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gender & sexuality

One of Iran's femenist socialist heros passes away


the following is excerpts of her last public speaking before her illness and eventual death.
Iraqi Women
A talk by Pouran Bazragan
Paris March 2004

At a recent meeting of the 'Committee against stoning' on the occasion of International Women's day 2004, Pouran Bazargan (1), a veteran of the radical women's movement in Iran gave a talk 'in solidarity with Iraqi Women' .The following is Iran Bulletin -Middle East Forum's translation of extracts of this talk.

"My greetings to you and all those involved in the struggle for women's liberation and equality, on the occasion of international Women's Day. Over the last two centuries the battle to eradicate sexual oppression has had many upheavals no doubt there has been some major achievements, however patriarchy together with class relations, backward religious and traditional customs have constantly presented obstacles towards any progress and we still face a long struggle to overcome sexual oppression. I have no doubt unity and determination will allow us to overcome centuries of social injustice. We can see aspects of this struggle in Iran, where women have placed themselves in the forefront of the opposition movement especially in the last 25 years by expressing their protests in many ways, including refusing to wear forced veil...

Last year we dedicated our meeting for the 8th of March to solidarity with Afghan women, another year we gave our solidarity to Palestinian women and this year we have decided to offer this meeting to oppressed Iraqi women who are facing a particularly difficult and significant time

In our neighbouring country, Iraq, we see similarities with Iran as well as differences regarding women's issues: in Iraq as in Iran, a patriarchal society relying on religious organisations and dogmatic, reactionary interpretations dominate the scene. During various social and political upheavals, women took up political activity time and time again, and as modernism grew they demanded respect and equal rights. However despite some progress in these areas, as soon as the ruling class and patriarchy felt under pressure , they retaliated by trampling upon women's rights and in this respect today we are facing one of the most dangerous periods in Iraq, unprecedented in its history.

First I would like to review some of the most important events regarding women's advances in Iraq. In 1943, while Iraq was under British occupation and most of Iraqi society was suffering from poverty and hunger, women organised one of the largest protests demanding bread. In the same decade (1940s), after the Allies victory over fascism at the time of the growth of leftwing thought and publication of socialist books, the ideals of women's liberation gained support. Girls entered higher education in large numbers and removing the veil became widespread, especially in towns and cities.

With the downfall of the monarchy in 1958 after AbdolKarim Ghassem's Coup d'etat

( an event that was supported at the time by the majority of the population and is still considered a positive event by most of the progressive, democratic forces) the active participation of the communist party in the social and political scene lead to some gains for the women's movement. It was during this period that women gained the right to vote throughout Iraq , including Kurdistan and joined party political activities. Yet they were also victims of major repressions, including following events in Mosul that lead to the imprisonment of many women. It was also at this time that the power of the clergy was reduced and interestingly enough Najaf became one of the important centres of Communist party activity. Women excelled in Literature, Arts and other areas of higher education. Amongst them one should mention Nazok AlMalaekeh who is considered as a founder of modern Arabic poetry. The same was true in Theatre and cinema. Today Iraqi women writers, poets, painters living in exile in Europe, number in dozens.

In the political atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s, the coming to power of the Baathist regime, a nationalist Laic organisation, marked a time when this party, tried in terms of its propaganda, to appear progressive. According to UNICEF's 1993 report on the situation of Iraqi women and children, during these decades new legislation gave women, full civil rights.

From the 250 members of the National assembly, 27 were women and wide network of activities was covered by Iraq's National Women's' Association. The Labour legislation of 1971, stipulated equal pay for equal work for men and women. Women employed by the state sector were allowed one year maternity leave and a women's income was considered independent of her spouse and so on. Finally family legislation was taken out of religious laws and every citizen (Sunni, Shia, Catholic... ) could go through a civil ceremony, free of all religious denominations.

However these laws were only valid as long as the interests of the dictatorship and the ruling class necessitated them. As soon as the government faced any difficulties, the laws remained on paper. If a citizen opposed the regime, he/she would have been deprived of all of his/her rights. It was in this way that every time there was a dispute between Iran and Iraq, all Iraqis of Iranian decent paid the price and hundreds of thousands of them whose ancestors had lived in Iraq for many generations, some of whom couldn't even speak Farsi, were considered fifth columnist just because their ancestors were Iranian and were expelled from the country. (of course in the last few years we have realised the same is true of other countries in the world. An example is the United States attitude to Iranians and Arabs, or France's attitude to Iranians in the 1980s) . If a man was not of Iraqi origin , he was forced to divorce his Iraqi wife. Iraqi men were encouraged to leave their Iranian born wives with financial incentives. The women were then forced to exile in Iran. This chauvinist repression was repeated a number of times and women were the main victim of this policy. After the occupation of Kuwait, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers were murdered as they were retreating from Kuwait and of course again the main living victims were mothers and orphaned children. I will leave that period and talk about our time:

The main oppression, which is rarely mentioned, was the 10 years economic sanction and the constant bombing of strategic targets by US and British planes, all with the support of the United Nations. This not only increased poverty, deprivation and insecurity, but lead to the regime imposing more pressure on the weakest link in the patriarchal society, women. Many of the laws favouring women's rights and recognised in the past were taken back. Under the pressure of economic, military, financial and commercial sanctions, Saddam's regime raised the flag of Islam. Allah Akbar was added to the flag of a basically laic country. The regime retracted to tribal, traditional Sunni customs against Shias and Kurds. To such an extent that polygamy and some obsolete traditions became common again. Economic sanctions caused major difficulties for the regime however it opened the way for the kind of religious and tribal bigotry

That had been weakened in the past. It was mainly the toiling masses who suffered from these sanctions , especially women and children. From decades ago, thousands of Iraqis live in exile but after the sanctions the number of Iraqi refugees rose by millions. A trend that is still continuing. There are tens of short stories, novels, written by Iraqi artist and intellectuals in the last few years, depicting the plight of Iraqi women suffering from years of war and sanctions.

On the 7th of Feb 2004, a report in LeMonde depicted the situation as follows:

Mrs Omal Secidan, 46, physician and nutrition expert undertook a study of the consequences of sanction on women in Baghdad. Following through examination of 4600 women and young girls, she concluded from the weight and height of 16% of the girls aged between 10 and 14 that they were suffering form severe 'malnutrition' and 41 % suffered form chronic malnutrition to such an extent that their heights was below average. Male members of the same families suffered to a lesser extent as they were given a larger share of the food on the family table.

It is worth pointing out the plight of Kurdish women in Iraq: the war between the central government and Kurds ,as well as rivalry between two tribal groups , Talbani and

Barzani, created complicated and painful situation for Kurdish women. Often a women who came into contact with a man form the opposing tribe (even if this was in the form of

An attack or rape), was condemned to death. On a number of occasions, girls were strangled by their families in their sleep as part of 'honour killing'. In fact after 1991, as the Kurdish areas came under UN control, this region was exempted form the deprivations of other regions caused by sanctions, however the plight of women did not improve. In1992 some 2372 Kurdish women signed a petition in defence of their basic rights, the number of signatories rose to 30,000 in one year. The Kurdish parliament required the support of 10 MPs from the two governing parties for the presentation of a legislation. In 1993, 35 MPs of the Talebani group signed the motion but no one form the KDP (Barzani group) signed this claiming that it 'wasn't the right time' for such legislation. Of course the women's struggle continued.

The US/UK military attack and the overthrow of the Baathist regime opened the gates of hell worse than ever before. Reports form the dreadful current situation in Iraq talk of nothing but the excessive violence of the occupying soldiers against the population, and in this work they repeat the frightening experience of repression in Vietnam and Palestine (such as destruction of homes... ) creating constant fear amongst women and children and depriving them of a normal life. They have created such an insecurity that most women are staying at home, retracting to the veil and head cover. In such a turbulent time, sexual oppression is more widespread and effective than ever before, this time justified by religious and traditional explanation, crushing Iraqi women.

The occupiers who are in Iraq under the name 'establishing democracy', took on this major crime to destroy a minor criminal and replacing it with worse. Instead of establishing civil rights, in a country with centuries of peaceful coexistence between nationalities and religions, they immediately resorted to tribal relations ( as the British did in Basra many years ago) and divided the country according to religious, tribal groups, driving the country back into the pre industrial stage ( after the 1992 war) and now driving it back into sectarian and religious divide. The occupying powers' satellite state has even made the family legislation dependent on religious dictate. In its report LeMonde adds : On the 13th of January hundreds of Iraqi women demonstrated against the new family legislation, a truly reactionary apparently adopted by the US following Ayatollah Sistani's Fatwa. The 'women's liberation organisation of Iraq' produced an international petition calling the new legislation: "against freedom, anti women and against modernity". The signatories to the petition announced that this legislation will enforce 'sexual segregation' in public places, whilst polygamy will become legal and common place, stoning of women accused of adultery will be reinstated and the free movement of women will be forbidden.

Although these protests forced a retraction of this plan, but its return is only a matter of time and the women's protests continue.

While expressing our solidarity with Iraqi women, including Kurdish women, who are facing all forms of patriarchal repression (either under the guise of religious or tribal traditions) we believe and declare that defending and echoing their demands is our task. After all what is the 8th of March but the day of expression of International Solidarity for women's Liberation.

(1) Pouran Bazargan joined the struggle against the Shah's regime in the 1960s and has remained an influential figure in the radical opposition movement in Iran. During the 1970s she spent some time in exile and as a representative of the Organisation Peykar Baraye Azadi Tabaghe Kargar (Struggle for the emancipation of the working class) in Middle Eastern countries including South Yemen, Iraq... and with Palestinian organisations.