Originally published in German on Solidarisch gegen Corona and translated by Feverstruggle.
In October 2019, nationwide protests broke out in Iraq, which quickly turned into occupations of public squares in Baghdad, al Nasiriya, al Basra and Najaf City, among others, and are ongoing today. The protesters demand the secularization of the sectarian system in Iraq, as well as better living and working conditions. They quickly forced the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, in November 2019. Since then, Iraq has been in the grip of an open political crisis, which has taken two forms. First, the government has so far responded to the square occupations and demonstrations with violent repression, which has already killed more than 600 people. At the same time, a battle of power has been raging over the position of prime minister, who is responsible for forming a new government, including numerous nominations for that position. Alongside this political crisis, the economic crisis is aggravated by the crash in oil prices during the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, the curfew imposed by the Iraqi government at the end of March led to a dramatic deterioration in social relations in Iraq: a large share of the population, especially the younger generations, is unemployed or has precarious jobs, as day labourers, for example, who have to live from hand to mouth. Since Iraq has virtually no social security system, such as unemployment insurance or benefits, precarious workers now have to choose between starving at home and risking infection at work. Moreover, for many women in Iraq, the curfew means they are locked up all day at home with their husbands and often their families. Femicide and domestic violence are rising dramatically in Iraq, as in many other countries around the world.
In April Solidarisch gegen Corona talked with Sarah Quadir about the current situation in Iraq during the pandemic and under curfew. Sarah is a member of Workers against Sectarianism and has been on al-Tahrir Square in Baghdad since the beginning of the “October Revolution” in 2019. The conversation with her focused not only on how the lockdown affected the square occupations and the political protest, but also on her experience as a feminist activist in the protest. One of the specific features is that many women are on the front line of the occupations and revolts. The conversation provided a feminist perspective on the curfew, in which Sarah referred to the fact that “for many women in Iraq, quarantine has long been a reality of daily life”.
Update: On May 7, 2020, Mustafa al-Kadhimi was appointed Prime Minister, and a new government is currently being formed in Iraq. Kadhimi announced on the day of his appointment that he would release the political protesters who had been imprisoned in recent months. On Sunday, May 10, thousands took to the streets again in Baghdad and Vasra City, among other places, to demonstrate against the sectarian system in Iraq as a whole – they were not going to be satisfied with just a new prime minister. Sit-ins and attempts to attack the Green Zone in Baghdad via the al Gomhorya bridge followed throughout the day, as did violent clashes with riot police, who attacked the protesters.
1. Only a few weeks ago, there were more than 1500 tents on al-Tahrir Square and, since the beginning of the protests in October 2019, people had been building a daily life of resistance, with its own infrastructure, a hospital, a school, small libraries and reading and discussion groups. At the end of March, the Iraqi government announced the lockdown. How does this lockdown affect you and your protest? What is the situation on al-Tahrir Square now? Are any squatters still on the site?
In the course of the lockdown, the protesters decided that about 20 percent of the people would remain on site. The rest went home to protect themselves from the virus. That 20 percent of the squatters are holding our place. They stay in the tents all day long and make sure that they are regularly disinfected. Of course, it has become a bit dull on the site, generally under curfew. The protesters in fact encourage people to stay at home to avoid exposing themselves even more to the risk of infection. It seems to me that the curfew has saved the sectarian system from revolution. Those in power now have the advantage of being able to exercise more control over the streets and defend the green zone even better. It’s as if the curfew and the coronavirus were something that just saved them from revolution. And yet we are still on the square, the protesters’ demands still have not been met, and the new prime ministers continue to be rejected. After all, we have taken to the streets for a new system, a new future. These countless nominations of politicians as ministers are really only a distraction for the protesters, who are supposed to forget their first demand – a radical change in the system in Iraq. However, there is considerable mobilization to continue the protest after the lockdown and curfew. We assume that it will be a big protest again.
2. In al Nasiriya in southern Iraq, the police have violently attacked the squatters several times in recent weeks. Can you tell us what happened there? And what about the squatters in other Iraqi cities?
We should actually call them “security forces”, because they’re not only the police, but also the army and the militias that commit violent against the people and protesters. So, these security forces have shown extremely brutality against the protests in several cities, not just Nasiriya. There, for example, they burned down the tents in the square. But they also fired live ammunition at protesters, stabbed them with knives at night, and kidnapped some activists. One such case was an activist in Nasiriya, on the square, called Om Haider [translator’s note: i.e., Haider’s mother – the real name of the activist is unknown]. A month before she was killed, she was stalked, bullied, and threatened on social media and on facebook, and attempts were made to ruin her reputation. They killed her as soon as they could, because she had led the protest in Nasiriya against the sectarian, confessionalist system, and she did not let them keep herself from taking action against those, who would then kill her. Many activists have been murdered. A friend of mine, too, has been threatened and frightened because he is not only an activist but also an atheist. These threats came from different “security forces”: from the militias, from important officers, from the police sometimes. These threats have not only affected him and his family, but also his friends. You can imagine what the pressure is like. He hasn’t left his house in a while, and he doesn’t go to al-Tahrir Square either, because he is afraid not only for himself, but also for his family, his friends, actually his whole social environment. Similar things have happened everywhere in Iraq, in Najaf City, Babylon, Basra and Baghdad.
