ISIS Seizing Women’s Rights NGO Office in Iraq

Hi Jenny, How are you? Our office in Sinjar is occupied by ISIS since last night.

It was my friend Abdulrahman Ali, one of the founders of the women’s rights NGO and magazine Warvin foundation in Iraqi Kurdistan, who contacted me Sunday night with the dangerous news.

In Sinjar Warvin had a small office with few number of staff who were running a project for war widows. Warvin Foundation is one of the most outspoken women’s rights NGOs in Iraq and are, as most women’s rights NGOs in the country, threatened from time to time. But this Sunday night things became extremely dangerous as rule of law seized to exist, in the small town in Mosul province. ISIS had already previously threatened all people dealing with women’s rights issues in Mosul. Warvin’s staff, usually so daring, realized the only thing they could do was to flee.

“(The staff of the magazine in Sinjar)… are all of them under threat… and they left the city and from last night they are in mountains,” Abdulrahman said. “We’re afraid from that point if they (ISIS) understand what is Warvin do there they may burn it.”

During the night between Saturday and Sunday ISIS entered the city and people fled in masses. Kurdistan’s army seems to have lost control.

What someone said about the killing of Osama bin Laden has become the prophecy for Iraq: “He’s like a dragon, if you cut of his head ten new heads will grow out and take his place instead.

In this ongoing nightmare with the ten-headed dragon, women are, as usual, the main loosers.

Photo credit: Warvin Foundation

Advertisements

Aim Higher – Coexist. The persons behind Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies

jews and arabs front pic

Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies Facebookpage was started after the Israeli attack on Gaza and popped up on Facebook on July 10 – 16 day ago. In these 16 days the page has literally exploded with followers and people posting their own photos and comments, promoting friendship and love in a time of war. The page took many people by surprise, I included. Who were the people behind the page? I just had to find out, and the initiators were happy to share about themselves.

Abraham Gutman from Israel and Dania Darwish from Syria were classmates at Hunter College in New York and took a class in National Model United Nations together. They were both enjoying discussions about Middle Eastern politics even though they not always shared the same views.

“(We) don’t always agree but we never felt that our different opinions changed our friendship or caused any contingency between us”, Abraham says when I get in touch with them by e-mail.

They tell me that the goal of the page is to diffuse some of the hate and tension on social media platforms:

In addition, this initiative aims to create a space for civil discourse between people who identify with divergent political ideas.

I ask about how the page is a response to the current Israeli attacks on Gaza.

We feel that the escalation between Israel and Gaza caused an escalation in the language that people use on social media. In regards to the conflict, political commentary became more hateful and more violent. Unfortunately, it is easy to hide behind a keyboard and say extreme statements. Although on some things we disagree, we both believe that it is important to support a cease fire and non-violent resistance.

And how has the feedback been so far?

We got a lot of criticism from various sides of the political spectrum but we were lucky that all the criticism was civil and respectful. We did get a lot of positive feedback from Israelis, Palestinians, and many types of people that fit into different ethnic and religious groups.”

Well, not everyone likes the page. After my e-mail exchange with Abraham and Dania, there have been a few hateful messages and photos posted by others on the page. Someone has written:

Don’t tell me love between us… Love don’t exist between Arabs and Terroriste fuck you Isra-bitch”.

The same person ha uploaded a drawing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahi butchering Palestinians, receiving an anti-comment from someone saying:

Aww poor Hamas, everyone is against you… stop crying, stop exploding your silly weak bombs, and Israel will stop defending Israel. It will save you some poor civilians.

But among the overwhelming photos, comments and followers on the page – 31.450 at today’s date, – probably more when you read this – those are an absolute minority. The photos consist of people of different religions and ethnicities, most Jews and Muslims, who in one way or another are doing what the states on an international level are failing to do: coexisting. Photos showing couples kissing each other; mixed families with their children; people with one Jewish and one Muslim parent; best friends hugging each other. Most are holding up sheets with hand-written statements: “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies”; “Jew, Arab, both Semitic. Most importantly, both human”; “Mother Jewish, Father Palestinian, whatever we suffer hate makes it worse”.

With the announcement of today’s ceasefire of Israel’s attack on Gaza, the Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies page uploaded the following statement:

With nearly 900 devastating deaths, a 12 hour humanitarian cease-fire is now in effect. We hope that our leaders can implement a solution in the Middle East that results in a permanent cease-fire in Israel/Palestine and an end to the siege in Gaza. The lives of all innocent civilians are too precious to be compromised by the reprehensible political nature of this conflict.

