In this week’s episode of Nonviolence Radio, Stephanie speaks with interdisciplinary sociologist Ruba al-Hassani to bring context and understanding to the current protests in Iraq, and how they differ from the nonviolent Tishreen/October movement of 2019. To provide context to each of these movements, she first gives a deep explainer of the ethno-based consociational and power-sharing model of government that was imposed by the United States following the 2003 invasion, and why Iraqi citizens consider it a failure. Secondly, she explains how armed groups managed to gain seats in parliament after the fight against ISIS, and the obstacles this is creating for the formation of a functional and representative government.
To draw it all together, Ruba describes why the 2019 Tishreen movement insists upon a governance model that is democratic and representative on the basis of merit, as opposed to sectarianism, and what the current protests led by Muqtada al-Sadr might mean for Iraqi people as they conflict with these goals. Despite the deeply unpredictable future of the country, she draws hopefully on the nonviolent and feminist means utilized by the Tishreen activists and considers how the movement elevated public consciousness, while also challenging the status quo and legitimacy of violence as a political tool.
“But this is another phase, another stage in this revolution. And I think it’s still continuing, in a way. Many people claim that the protest movement has been crushed. But just because there are no street protests, it doesn’t mean that the momentum has been lost. …. There’s greater thirst for knowledge about the constitution, about their rights. … And now we’re seeing more dialogue amongst the people. Politicians are not necessarily engaging in dialogue, but the people are, both online and offline. They’re thinking. And the protest movement has caused a shift in the public consciousness, in the collective consciousness. And this shift will be there for a long time to come. Iraq is not the same after the 2019 October Movement, and I don’t think it ever will be.”
Music by: Farida Mohammed Ali
Stephanie: Welcome everybody to another episode of Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook, and I’m with the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, California. On today’s show we speak with interdisciplinary sociologist and transitional justice legal scholar, Ruba al-Hassani, on the current political crisis in Iraq and especially it’s contrast to the October Movement from 2019.
I was really impressed with Ruba’s gift and skillfulness in translating her scholarship and research in Iraqi politics and peacebuilding in a way that helps to highlight and make her the voices of people on the ground. These are voices that are often removed or overlooked in conversations about politics in Iraq. And after speaking with Ruba, I felt much more informed and gifted with a clearer understanding of what to look for in news reports in the mass media and how to more effectively conceptualize the roots of the political challenges in the region.
Let’s hear from Ruba.
Ruba: The whole point of my work is to make sure everyone is informed, to make sure that Iraqi voices on the ground are centered in my research. And in other’s research, I’m an advocate for that. And to make sure that the voices of people on the ground are amplified in work that is done on Iraq.
And through that, I would like to make sure that their voices are made available to those here in the West, not just to people in the region.
Ruba: Iraq had a quote/unquote “early election” last October of 2021. And since then, a government has not been formed. So, it’s been over ten months. And there was very, very low turnout for this election because the reason the election took place, was a wide mass protest movement that was launched in 2019 countering the form of government, which is consociational. So, it’s based on power-sharing, and it’s based on ethno-confessional identity.
It’s a governing model that was brought to Iraq by the US-led invasion after 2003. And certain exiled politicians at the time advocated for this model. So, they wanted to make sure that a Kurd, for example, a Kurdish person would be president in Iraq, no matter who wins the election. You know, a Shia politician, a Shia Arab would hold the position of Prime Minister.
So, it’s this kind of identity-based power-sharing. That’s what defines the model right now. And in 2019, a protest movement launched. It was the largest protest movement in Iraq in modern Iraqi history. And one of the main demands was to dissolve this governing system because they found it to be racist, sectarian, discriminating, rife with corruption, and causing much turmoil in Iraq and instability because of this identity-based governance. And it also allowed for party-based power-sharing and discrimination and corruption.
And based on this protest movement, the election took place in October, 2021. So, this was supposed to be early elections, but we already lost over ten months over the government formation process. Most people did not turn out for the elections because they do not believe in the system. They did not want to participate in legitimizing it. However, the outcome of the elections, the majority vote, based on those who did vote, went to the Sadrist Movement, which is led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who comes from a family with a long history in Iraq. Except he’s a little different from his ancestors in the sense that they were revolutionaries.
He likes to call himself a revolutionary, but he is part and parcel of this system of corruption. His political party has held cabinet positions in the past, like the Ministry of Health, which is a very important one. And so, he claims to be protesting the status quo, when in fact he is part of the status quo. He is part of the establishment.