3. One unusual aspect of your protest, among others, is that it is primarily women who participate and are at the forefront of political involvement. What is your experience as a feminist woman in this protest? How was the situation on the occupied squares for the women among the squatters? What are your demands?
First of all, this revolution showed that there are many women in Iraq who are political and intellectual, who have the courage to demand their rights. Many women took to the streets and participated in the revolution – also against the common image of Iraq and the previous culture of protest. And many women, who enjoy little freedom, have succeeded in convincing their families of the importance of protest. They were able to make their families understand, so that they can participate quite freely. This protest is important for everyone. Our demands are therefore very extensive, of course. Among other things, we demand the end of early marriage, and we are against any kind of tribal tradition. We also want an amendment to the divorce law, which currently hands over children automatically to the father after a separation. We want the mothers to be recognised at least as equal parents. Finally, it is important for us to take action against traditional, conservative families that prevent women from moving around freely and from leaving the house freely, and not just for absolutely necessary reasons. In that respect, women in Iraq have been living in quarantine for longer than the coronavirus pandemic and the curfew.
On the squares, there have been and are still not only determined political activists, but also women who previously had nothing to do with politics. And there are also many women who support the revolution through cooking, medical care and cleaning work, or logistics. They are not part of the political movement as such, but they support us by this kind of work. So you could say that there are actually three different “groups” among these women: political activists, who were already organized beforehand, who are on the front line, who directly lead the struggles against state repression, who issue statements and demands; the second group, if you like, are women who had no previous political background, but who participate politically in the protest; the third are women who do not participate directly in politics, but who support it.
4. This sounds like a tendency towards division among the women. How do you assess this, how have you been dealing with it?
Yes, there is a tendency towards division in a sense, and that is a problem. The differences are mainly due to the fact that women come from very conservative families and traditionalist tribes. They have never been asked to stand up and protest. These women have never learned to do this, and often they have no idea what or how they could do it. That’s a huge difference with the political activist, who often grew up in a different environment: she knows how to shout, she knows how to fight and defend herself – she has learned that. A woman from a conservative family has not learned this, and is permanently prevented from doing so in these conservative structures. What she can do is cooking, cleaning, medical care and organizing logistics. We, the women, come together on al-Tahrir Square by cooperating: the women on the front line get medical attention from the women in the sick tent; the women who cook provide for those who work in the sick tent, and so on. That’s cooperation. At al-Tahrir Square, for example, there are often small circles of women, as well as men, and they don’t think: “Oh, I’m on the front line, she’s doing the medical care and this woman is just cooking.” They get together, one woman starts singing a song and the rest join in. So, if you look at this revolutionary moment on the square, it all looks like chaos, but everyone is doing their part. Each one takes responsibility and does a job in this revolution in their own way. And on this revolutionary terrain, in this atmosphere, such differences, even class differences, break down. People are breaking down such barriers.
5. In March, the hashtag #staythefuckhome travelled pretty much around the whole world. It should stop the spread of the coronavirus. Feminist voices expressed the critique that for women, home is often a place of violence. What’s the situation for women in Iraq like, how are they doing under the curfew?
There is a positive effect: men now experience what it is really like for women to be at home all the time. I know it sounds cynical, but that’s how it is. As I said earlier, for many women, quarantine has long been a reality of daily life, not just now during the pandemic. Women in conservative families are not allowed to leave the house, except for very important, urgent reasons. There is enormous pressure on them, and they carry a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. Men are experiencing this now under the curfew. They may understand the pressure, they experience the suffering and pain of women, who have not been allowed to move freely for ages. I think that’s a positive effect.
The negative effects are very bad, and there are far too many to list them all. The most problematic thing is obviously that the man is now home 24 hours a day, and he not only annoys the woman and comments on her housework, but of course he also increases the pressure on her, simply because he is there. Quite a few men, for example, sit around all day doing absolutely nothing, not helping with the care work. The social pressure on women increases massively in such a situation, especially women who live not only with their husband but with his whole family. That’s an important point, because it is very common in Iraq for people to marry into the family’s home, which means that women often move in with their husband’s entire family as part of the marriage. So now, with this quarantine, a woman has to deal not only with her husband, but also with his brother, his father – the whole family. She has to deal with all the men in the family, serve them, put up with them. If a husband has four brothers, the woman must deal with at least these five men. It’s an incredible pressure on them, and there is a lot of violence. The violence comes not only from the husband, but also from the brothers or the father. The violence is growing under the curfew conditions. Recently there was a terrible case of a woman who lived with her husband and her family and her husband burned her, that is, burned her to death. All the media here at the moment are full of this case; there is much discussion and speculation about the reason why it happened. Whatever the damned reason supposedly was, there is clearly no justification for it. This is one instance of the violence that is occurring now under the curfew, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that women have to stay at home with all these men now.