After the ceasefire, maybe the world leaders could follow the path given of the success of a simple Facebook page, the path of coexistence?

Photo credit: Jews & Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies Facebook page

Hawzhin The Middle Eastern Feminist

Hawzhin Azeez

The Middle Eastern Feminist page singled itself out from other feminist pages on Facebook when it started up in December last year. Feminism across boundaries of ethnicity and nations; love over hate; support over anger, seemed to be the red threads for the page.

If you are struggling today, remember that you were never meant to be ashamed, depressed and guilty. You were always meant to be victorious! Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” says a quote followed by a heart from July 16.

The reconciling approach seemed to appeal to many. The page soon had many followers.

Often white, middle class women are blamed for having this approach to women’s rights as they haven’t faced real hardships themselves. But the woman behind The Middle Eastern Feminist page is not one of those.

Hawzhin Azeez’s early childhood memories consists of escaping Iraqi Kurdistan as Saddam Hussein bombed the area with chemical weapons; her pressing a scarf against her face not to breath in the lethal smoke; her mother having skin burns all over her. Living as illegal refugees in Iran the family sometimes didn’t eat for days, and on a regular basis the police came and took away her father, accusing him of being a part of the resistance against the Iranian regime due to his Kurdish ethnicity. The family never knew when or if he was coming back. In this setting there was no room for women’s rights.

“When growing up in a refugee setting, in war-torn countries, it’s incredibly hard being a woman,” says Hawzhin when explaining her upbringing and how she became a feminist. “People hold on to their ethnicity and as a young woman you’re just supposed to behave.”

After finally receiving asylum in Australia, Hawzhin and her family faced a new dilemma: the one of suddenly being in a liberal culture with new gender roles that they had no idea how to manage.

“I was going through my puberty in a family traumatized from the war,” Hawzhin says. “And we were stripped off our identity. My parents were very traditional and conservative and it was difficult for me to be friends with Australian girls. It was an isolating experience going to a Western school.”

In the Kurdish community where they lived a strong social control was being exercised. Hawzhin points out that it was first and foremost the women who exercised this control over each other and each other’s daughters. She says they had internalized the racism and sexism they had been exposed to as Kurds in the Middle East, and turned it into misogyny.

“Gossip was used a tool to limit and control each other between women. It was used to shame and guilt what women and girls did in the community.”

Despite the lack of role models, Hawzhin knew she was a feminist.

“I was born a feminist!” she says. “In Iran I witnessed things that were incredibly wrong and unjust. Religion was used as an ideology to limit the women, what they wanted to achieve. What chador means for me as a human being is that I become sexualized.”

As a teenager she was incredibly angry because she wasn’t able to live her life the way she wanted to. She read a lot of feminist literature in high school, it was her escape.

“My choices were directly linked to my family, if they agreed. I couldn’t create any issues for my family in the Kurdish community. It was a constant struggle between the community’s values and my feminism.”

Despite having arrived to Australia as an 11 year old with only two years of primary school education, Hawzhin was able to enter university after high school to study international relations and political science. But even having made it so far, she couldn’t live the way she wanted to. When she moved out of her parents’ house to do her PhD in another city at 25 years old, she was finally able to be independent. But it took a long time for her to adjust.

“I had no idea who I was. Growing up in a patriarchal family I had been constantly told how to behave and how to live. I now choose to live independently and I wish for every girl to have this freedom. Unless you do this you will never be able to make informed decisions on yourself.”

When starting The Middle Eastern feminist page it was after a long and difficult semester at university, when she was emotionally drained and spent a lot of time in front of Facebook. She noticed how people mostly posted things about what they ate and going to the gym, and wanted to turn her Facebook time into something more intellectual. Her motivation also steamed from being back in her country of origin for the first time since the escape. She went on her own without her parents and met up with her relatives. The trips were wonderful, she says, but she noticed how little women in Iraqi Kurdistan knew about their rights, and this was something she wanted to change.

“I wanted a safe place for Middle Eastern women or women from developing societies where they could talk about their rights and issues they were dealing with. But I also wanted to challenge them and tell them they could have a traditional life and still be feminists.”

Hawzhin mean that some women in the Middle East might not be able to escape their traditional life but that they can find space where they can still be feminists.

Another goal was to educate Western women on Middle Eastern women’s issues. She wanted a place for women from the two worlds to meet and realize that they were dealing with the same issues.

“Women everywhere are dealing with for example street harassment. Although the issues Middle Eastern women have are on another level, we are all struggling. I wanted to create a place for solidarity, for women to find commonalities in their lives.”

“Have you felt supported by Australian feminists or have you felt excluded?”