And although he won the majority vote, he was not able to form the government because a number of other parties that lost seats in parliament formed a strategic coalition. And they have been twisting his arm in many ways to make sure that they would have seats in parliament despite not winning.
So, this is a very undemocratic process that has been taking place, where those who lost the election want to be part of the next government. And there has been much conflict between these two parties over the past ten months. And eventually, Sadr said, “I’m no longer willing to engage in dialogue.” He withdrew all his members from parliament, and he decided that they would have this revolution of their own.
They have camped outside parliament. They broke into the Green Zone weeks ago. They shut down parliament activities, so it has been ineffective for a few weeks. And they have camped outside the High Judicial Council and some of his movement members threatened the High Judicial Council which had to shut down.
And he is planning some quote/unquote “surprises” for the future, based on a statement he issued today. We don’t know what the surprises are.
Ruba: Before this election, there was a government, an unelected government for fewer than two years. And it was led by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. He’s still the Prime Minister for now, until a new one is elected. And this government emerged after the launch of the protest movement. The prime minister at the time, during the protest movement, was Adil Abdul-Madhi. And he had to quit because of the public pressure from the protest movement, and he was responsible for the killing of over 700 protesters.
So, it was a win for the protest movement that he had to quit eventually. And because of the power-sharing model that I explained, parties selected someone that they could agree on, and that was Mustafa Al-Kadhimi who has been Prime Minister since then, until now.
Technically, with the elections, if a new government was formed, he would have been replaced, but he’s still, you know, running the government until a new government is selected.
Stephanie: Besides the imposition of a governing model from a foreign entity, I asked Ruba, what are some of the criticisms of the cosociational or power sharing model in Iraq’s government?
Ruba: For a while there was support for the consociational model – I know it’s a long name – for the power-sharing model. Initially there was support because people wanted to be represented. And that’s how it was sold as a governing model, that it would be representative of the different pockets of the population because Iraq is a very pluralistic country.
However, the media and foreign analysis has painted it as a country with only three pockets, Sunni, Shia, Kurds. But it’s actually so much more than that. Iraq has a majority of Arabs who happen to be Sunni or Shia. Muslims, both are Muslim denominations. There are Kurds who happen to be Muslim and Shia, so you know, even within that ethnic group, you have people of different faiths. There are even Zoroastrians.
And there are other groups in Iraq such as the Turkoman who, again, can be Sunni or Shia. So, these are intersectional identities or layered identities. And there are Assyrians, Chaldeans who are both ethnic Assyrians, but are Christians. Some are orthodox, some are Catholic. There are also Mandaeans. There are Kakais.
It’s a very pluralistic society. And this power-sharing model was sold as one where the people would have a quota and this quota would be based on identity to make sure that everyone is represented. However, people have not been feeling represented. People of every pocket of the population feel like their representatives don’t speak to their needs, that they all end up being corrupt. And that’s the reality on the ground.
So, even those who represent the Kurds happen to be dictators in their own right who violate free speech in the Kurdish region. And among the Sunnis there are those who are very corrupt and violate free speech in the Sunni governorates. And then the Shia majority, again, corruption among those parties. And there’s intra-fighting within each of these groups.
The sentiment around this power-sharing model has changed drastically since 2003. As I said earlier, it was accepted, but now it’s no longer accepted by most of the population. People want this governing model to change to one that is more democratic and representative on the basis of merit, on the basis of qualification.
I was looking at data from a survey that we did at Lancaster University in Iraq. And many people responded to a question by saying that they are perfectly fine voting for someone who is not of their same sect or identity as long as they represent their needs in parliament and government.
So, people are pushing beyond this identity-based power-sharing. And when you ask people now, “What do you want?” They want a democratic model, one that is transparent, one that is based on an accountability model. Because of so much corruption in Iraq, it is so rife on all levels of government. And I’ve previously written on this topic that you can’t have a real election with real results without accountability. Because if there’s no accountability, we’ll end up recycling the same faces, the same corrupt faces every time, and that’s literally what has been taking place for the past 18 years.
The same people come back to government every single year because of this power-sharing model. They override the popular vote, so people feel like their voices are being drowned out because of this corruption, because of this power-sharing model, and they want something much better.
