Zahra Ali, Rutgers University

Since 2008, the adoption of legislation tackling violence against women has constituted an important project for feminists in Iraq. No law sanctioning domestic violence exists in Arab Iraq (in contrast to Iraqi Kurdistan). Over the last decade, feminist activists have drafted several versions of a law in an attempt to submit it to vote in the Iraqi parliament in vain. The debate around the legalization of shelters for women victims of abuse has  emerged several times since in Iraqi public and media discourse. Domestic and sexual violence is a common reality in a country torn by conflict and in which essential state services to protect the victims are lacking.  

The most recent attempt to legalize shelters was launched after the Da‘esh invasion of Mosul and parts of northern Iraq in June 2014 when shocking images of Yazidi women enslaved by Da‘esh fighters spread through local and international media. Those horrifying images made the discourse around sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war central for global NGOs, UN programs in Iraq such as UN-Women and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), and the Iraqi state.  The Iraqi government adopted an emergency plan to deal with the situation in 2015, which was to be implemented within one year. However, according to Bushra al-Aubadi and other feminist activists I interviewed in Baghdad in spring 2016 and spring 2017, it was never implemented by the Iraqi authorities.

In this essay, I explore recent feminist mobilization around the adoption of legislations sanctioning violence against women. The essay draws on my extensive fieldwork with both feminist and women’s groups in Iraq, as well as protest movements that spread across the country starting in 2015.[1]  I have followed the negotiations and discussions raised by this campaign within the Iraqi civil society networks, the meetings initiated by feminist activists with representatives of Shi‘a religious authorities in Najaf the maraje‘, as well as the debates within feminist groups. I will focus here on Arab Iraq and on the main actors of this campaign: the Iraqi Women Network (IWN), the Iraqi Al-Amal Association (Al-Amal), Baghdad Women’s Association (BWA), the Iraqi Women’s League (al-Rabita), the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), and the Iraqi Women Journalist’s Forum (IWJF). All of these feminist networks and organizations develop different strategies and initiatives to support the drafting of a law tackling violence against women. 

Mobilization for legislation on violence against women (VAW)

The battle by women’s rights organizations in Iraq to draft a law sanctioning VAW began in 2008. This plan was followed and finalized in Iraqi Kurdistan in the form of the law “combatting domestic violence” that was adopted in 2011.[2] In the rest of Iraq, discussion of this plan continued until 2013 when it was finally discussed by the government. The initial government approval included a plan aiming to implement the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security in April 2014.

Feminist and women’s mobilization focused on both reforming the existing legislation and pushing for a law sanctioning VAW. Mobilization on the Iraqi Personal Status Code (or Family Law) started as soon as December 2003 when it was questioned by Iraqi Shi‘a political groups who demanded a sectarian based code instead of the current one that gathers Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims under one family law.[3] The activism on legislation related to VAW has often focused on revising articles of the Iraqi Penal Code no. 111 of 1969. Women’s movements challenged Article 41 of the penal code, allowing for “taadib al-zawj li zawjatih“ (the domesticating of the wife by the husband) which equals the legalization of domestic violence. They also targeted Article 398 related to “crimes committed in the name of honor” that lightens the sentence for the killing of a woman by a person who invokes “honor” as a motive for the crime. Many feminists also focused on the definition of sexual harassment found in Articles 400 through 404 as being vague and ineffective. Women’s groups such as Baghdad Women Association (BWA) also called for the strengthening of the criminalization of marriages contracted outside the civil court, as such marriages made up the majority of child marriages arranged in the context of poverty and/or armed violence. [4]

The draft of a law tackling VAW submitted by women and civil society organizations in 2012 to the State Consultative Council was put aside and kept dormant until the Da‘esh invasion. After review by the council in 2015 prior to submission to vote in the Iraqi parliament, it changed from the “Law Combatting VAW” to the “Family/Domestic Violence Protection Law.” Civil society organizations and feminist activists such as the Iraqi Women Network (IWN), the Iraqi Women’s League (al-Rabita), and the IWJF started to work on a draft to submit for a vote to the Iraqi parliament. They held meetings with various representatives of Iraqi authorities, including the parliament’s Woman and Child Committee, the recently formed Interior Ministry Office for Family Violence Protection and its attendant court, as well as UNAMI. There were also unprecedented historical meetings with three of the main maraje‘ in Iraq. As a result of these negotiations with various social, political, and religious forces in the country, these organizations proposed a new draft of the law.