“Feminism in Australia is not a priority for many people… There is also a barrier between privileged women and women of color. A lot of the feminist groups and women are diffused within the political movements, there are not many groups trying to bridge the gap between privileged women and women of color, to bring all of these different identities together. But this is necessary.”

The page is now an active place for discussions and many of the over 6.000 followers are not only from the Middle East but from all over the world. Through the page connections are being made and people are making friends across boundaries. Hawzhin is actively promoting other feminist pages on her own, urging her followers to like a new page that has recently been started. She’s also sharing her private Facebook page with followers that want to add her as a friend – a page where she has posted photos of herself and her mom hugging, dressed up in Kurdish clothes, as well as photos from university parties where she’s dolled up (“I dress very femininely, I love to wear lipstick,” she says on a side note).

On combining the different cultures, she says that she sees herself as a bridge between women in Afghanistan who can’t leave the house, and urban, developed women in Egypt; that they can contribute to each other through the page.

A long message to her followers on the page from July starts like this:

I haven’t said this in a while, but: I am so incredibly in love with all you inspiring feminists (male and female), and the new ones on this page and the ones that send me private emails and share their stories, and those of you who comment and make witty and brilliant comments to posts. I know that we all come from different cultural and social settings but that does not take away from the fact that we are all struggling against a global system which thrives on the oppression and subjugation of people based on their gender or sexual orientation or race. All of our struggles matter, though the problems we face may differ somewhat.

Hawzhin has had very little negative feedback on her page and says she is shocked by the amount of support and number of women that have been contacting her. Some people expect that she’s a Muslim feminist but this is not what she calls herself.

“I call myself a secular feminist,” she says. “But if women want to cover up that’s great – I don’t believe in ripping women off their scarf.”

“Does your family know you’re a feminist?”

She laughs:

“Oh yes, very much so.”

So how are her parents, the once traumatized refugees that had such a hard time to adjust to the new society they were in, dealing with their daughter having developed to being such an outspoken feminist?

“My family has come such a long way,” she says, delighted. “There were so many things we couldn’t discuss before due to our culture, but this has changed. I am now teaching my younger sister and brother about feminism. When I visit them I always show them feminist documentaries, and my sister who is 13 comes with me to political marches. I’m teaching her to be more independent. It’s important to start with the children.”

Photo 1: Copyright Hawzhin Azeez, Photo 2: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Can Iraq’s Government Handle ISIS Without Becoming Oppressors Themselves?

hayder

Hayder Hamzoz

Isn’t it sad that the supporters for the country of Iraq are constantly working against the odds? With the frightening delevopment of the ISIS terrorists, Iraq has once again taken several steps back from potential stability and coexistance – 11 years after the outbreak of the war they didn’t start themselves.

Now the Americans are out and Iraq is left on their own to fight against the dark powers that seem overwhelmingly strong. Do they have the capacity to resist? I asked my friend, the human rights activist Hayder Hamzoz, how he saw the situation. He is coordinator of Iraqi Network for Social Media, a community for bloggers and citizen journalists in Iraq, and he has been very active in promoting development and human rights through social media. He sees dangers not only in the threats of ISIS but in how the Iraqi government is handling the situation:

The situation now is very bad outside Baghdad like in Diyala, Mosul, Kirkuk, Alanbar, and Salahaldeen,” he says. “The problem is that a lot of fake news are coming from ISIS through social media and we’re facing that through the trust news from the citizen there under the hashtag #insm_iq. 

This can bring many potential dangers for us (activists, my comment), like they can say you are supporting the ISIS terrorists because you don’t have direct tweets to support the army, this comes from the government. Also, from ISIS they will attack us at least in social media, unless they have group in Baghdad to follow us, because the community knows us, because our sharing about the daily life in Baghdad and other provinces, and they share the fake news. Also, from government’s side again, since we’re teaching the activists how to remove the banners from the banned social media; from the governments perspective we are doing something illegal. 

Can Iraq’s government handle the threat of the terrorists without becoming oppressors themselves? The challenge has two sides. I hope the activists won’t give up.

Photo: Copyright Hayder Hamzoz

Kurdish Mobilization for the Murdered Girl

20140529-221926-80366305.jpg

Dunya

A few days ago the horrifying news about a young girl who was the victim of a honourkilling in Dohuk in Northern Kurdistan spread over the world. Dunya, a 15-year-old girl who was in an arranged marriage with a 45-year-old man, according to kurdishrights.org his name was Sleman Ziad Younis, had been killed by him and the photos of her mutilated body filled the internet.