Stephanie: Ruba has written about Critical Race Theory as a tool for desectarianization in Iraq. In it, she asks the question, “How can one acknowledge a system that politicizes identiy without acknowledging discriminating policies pervasive through all levels of government?” I wanted to draw her out on these reflections…
Ruba: The Prime Minister said during a press conference that there is no sectarianism in Iraq. And then he went on and acknowledged that there is a power-sharing model that is based on identity. And then he goes on trying to justify the existence of this model.
And when you admit that identity is rooted in this power-sharing system which is not really working, you need to acknowledge that this identity is being politicized. And when identity is politicized, it is either politicized and criminalized, or it is made privileged compared to others.
So, there’s always a level of privilege and a level of marginalization when you politicize any identity in any country. And I’m sure you can see this is the American context as well, where some parts of society are more privileged compared to others. Others are criminalized and policed very heavily. And there’s always an over-representation in the prison system. And this is what happens when identities are politicized.
So, when Mustafa Al-Kadhimi claims that there is no sectarianism in Iraq, he’s contradicting himself by, admitting that we have a system like this, but there’s no discrimination. It just doesn’t make sense.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it pushed for a model, that if you really zoom out and look at both countries, it’s not entirely different from the US. The same kind of system allows for discrimination-based policies. The same system allows for a culture of impunity for the corrupt. And the same system allows for the overriding of popular vote.
So, as far as I understand in the US, there’s the Electoral College. And that is not given enough attention in the sense that it overrides popular vote. And I’m not an expert on US politics, but in the last US elections – the more I try to understand about the US system, the more I realized it’s not as democratic as people claim it is because of this one aspect.
And it’s kind of like a power-sharing model. Again, you’re making sure that certain states are represented more than others. And the same thing in Iraq, where some political parties want to be represented more than others by sheer account of their power, really. It’s not because they won the recent elections. It’s not because they won seats in parliament. They just want to be involved in the next government because they’re powerful and because they’re armed.
Back to my point about the US invasion is that the US and other countries who led the invasion were not held accountable for violating international law. They were not held accountable for war crimes committed in Iraq. They were not held accountable for committing many atrocities and violations and breaches of human rights.
That simple fact on its own allowed for not only the beginning of the culture of impunity, but for the continuation of a culture of impunity where this impunity not only is beholden to the US and those powerful countries, but has shifted in Iraq to the politicians that were installed in power. And those who formed armed groups based on the US presence – so the armed groups that we talk about today, they emerged from the US-led occupation.
Muqtada al-Sadr was the first leader of an armed group. And from that armed group, broke out others. So, it’s like a ripple effect. And so armed groups fractured from each other. And when the ISIS incursion took place, Sayyid Sistani who is the highest-ranking Shia cleric or religious theologian, issued a fatwa, or decree, encouraging and demanding that every able-bodied man and boy pick up arms and defend their country.
And he did not direct that decree to only Shia. He said, “Everyone.” Because the country was collapsing. Shia Mosul had just fallen, and the army was incapable of fighting ISIS on its own. So, many people picked up arms. Untrained people picked up arms and fought ISIS. Many were absolutely brave and lost their lives or made ultimate sacrifices. And indeed, Mosul was, you know, retaken and all other territories were retaken from ISIS.
The intention was that these armed men would work alongside or with the Army. And most have dissolved since then, have disarmed and gone back home. You know, “We’ve won the war. That’s it.” But then some armed groups formed in light of that. In those pockets, there were certain units that said, “No, we don’t want to disarm. You need us. Everyone needs us.” And they started legitimizing their presence as that which fights the enemy, the outsider – whether it’s ISIS, whether it’s the US presence, because the US went back into Iraq to help in the fight against ISIS. So did Iran. So did other countries.
In fact, Iran jumped in to help before the US did. However, Iran’s meddling has increased since then. And these armed groups that refuse to dissolve or refuse to disarm are very Iran-aligned and receive support from Iran. And this is how we’ve arrived to this situation today.
In 2018, some of these armed groups won seats in parliament. And at the time they won because they were still seen as heroes at the time, that they helped us win against ISIS. But after that point, they started committing atrocities. They started committing massacres based on identity. They started targeting civilians. And that’s when people stopped supporting them.
Although, they still have some support from minorities, relative minorities. But these armed groups enjoy a culture of impunity, as I was saying, because they’re hybrid. They have one foot in government because they have seats in parliament. And they have one foot outside government, threatening national security. You can’t have people going around armed, kidnapping people, forcibly disappearing people, killing people, threatening people. It’s very chaotic. And that’s basically what the situation in Iraq is right now.