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) harshly criticized the activists’ new draft. In partnership with MADRE, OWFI launched a different campaign: in September 2016, they signed an open letter urging the UN Security Council to pressure the Iraqi government to legalize women’s shelters.[5] OFWI is the only organization outside of Iraqi Kurdistan providing direct support for women who have been victims of abuse. Established immediately after the U.S.-led invasion, OWFI became the first organization to open shelters for women and to work on women trafficking and sexual violence outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. OWFI’s independent shelters are considered illegal by the Iraqi state, however. In September 2014, OWFI founded an anti-trafficking coalition (NATWI) that was joined by many groups in Baghdad, Babil, Nasiriya, and Basra.

Another example of women’s organizations bridging activism and services is the Iraqi Women Journalist’s Forum (IWJF). In 2015, the IWJF worked on sexual harassment in conjunction with the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative.[6] In addition to issuing a report on the matter clearly defining and documenting sexual harassment in Iraq,[7] IWJF opened a service center for “Women Human Rights Defenders in Iraq” offering free services for women victims of sexual harassment, such as counselling and legal support as well as professional trainings for women.

The debate over shelters

The parliamentary debate on the proposed law, especially on the articles of the draft suggested by women activists referring to the legalization of shelters, was initiated in early 2017 by a coalition of parliamentary committees including the Woman and Child, Human Rights, Awqaf and Religious Affairs, Labor, and Social Affairs committees. As reported by the local press, civil society, and women activists, the debates were heated and tense.[8] MPs suggested that shelters were a Western notion that could not be applied in Iraq as they would cause division in the society and break with the sacredness and integrity of the family. There was a strong insistence on the consultation of both tribal and religious authorities, as some MPs consider that Iraq is “tribal and Muslim” and that the law should not contradict al-shari‘a al-islamiyya. Bushra Al-Aubadi, a prominent lawyer and member of the IWN, pointed out that some leaders of political parties objected during their meetings with women’s rights activists that such a law would not only be against religion, but would also question the Iraqi Penal Code that allows “taadib al-zawj li zawjatihi” (domesticating of the wife by the husband).[9] Men and women of the leading Islamist political parties insist on privileging of “al-sulh” (reconciliation of spouses)  before any separation, and on naming shelters “dur amina” (houses of protection) with the intention to “Islamize” the terms of the campaign that they perceive as too secular. However, as pointed out by many activists, rejection of the law in the name of “Islam” or “Iraqi culture” was similarly expressed by both secular and Islamist voices.

In February 2017, historical and unprecedented meetings were held with a delegation composed of various women activists, many leading feminists in the country, and other intellectuals. Ayatollah Sistani decided not to get formally involved in the debate with feminist activists. The Shi‘a religious figures maraje‘ al-Shaikh ‘Ali al-Najafi, al-Sayyed Muhammed Sa‘id al-Hakim, and al-Shaikh Muhammed Ishaq al-Fayadh were less reluctant to the idea of adopting a law regarding domestic/family violence than the Shi‘a Islamist parties in power. However, according to several activists who participated in these meetings, the religious authorities raised similar concerns regarding the compatibility of the law with Islam; namely that 1) the definition/title of the law wishing should include all family members and not only women; 2) when defining violence, “taadib al-zawja” should be preserved; 3) “family reconciliation” should be put forward before any separation; 4) the sentences for violations should be lowered; 5) the shelters should be monitored and should aim to prevent society and family’s divisions. The women’s delegation obtained the approval of these religious authorities regarding the importance of adopting a law but did not obtain a clear agreement regarding the five points the religious authorities raised.

