Dina – Women’s Rights Activist in Iraq

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Dina Najem became an activist after finishing her degree in French at the university in Baghdad, when she started blogging and became active in social media and realized how invisible the women were in Iraqi media.

“Iraq has always been a closed society,” she says. “Even before the US invasion the society was controlling towards women, and after 2003 there was no security at all. Women couldn’t even walk outside alone.”

Dina, now 24, decided she wanted to work for women to be able to participate more in the society.

“I have myself no support from the society” she says. “It’s my husband and my family that supports me. The government has the ability to improve the lives for Iraq’s women, they have the financial resources, but they are not doing anything.”

After a few years as an activist within local NGOs and social media Dina applied in 2012 to the Swedish Institute’s academic program for human rights activists from the Middle East and North Africa, “Social Innovation in a digital context”. She was accepted as one of 15 participants, and so was her husband Hayder, who is also an activist.

“I wanted to focus on women” she says. “Men are already dominating trainings, the political life, everything.”

She believes many women have not been fighting for their own rights.

“The war made so many stay at home, they were prevented from educating themselves. Women don´t have the knowledge to demand their rights.The one that does are not a big number.”

Lack of technical skills is another reason for the absence of women in Iraqi media according to Dina.This makes them unable to compete with men who are in the same business. With the knowledge gained on digital media from the Swedish Institutes program Dina was able to start training others.

After the six months long course she returned in April this year to Baghdad and started the photography project “Rights Without Words” for young women in the ages of 20 to 30. She went herself to look for a sponsor and got International Media Support to fund the project. By publishing information about the course online she received an overwhelming number of applications. There are obviously many young Iraqi women that want to make their spot on the media scene.

Finally Dina chose to include 22 participants instead of 15 as originally planned. The training was divided into three courses: human rights, photography and social media.

“I want to promote human rights in a creative way in my project. The participants have learned how to express themselves by photography, and how to illustrate the declaration of human rights without using any words.”

Dina has already been able to show the photos in the Iraq National Theatre, when the Iraqi musician Nasser Shamma was hosting a concert, a previously rare but nowadays more frequent happening in the capital.

Dina hopes that the world is interested of the positive development that is taking place in Iraq. She and her husband are not planning to move abroad – they want to continue with their activism despite the insecurity in Iraq. Even though she criticizes the domestic politics she thinks that there is hope in the expanding civil society. The many applicants to her project are a sign of willingness to change.

“I’m hopeful” she says. “I see so many girls that want to study and participate in everything.”

Next up in her work is to focus on women bloggers, and she also wants to work with mixed groups of young women and men. In a country where the sexes often are separated she thinks it’s crucial for women and men to work together and get to know each other.

The struggle for women’s rights is the core of her activism and she openly calls herself a feminist despite the resistance she often encounters. At the same time she is a Muslim and proud of that.

To the ones who question Dina’s commitment to human rights in a country where civilians are killed every day, she usually says:

“Well, but you can’t just sit on your chair. You have to defend your own rights.”

Rights without words

Participants in “Rights Without Words”

Photos: Copyright Dina Najem

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

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Umayyad Mosque in the heart of Damacus old city, an ancient building completed in year 715. Photos are taken during a Friday evening in June 2013.

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Also an excellent place to spend a Friday night at, for prayers and socializing. Or a playground, with it’s shiny floor perfect for sliding on…

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Let’s hope it will remain throughout the war.

Photos: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Ruth Benyamin – The Real Miss Iraq 2013

Getting hold of Ruth Benyamin, the 67th Miss Iraq and winner of this year’s Miss Iraq competition, is not easy. The competition is no longer accepted by everyone, why in recent years Iraq’s beauty queens has stepped down one after another after death threats from hardcore religious groups, the competition had to move abroad – and Talat model agency that are handling the contest are careful. Over the course of a few months I exchange e-mails with the agency and upon request e-mail the questions that I want to ask in advance. Then all of a sudden I am in touch with the current Miss Iraq of 2013, or, as she boldly calls herself on Twitter and other social media: The Real Miss Iraq.