It’s very chaotic where these armed groups, you know, are at high-risk of facing off against each other. And of course, who’s going to end up in the middle of all this? The average Iraqi citizen.
Stephanie: As this is Nonviolence Radio, I wanted to know about nonviolence and peacebuilding in the context of the armed groups that Ruba is speaking about. How to do peacebuilding, where is the nonviolence movement?
Ruba: The decree that called for the arming of average men to fight ISIS was well-intentioned. And without this decree Iraq would have actually suffered much more greatly than it already had. So, that decree actually saved millions and millions of Iraqis.
It should not be pointed at or blamed for the current situation because as I said, there are many units that followed that decree, have disarmed or have been purely dedicated to fighting ISIS. And I know people who still fight ISIS as we speak at the borders with Syria. They do not target civilians. They do not do any of what the armed groups that we’re discussing do.
But the armed groups that are in politics now, and that are creating obstacles for the formation of the government, the only chance at peace amongst them is – unfortunately, to them, it’s a win/win situation for them. They refuse to lose. And the reason we are in this position today is because they refuse to acknowledge that they lost the elections.
And this is why when recently some party said, “Okay, let’s have another election to solve the impasse,” many Iraqis said, “Well, what’s the point? The whole reason we’re in this position right now is because there are some who refuse to admit they lost. So, if we have another election, they will do the same thing. They will say, ‘Oh, we didn’t lose. We have to be in the next government regardless.’”
There have been a couple of times where there were even more heightened tensions, a chance of facing off between these armed groups. And some politicians acted as mediators between them. And it only makes sense because everyone has to lose from civil war. Everyone has to lose if violence breaks out between these groups. So, there have been efforts by some politicians to mediate between them.
Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the Prime Minister, held talks earlier this week, but Muqtada al-Sadr refused. Or was it this week or last week? I’m losing track of time. Muqtada al-Sadr refused to engage in that dialogue. He said, “There’s no point in more dialogue. I’m beholden to a revolution.”
It looks like Muqtada al-Sadr is not backing down. He has a long history of flip-flopping. He’s widely recognized for changing his mind on a whim. But over the past few months he has surprised many, many people by being consistent. And I think that’s his strength. I’ve said that before. His strength compared to his counterparts is that A, he has a much larger following. And B is that his history of flip-flopping has made him very unpredictable. And when you’re unpredictable, your counterpart doesn’t know what to plan next. So, there, you have leverage over them. And that’s what Muqtada al-Sadr has over his counterparts. He has greater support and he has this unpredictability.
So, today in his statement he said that, “I have some surprises ahead,” people do not know what to expect. They do not know what’s next. Parliament has been shut down. The Judicial Council was threatened. They don’t know what’s next. And it’s frightening for the average Iraqi, not knowing what’s going to happen next.
And I want to emphasize that we need to center the people on the ground in this conversation, the average Iraqis, what do they have to lose from all this? On one hand, the Tishreen – or the Arabic word for October Movement because it was October 2019 that the protest movement emerged. What we see today is an outcome of this protest movement. And in a way, that’s good because the protest movement managed to disrupt the political system. And that’s really what protests are meant to do. They’re not meant to make people feel uncomfortable. They’re meant to disrupt the status quo. And the Tishreen, or October Movement, managed to do that very effectively. Many people do not give it credit for that because when you see the current situation you think, “Nothing good can come out of this.”
But in a way, it’s good in the sense that this protest movement was efficient in shaking the status quo and making politicians reconsider how they want to stay in power. The politicians are very desperate. And over the past 10 months we’ve seen sheer desperation from these politicians trying to make themselves relevant, trying to realign themselves with different parties, trying to regain power. But they’re scrambling. And we have not seen politicians scramble the way they have been doing lately.
So, that’s the upside that I see from what’s happening, is that whatever revolution or protest movement will not always be stable and will not always be, you know, sunshine, happy protest movement, revolution. There will always be ugly moments. And I think what we’re seeing now is the ugly moment. Of course, a part from the murdering of 700 protesters and injuring of 22,000 protesters – that was absolutely a dark moment in the protest movement. And they were killed by both state and non-state forces.