Divergent feminist strategies

Iraqi activists submitted their draft to the Iraqi Parliament in 2016. Since the Parliament did not take into account their version, in 2017 they launched a new campaign alongside wide consultations and meetings with political and religious authorities. Amal Gbashi, head of the coordination committee of the IWN, explains:[10]

The idea is to convince them that the shelters are not only for women, but also for children and men if necessary. This is of course a strategy from us. We mention women first, but we also include all the members of the family – it is more convincing. It is a strategy but it is also related to the realities. We have documented violence against children, and abuse of elders […] Also, the difference with them is that we say that we want to protect each individual within the family, and not like the conservative, the family itself as a unit. It is a huge difference. We included women without a husband, individuals living at their relatives for example and who do not have parents.

Many Iraqi feminist activists adopted a similar strategy in order to reach an agreement with dominant Iraqi political forces. They agreed to target “family violence” instead of violence against women. This new strategy also echoed public debates on child victims of abuse following the scandal of horrific photos of molested babies and children that became viral across the Iraqi media and social networks.

OWFI’s activists on the other hand consider the collaboration, work, or engagement with Islamist parties and religious authorities to be unproductive. Despite being the main organization working on shelters and VAW, OWFI was not invited to the negotiation meetings with Iraqi authorities, UNAMI, and civil society and women’s groups. Its leader, Yanar Mohammed, whom I also met at the time of the campaign in May 2017 in Baghdad at the organization’s office, was very critical of the process:

We tried to put pressure on VAW for years. I even reached the UN Security Council in 2015 to talk about that.[11] The draft was done in 2015. So now, I hear about a law on family violence. […] I went to UNAMI to let them know about my points regarding the draft. We need a law, I told them this morning. However, the law cannot consider our shelters illegal. The law talks about family and not women. Why are women not in the title? Why is women’s oppression not acknowledged?

Through a statement she published in March 2017,[12] OWFI’s leader explains her critical points on the governmental draft: first she insists on the use of VAW and the notion of “male violence” and “women as the main victims of domestic violence”, and she proposes the title to be “Protection of Women from Family Violence.” Her statement criticizes the reliance on the Iraqi Kurdistan version of the law instead of feminist terminologies and principles. Yanar Mohammed raises important critiques related to the heart of OWFI’s work—the shelters. She considers that the law makes shelters “new prisons for women,” especially through the involvement of the Interior Ministry in their management, instead of being places that provide protection, health, and social care services. She insists that the law should grant organizations like OWFI the right to run shelters, as well as the full recognition and legalization of their work.

The divergence of opinions between these two campaigns can be read through their different political strategies and modes of organizing. The first strategy is developed by networks such as the IWN composed of individuals belonging to established NGOs, such as Al-Amal organization, funded by a large network of international donors. These organizations work in partnership with the Iraqi state and UN programs such as the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and UN-Women. The IWN has a very wide reach within Iraqi civil society through its long-term work with diverse state and non-state actors, including social youth groups and religious and conservative networks. Its strategy follows a more reformist type of activism, adapting its discourse and initiatives to the type of audience it seeks to reach. OWFI, on the other hand, is mainly funded by international feminist and women’s rights networks. It adopts a clear secular, anti-Islamist type of discourse and refuses to adapt its agenda and advocacy to what activists calls in Iraq the ‘conservative mass’.