Ruth Benyamin was chosen in June this year after the first winner stepped down, but not due to death threats this time, according to Ruth it is because she wanted to get married – there seem to be many reasons for the Iraqi beauty queens not being able to hold on to their title. Ruth tells me that she in general is discouraged from giving interviews for security reasons, but she takes her time and writes me several e-mails with long replies to the questions. Born to an Iraqi father and a Hungarian mother, Ruth is actually one of the few Iraqis winning the last years’ competition.

“Miss Iraq is an old competition, being a titleholder is a great honor” she says. “I am the 67th titleholder, 66 previous amazing women have worn the crown, and they have represented different Iraqi ethnic backgrounds and have done well in their lives.”

This year’s competition was held in private and not advertised, why Ruth was officially crowned in a private cocktail party in Heidelberg, Germany. She explains that not many people know about the contest since the organizers keep a low profile due to the threats, and because of this, holding the crown doesn’t give her as much media attention as it could:

“The pageant itself is not a televised competition so it doesn’t get much exposure. There were attempts by organizers to sell air rights to various Iraqi TV satellite stations, but the deal were rejected as TV stations had their own reservations, plus they didn’t want to be attacked by Iraq’s hard line Shiite government.”

Her guess is that this will remain the conditions for the competition, citing the dependency on the country’s security but also the fact the modelling industry in Iraq is very limited and that there is no Iraqi fashion magazines.

Although born and raised in UK, Ruth has visited Iraq several times and have ideas about the potential development of the country. She points out that she believes the situation in Iraq will remain the same unless a three state solution is adopted; this means that apart from the already existing autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Southern/Central Iraq should be divided into two states, in order to curb the ethnic violence. She seems well acquainted with this political idea:

“Part of my work as Miss Iraq is promoting such a plan, a peaceful three-state solution. There is already a Miss Kurdistan which is treated as a contest that represents an independent country, and it’s not called Iraqi Kurdistan, for example.” Later on, when explaining why she would recommend another young Iraqi woman to participate in the competition, she adds: “You become nationalistic once you compete. We were 16 girls who competed in the 2013 edition in Mombasa-Kenya, each representing a city state. I represented Lagash (state in South-Eastern Iraq, author’s comment), we did not win local pageants, because there are no local pageants, but each candidate wears a banner of a city state and it was an amazing experience to learn about our heritage, culture and history.”

Ruth was modelling part time before being crowned Miss Iraq and is all positive about the sudden change in her life that the title has brought her:

“Talat Models has kept me busy travelling from one place to another. I have been to Dubai (where I am based, I am provided a luxury furnished apartment which I share with Miss Teen Iraq, Lina Ovadia), I have been invited by the Iraqi community in Brazil, Germany, I visited Frankfurt, Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Budapest, Rome, and I will visit Sydney and Auckland later in December… The advantages are that I get public relations training, etiquette classes, a model portfolio, public speaking.”

She hopes for a career in hotel management and believes that the work experiences she gets as Miss Iraq is beneficial for the future. As for her personal experience, she says:

“The title has shaped my personality and my perspective on life, it definitely boosted my confidence as young lady.”

Entering the contest was not only a daring decision for a young Iraqi woman, living outside Iraq is not necessarily a guarantee for safety; Ruth is also Jewish, an Iraqi minority that left the country en masse due to suppression, especially during the 1940s and 50s but also after. So what was the response from the Iraqi community on her participation?

“I guess some people like me, some don’t, so far the twitter feedbacks have been positive. Some feel because I’m Jewish that I don’t represent Iraq” she says, then adding, diplomatically: “But those are a minority.”

And diplomacy is definitely a much needed skill, when being in the sometimes dangerous position of the Iraqi beauty queen, that many of her predecessors have left in advance. The Real Miss Iraq seems to hold it up very well so far.

Photocredit: http://iraqibeauties.blogspot.com/

Two Voices from Aleppo University

Aleppo University after the bombings January 2013

I was able to talk with two persons from Aleppo University in Syria, that shared what they had been going through.

Here are their stories:

I was offered a job at Aleppo university after my studies. When the revolution started we as employees in a governmental institution were made to cooperate with shabiha (a feared subgroup within the Syrian intelligence/military, some claim they are criminals that the government recruits to terrorize civilians, a strategy to stop the revolution). We had to assist them in their fights against the protests. I tried to act as if I assisted them, then I was able to escape the country.