Another important point concerns family honour. You know, there is this kind of understanding of family honour here, which means that women are ruled over, they are kept under the family’s control. Some women who got infected with the coronavirus were prevented by their families from going to the hospital. Why? Because of family honour. What does that mean? The reason why you stop your sister or your mother from going to the hospital for treatment against coronavirus – these people say: “We don’t know what happens to a woman in the hospital; maybe she gets sexually harassed or she becomes sexually involved herself with someone there.” So, because of family honour, some women don’t get treatment, and some died. There is another background issue: the coronavirus looks like HIV – at least some people think so. With AIDS in Islamic societies it is like this: if you get infected, you are in danger and under extreme social pressure. It is claimed that you would not have been infected with AIDS if you had been a good man or woman. So, it sometimes happens with the coronavirus that a woman who gets infected experiences the same pressure, social pressure, because some families think that if she had been a good and honourable woman, she would not have been infected. It has to do with this society and the reactionary ideas or traditions in the tribes.
6. And what are the effects of the pandemic from a class perspective? Many people in Iraq are unemployed or have precarious jobs, often living day-to-day, hand-to-mouth. What is their situation now?
They choose death in the face of the pandemic. What I mean is that they would rather go to work and get infected with the virus than sit at home and starve. The pandemic has once again shown how many in Iraq are precarious and unemployed. And the government has done nothing. Or rather the opposite: if precarious workers violate the curfew because they simply have to go to work – in order to survive – they often get fined by the government. So, because they have no choice, they are getting more and more fines. What the government should actually do is pay them to stay home – a kind of unemployment insurance. Or for precarious workers the government should pay minimum social benefits for the next four or five months, as long as the curfew is in place. They cannot sit at home and starve while they run out of money and supplies. Especially those who have to get by from day to day, this does not work. And although there are neighbourhood help centres and I would say that it is also common in our society to help each other in different ways, sharing food, etc., there are of course neighbourhoods at a distance from the cities, outside Baghdad for example, and in more distant regions – the neighbourhood help centres cannot reach those places because of the curfew.
7. What about medical care? Your comrade Samy already explained to us in a previous interview that the Iraqi health system is one of the worst in the world. Could you describe that in more detail. What equipment do hospitals have, who has access to treatment?
The whole system in Iraq is riddled with corruption, and the same is true in the health sector, especially. There are some shitty deals between Iraq and other states, China for example, that were made under these corrupt conditions. They include bad drugs that don’t at all comply with WHO standards. Many people are dying in Iraq because of this poor health system. Although everyone in Iraq has the right to free treatment and medication, this is actually a farce, a kind of smoke screen. We have to pay for everything in hospitals, drugs, equipment. And the private pharmaceutical industry and private hospitals are really being pushed in state hospitals. If you go to a state hospital and you ask for a drug, they will tell you to go to some private pharmacy and buy it there. That’s marketing, actually. Or you go to the doctor and you want to be treated, then he’ll tell you something like, “I’m gonna give the treatment in my private practice, you can come there later and pay for it yourself.” Why doesn’t he do it at the state hospital where he works? That way, the private sector is supported by the whole health care system. You have to go there to get treatment, to buy drugs, and when you go to the state hospital, they shove you off.
But it’s not just that. Patients are usually treated very badly. There is no strong awareness of the need for cleanliness and sterilization. Usually you have to pay the nurses and hospital workers to keep the room clean or check on the patient. For that, we have to give them 10 to 20 dollars. People often die after being misdiagnosed. The main reason for this is the poor equipment in state hospitals; there is no modern equipment such as X-rays or medical analysis.
Doctors are also under constant threat for their own lives. The government does not protect them from the tribes. For example, if a doctor makes a mistake and a patient dies – or if the patient simply dies without anyone having made a mistake -, the tribe may well take revenge and kill the doctor. They probably think the doctor deliberately let their son, or whoever else, die. As a result, many doctors have to emigrate or change jobs regularly. The government doesn’t do anything about this.
8. Iran is one of the countries worst affected by the pandemic, with official figures of almost 100,000 infected and over 6,000 dead. Do you have contacts with comrades on the ground or do you know what the situation is like there?
First of all, we are with the people in Iran in hoping that everyone will recover quickly, considering the huge number of cases there. And we want to tell them that there has historically been solidarity between the people of Iraq and Iran, and they have all our solidarity and support there to make it through the pandemic. Unfortunately, as Workers against Sectarianism, we do not have direct contact with comrades on the ground, which is really difficult to establish under the conditions of the Iranian dictatorship. We have some friends in Iran, and information reaches us regularly via geographical proximity and social media. We were told that the Iranian regime treats prisoners very badly, in particular. Covid-19 is used to kill political activists in the prisons. As in Iraq, the virus saved the regime from collapse – there was also a very strong revolutionary movement under way there. It seems to us that the regime is following a similar strategy of expanding control. It is quite possible that the measures against the pandemic will in fact only serve to further oppress the population – after all, the regime is strongly sectarian and rigid. Many infected people are not treated at all but simply left without care. Nor has the Iranian state allocated enough money from the national budget to get the virus under control, either. This is a way of killing, too – deliberately not treating cases, especially when it comes to your political enemies in prison.
Sarah Quadir is a political activist and member of Workers against Sectarianism. She works in the pharmaceutical industry and lives in Baghdad.