Iraqi feminist activists are still campaigning about this law.[13] They also expressed that throughout the negotiations with the Iraqi government, religious authorities, and political parties around the law, their discussion of issues of sexual violence, marital rape and abortion were considered taboo. With the deterioration of the security situation, even mobilization around the Personal Status Code has been stopped; feminist activist Bushra Al-Aubadi explains:[14]

At the moment, we do not want to direct attention to reforming the Personal Status Code because we are too afraid that they will come up with the Ja‘fari Law supposed to be based on Shi‘a jurisprudence. So, we decided as a strategy to be okay with the current Personal Status Code fearing that they would use our attempt to reform it to re-propose the Ja‘fari law, which is the worst thing ever for women’s basic rights. We managed to stop it, and it was withdrawn thanks to our pressure.

Feminists in Iraq are caught between, in Deniz Kandiyoti’s words, “the hammer and the anvil”: “they have to fight both for their formal de jure rights that are under constant threat from conservative social forces and for their substantive rights to security and human dignity that have become the casualties of endemic lawlessness and impunity in their societies.”[15] It is clear that feminists are mobilizing in the context of a weak, ethnosectarian, and repressive regime in which the “war on terror” is being used to justify the use of violence to repress political activism. Moreover, following the Da‘esh invasion, it is a context in which conservative armed groups and militia violence are being normalized and institutionalized, and the authoritative power of religious authorities and armed social and political groups are competing with the state.


[1] I interviewed and conducted participant observation in Baghdad, Najaf-Kufa, Karbala, Nasiriya, as well as Basra, with the different organizations involved in the campaign seeking to draft a law proposition and submit it to vote in the Iraqi Parliament. I also rely on my previous in-depth fieldwork experience with women’s social and political organizations in Iraq, mainly based in Baghdad, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah analyzed in my recent book Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[2] A law “combatting domestic violence” was adopted in 2011 in the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. It includes “any act, speech or threat that may harm an individual of the household physically, sexually, and psychologically and deprives his/her freedom and liberties.” The law implies a criminalization of forced or precarious marriages, female genital mutilation, and many forms of what is commonly defined as violence against women. A special court and a general directorate in charge of “combatting domestic violence” working in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, as well as the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Interior assure both the implementation of the law through sanctions of penalties and/or imprisonment and the protection of the victims with the appropriate support such as shelters, health and social services.

[3] Ali, Zahra. 2018. Women and Gender in Iraq: between Nation-Building and Fragmentation. Cambridge University Press.

[4] See: Daraj, 2018.عماد الشرع. إنها كارثة: ثلث المتزوجات في العراق قاصرات  http://daraj.com/إنها-كارثة-ثلث-المتزوجات-في-العراق-قا/

[5] “Open Letter to the UN Security Council on the Government of Iraq’s NGO Shelter Policy” by OWFI/MADRE.

[6] See the Shahrazad Campaign: https://www.iraqicivilsociety.org/shahrazad-campaign

[7] Iraqi Women Journalist’s Forum/Shahrazad, A New Study Reveals Facts about the Phenomenon of Sexual Harassment in Iraqi Society, 2015.

[8] See for example :

جدل ساخن في البرلمان حول فقرات في قانون العنف الأُسري, Jan 17, 2017, Al-Mada, Baghdad

[9] Meeting organized by the IWJF in Nadi al-Nafd, Baghdad, May 14, 2017.

[10] Meeting at the offices of Al-Amal in Baghdad in May 11, 2017.

[11] See her speech at the UN security council on October 13, 2015: http://webtv.un.org/en/ga/watch/yanar-mohammed-ngo-working-group-on-women-peace-and-security-on-women-peace-and-security-security-council-7533rd-meeting/4555272468001/?term=?lanoriginal&sort=popular

[12] “On the Necessity to Amend the “Family Violence Protection Law”, Press release from OWFI published on Yanar Mohammed’s Facebook page on March 28, 2017.

[13] Statement of Iraqi Women Network, April 30, 2019.

[14] Interview in Baghdad, May 2017.

[15] Kandiyoti. Deniz. 2007. Between the Hammer and the Anvil: Post-conflict reconstruction, Islam and Women’s Rights, Third World Quarterly, 28 (3): 503–517.