My home in Syria is all destroyed, my street is in ruins. No food is available and when going to search for food to buy people are being killed by snipers. Why are the government and the Free Syrian Army taking it out on us? We are only citizens.I  didn’t think the revolution would go this bad, and I blame both sides now. They have both helped in destroying my city.”

I was a student in Aleppo university. In January 2012 students were gathering in front of the cafeteria, holding a protest. They were protesting peacefully, shouting for freedom, protesting against the war and demanding the release of political prisoners. Security guards inside the university called shabiha without the students knowing. They came directly and started arresting students on spot and hit them with electrical batons. Another time they gassed the university with teargas.

Then on January 15 2013, it was first day of the examinations, the government bombed the university, many people saw the attack and that it was carried out by a warplane. Still when I see a plane or helicopter in the sky I get an awful feeling. One missile hit the entrance of the faculty of architecture; the other one hit the student dorm that had been evacuated to host refugees from other areas of Aleppo, people that had have to flee their homes. Dead people were littering the streets all around.

I can’t forget the barbarity of Shabiha and the security forces, the way I saw them attack the students or the sounds of clashes and missiles around us. I still have nightmares and then I wake up sometimes and I have to say to myself: ‘It’s ok, I’m out of Syria,I’m safe now’. But now a year after my departure, the situation is more much worse. There are inner borders and snipers in everywhere and there isn’t any safe place left in Aleppo.

Photo credit: New York Times

Egyptian Streets, شوارع مصر

A great insight in what’s going on in Egypt is to be found on the website Egyptian Streets. From their Facebookpage today I have borrowed this photo and statement:

These are not the streets of Paris, London, or New York. This is an image from 1941 at Emad El Dine street in Cairo.

During this bygone era, women were not afraid to walk in the streets. Garbage did not form mountains on every corner. Grey, uniformed apartment blocks and thick smog did not obscure the sun’s light.

A bygone era indeed.”

egyptian streets

Photo credit: http://egyptianstreets.com/

I Survived the Banyas Massacre (warning: gruesome story)

Who told me this story? It doesn’t matter. When did I here this? In June this year, one month after the Banyas massacre had taken place on May 3 2013, conducted by governmental troops on civilians. In Damascus noone mentioned the massacre by name, instead we called it “unrest” or “outbreak of violence”. The result of the systematic killing of everyone in the village is easily found online, but in the heart of the government controlled capital that is nothing you can talk about.

Why did the person tell me this story, despite the danger of talking about the ongoing crimes against humanity in Syria? I guess some things are just too unbearable to keep to yourself. I couldn’t share this story while I was still in Syria, but I can now. And why am I sharing it? I want the world to know. I hope all of you readers do, too.

“Do you know what happened in Banyas? They did something horrible there. They did something that no God allows, no religion allows. What they did is forbidden in all religions!What does the persons want, who are controlling our country? What do they want from God?

There was a couple here some weeks ago. They left me their number, look, here’s the note… When I heard about what happened in Banyas I tried to call them, I was worried. But the line was shut down, I didn’t even get a signal. I heard that they had shut down the lines to all the telephones in Banyas. I called and called.

First after a couple of days the man answered. He said:

They came in the night, they killed my wife and my two children‘.

His wife was pregnant when she was here, I saw it myself, she was seven or eight months pregnant. Do you know what they did to her? They cut her in the chest, like this. Then they cut open her stomach, her whole stomach, and took out the baby. Her husband cried when he said:

They killed her, they killed my unborn baby, they killed our two little children. I’m the only one left. They are all gone.

Why I Love Syrian Girls

In a time when Syria is associated mostly with conflict, I’d like to take the opportunity to tell about something that I like with this country: my girlfriends. Now I’m not usually prone to generalizations, but I have found that my Syrian friends have quite a few characteristics in common, so why not share them? (And hey, who is a woman without her girlfriends anyways?)

Girls, I love you cause you are…

  • Openminded and curious
  • Trustworthy, if you say you will pick me up at 7 you’re at my door 7 sharp, no flaking out
  • Stylish and cool, always dressed up, willing to lend out your clothes or braid my hair
  • Complimenting on my looks in a way that makes me feel good. No “Did you gain weight?”-rudeness here
  • Fun-loving in a carefree way, when going out with you anything can happen

Ladies, this one’s for you! Keep staying cool no matter where your country is heading.