But this is another phase, another stage in this revolution. And I think it’s still continuing, in a way. Many people claim that the protest movement has been crushed. But just because there are no street protests, it doesn’t mean that the momentum has been lost. People have been mobilizing behind the scenes. People have been mobilizing online. There’s greater awareness when it comes to criticizing the status quo, criticizing the politicians.
There’s greater thirst for knowledge about the constitution, about their rights. People now know how to better argue about how the constitution should be changed. And there’s been dialogue. And I think that’s the most important part of any peace building process. You need dialogue.
And now we’re seeing more dialogue amongst the people. Politicians are not necessarily engaging in dialogue, but the people are, both online and offline. They’re thinking. And the protest movement has caused a shift in the public consciousness, in the collective consciousness. And this shift will be there for a long time to come. Iraq is not the same after the 2019 October Movement, and I don’t think it ever will be.
It shows the effectiveness of this protest movement, more than people give it credit. Things look really bad right now, but I’m hoping that things will look more positive in the years to come. We still don’t know because the situation is dire. You know, free speech is being threatened. There’s desertification in the south, the marshlands, there’s a water crisis looming ahead. The marshlands are, you know, getting completely dried out.
So, we see a lot of really frightening things happening in Iraq. I am not hopeful about the politicians, but I am hopeful in the youth and in the activists. And I hope that we will see more from them in the future. But the current political climate, you know, is redirecting the light to the politicians and the armed groups. And we’ll see what happens.
I’m not in favor of predicting what happens next because Iraq is such an unpredictable place, and we’re dealing with unpredictable Muqtada al-Sadr, so we’ll see what happens.
Stephanie: In this conversation on peacebuilding, Ruba then contrasted calls for revolution between the al-Sadr movement and the October Movement’s revolution. What does al-Sadr mean by his “revolution?”
Ruba: Well, Muqtada al-Sadr, I’m not hopeful about his quote/unquote “revolution” because he is part of the problem. And his armed groups, Saraya al-Salam have murdered protesters from the October Movement. And he has openly incited violence in the murder of protesters and activists from the protest movement.
His quote/unquote “revolution” is definitely not the same as the Tishreen or October Revolution. It is actually the antithesis to it. But we have seen some dialogue amongst Tishreen or, you know, that’s the label we use for activists from the protest movement. Where they’re wondering, “Should we join him or not?” Because some people say, “Well, we’ve reached a point where by all means necessary, seems to be the only way to push things forward.” But at the same time, the most consistent thing coming out of the Tishreen or October Protest Movement has been its nonviolent/peaceful nature.
Every time the October Movement has gone – like people went out and protest in mass protests, they have always said [sel-me-ya] which means peaceful. Peaceful. They have faced teargas canisters or grenades to the head, killing them. They have faced live fire. They have faced kidnappings, forceful disappearances, assassinations, yet not a single protester picked up arms to defend themselves.
We have people in the [O-kad] which is – I like to call it “the lion’s den” of the protest movement because some of its fiercest activists and protesters emerged from that governorate. Basra, for example. And these are areas where there’s heavy armament among tribes.
And I remember a journalist once asking me, “Well, why haven’t the protesters picked up arms, especially in those regions, to fight back against the armed militias and armed groups?” And the answer is as simple as they want to make sure that they protect the legitimacy of their movement by not engaging in violence. They want to protect the integrity of their movement.
Yes, there have been instances where a very few burned down offices of politicians of militias, but it was always at night when no one was there. So, it was a symbolic move as opposed to one where you try to kill someone through arson. They would burn tires. And I remember asking a protester, “Why do you burn tires?” And he said, “It’s the only way to get the government’s attention.”
So, the burning down of tires, of offices of politicians, and of militias, comes from a place of rage. And fire really personifies rage and the desperate need to be heard. That was the only instance where people or members of the Tishreen October Protest Movement engaged in anything remotely violent. But generally, it has been a peaceful movement. No violence, no incitement of violence. This is what sets them apart from Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement.
He likes to call it a revolution, but he has quite often, quite often, resorted to violence. During the peak of the civil war, from 2006 to 2008, his Mahdi Army, at the time, murdered tens of thousands of people, targeted Sunnis, targeted Shia. There was a state-led campaign against him at the time. He had to rebrand several times. And now his army is Saraya al Salam, which means, “The battalions of peace.”