These news are unfortunately not rare in Kurdistan. Violence against women is a wide spread phenomenon – I dare saying this as I have worked with women’s rights issues in the region – and many of these crimes are swept under the rug and forgotten. Only in 2011 domestic violence became illegal in Kurdistan and even though this legal change marked a great step forward, the process of actually implementing the law and change attitudes is very long, as always when a society is in a process of change and is developing from a troubled past. Unfortunately the change was not quick enough for Dunya.

But in the aftermath of the petrifying news something happened. Women’s rights groups – there’s quite a few of them, consisting of both men and women – started to call for a mobilization against what had happened. I actually first found out about this story when one of my male Facebookfriends who is a human rights activist changed his profile picture to the picture of a young Dunya. Progessive Kurdish media condemned the causes of the murder, not only the act itself; Dunya’s parents selling off their little girl to an old man, the society not taking actions against it. Events were being set up to demonstrate against  violence against women and in support of the girls as Dunya. Yesterday May 29 the first event was held, a demonstration outside the Kurdistan parliament in Erbil called “Stand up for Dunya”.

I asked my Kurdish friend Camaran who went how he thought the event was, and he answered:

Today I went to the civil protest that took place in front of the Parliament, and continued for an hour in which the civil servants and human right activists spoke about the ordeals that women experience in their daily life in Kurdistan. 

Dunya has become the symbol of such brutality. A 15 years old child!

But I was generally disappointed at the number of participants… out of 2000 something people that responded to the event on Facebook, only around 150 people showed up.

But even though Camaran was disappointed fewer people than expected showed up, the event marked an important change. Also the fact that he as a man was there and participated in the struggle, just like my other male friend who made Dunya’s photo his Facebook profile picture. Some years ago a similar sight would have been impossible.

Photo credit: nrttv. com

Diving Sisters from Saudi Arabia

saudi gazette

Noor Al-Dubais (left) and Taammul Al-Dubais (right)

Photo credit: saudigazette.com.sa

Two sisters from Sanabis town on Tarout Island on the Eastern coast of Saudi Arabia made headlines this week as some of the few professional women divers in the country.

The local newspaper Saudi Gazette reports that Noor and Taammul Al-Dubais were raised in a seafaring family and that they have been surrounded by water all their lives. Noor was 5 when her father taught her how to breath under water and the sisters held their international diving licenses as 10 year olds. Now they wish to pass on their passion for diving to other girls. They are diving as a professional duo and have been diving on many different occasions.

They started to dive in the city of Jubail on the east coast, around Jana Island. Noor says to the newspaper Alsharq daily, regarding her diving experiences in the Red Sea off the coast of Jeddah:

I swam among the beautiful coral reefs as if I was a bird flying in a garden. I enjoy diving because my soul separates from my body when I am at great depths.

She says she finds guidance in her parents and that her friends from school encouraged her. The sisters’ father has been a great supporter and he himself is also a diver and a fisherman. He is also Noor’s and Taammul’s professional trainer and has designed a special diving suit for women that he said respects Saudi customs and traditions. Sports for Saudi women are not accepted by everyone and professional sports women in the Kingdom are an exception. But the sisters’ father says:

Noor and Taammul are part of a diving family that loves to look for coral reefs and explore the magical waters of the Gulf. All of my sons and daughters are divers.

Hopefully Noor and Taammul will set an example for many other brave young women around the world.

“I Am Very Happy Today Because I Believe in Change” – on the Iraqi Elections

Dina Najem

On the evening of the Iraqi elections yesterday my Facebook newsfeed was filled with Iraqi friends and aquintances who happily showed their ink coloured fingers on snapshots uploaded from smartphones. Iraq has been tormented by more violence the last weeks before the elections – still so many Iraqis seemed happy and hopeful.

I caught myself thinking, when was the last time I had a snapshot of myself on election day? That was a long time ago. The last years I have been so worried by the increasing intolerance in Sweden that I haven’t enjoyed the moment of voting.

I asked Dina Najem, women’s rights activist in Baghdad whom I previously interviewed for my blog, on her thoughts about the election and the future. She answered:

We hope in this elections we vote for new faces to be in our new parlement. We hope that they can hear our voices and we want a new Iraq. We want to build the future and change our country from the war to the new Iraq that can be developing and educating. The outcome will be better for us because we need to change and we need to achive our dream. I am very happy today because I believe in change, and all the Iraqi youth want that change.

With such a hope for the future it’s hard to stay pessimistic. I’ll borrow some of the Iraqi courage this September, when our next election is due.

Photo credit: Dina Najem