So, he’s trying to rebrand and trying to paint himself as a leader of reform. He keeps on referring to himself as a leader of reform. He likes to think that he can have that image to his people. And his followers tend to have a very blind following to him. And he’s been portrayed as this revered saint.
And so, there are elements of cultish followership within the Sadr movement where you would engage with them and ask them, “What do you want out of this movement?” And they wouldn’t know. Many of them generally don’t know. They’ll just do whatever. They’ll say upfront, “I’ll just do whatever he tells me to do,” which is kind of sad because these are Iraqis. You know, we don’t want them to be the pawns of Muqtada al-Sadr to get whatever he wants.
So, regardless of different political opinions, we don’t want to see more bloodshed in Iraq. Iraq has seen way too much violence, way too much violence for a very long time, not just since 2003. Since much before, where Saddam Hussein was in power, and he was genocidal, led two wars, three wars.
So, Iraqis are thirsting for a time of peace. They’re aching for it. They want a break from all of this.
Stephanie: I pointed out that in hearing her describe the al-Sadr movement, it seemed to parallel the January 6 Capitol riots in the US in some ways.
Ruba: Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers, when they broke into parliament this year, and last year too, on both occasions, they reminded me of the January 6th riot. And there are images that actually look very – like there’s a stark similarity between Sadr sitting in parliament spreading themselves, and the rioters on January 6th spreading themselves in the senate. And it’s just like, wow, you know, very powerful similarities.
Stephanie: I’m speaking with interdisciplinary sociologist Ruba al-Hussani about the political crisis in Iraq. Next in this interview I asked Ruba about her writing on women and feminism in the October Movement, what were the take-aways, lessons learned especially when feminist practice seemed to enter into the scene. What did it look like and how was it different from other political acts from politicians?
Ruba: I wrote a three-part article series. And I also wrote a book chapter – it’s a chapter in an upcoming handbook for Palgrave on communication and gender in the MENA region. I look forward to seeing it come out because I’ve put a lot of work into that chapter.
And I talk about how the protest movement initially was not feminist. It didn’t come out with any particular messaging about, you know, changing the status quo for women. However, as it unfolded, it started to show feminist leanings. And by feminist, I rely on bell hooks in my research because her definition of patriarchy fits very well to my work.
She talks about the patriarchy as a system of oppression against both men and women. Women suffer way more than men, but it doesn’t mean that men don’t suffer too. And the fact that men suffer doesn’t take away from the fact that women suffer greatly. And Bell Hooks criticizes white feminism in the sense that it separates women from men and the struggle against patriarchal structures.
And the NGO-ization of Iraq or the entry of NGOs into Iraq since 2003 has pushed for the individualization of causes. And it has separated women from men in the fight for women’s causes. And this has actually done a great disservice to the people of Iraq, especially for women in Iraq.
When NGOs come in and hold workshops only for women and events only for women on women’s issues, it’s isolating women from their male counterparts. And the system in Iraq, which I explained to you, has a very patriarchal element to it. It’s not just an element, patriarchal roots to it, where it’s oppressive to everyone. It is rooted in toxic masculinity. The armed groups and militias that we see today are absolutely – they reek of toxic masculinity where Nouri al-Maliki, a former prime minister went out carrying a weapon, claiming that he will fight Sadr. Like we all know you’re not going to fight him personally, so what’s this show of toxic masculinity, you know?
Each of the leaders of these armed groups comes out and, you know, acts like a peacock, showing off, posturing. And the women and their movements and their parties are basically used as props to make to – uphold the egos of these men. And the protest movement, the Tishreen, or October Protest Movement, in contrast to that, brought women and men together. And it decided that there’s is a cause for everyone. Fighting corruption, fighting the ethno-based consociational system, it’s for everyone.
So, it didn’t matter if you’re Sunni or Shia. It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim or Christian. It didn’t matter who you were, across class-based divisions, ethnic-based divisions, etc. Everyone was there. And for the first time, for many women, they went into a public place, and they were not harassed. And they actually felt very safe in those mass protest squares.
And there were instances where these young men would chant and say – call onto the women and say, “Lead us. Come here. Join us at the front. You’re not just with us. You’re leading us.” And Muqtada al-Sadr, at the time, during the October Protest Movement, called for the separation of the sexes or the genders.
And the protesters responded with sarcasm, with humor. Because Muqtada al-Sadr tried to use a character assassination against the women in the protest movement. Not just Muqtada al-Sadr, other politicians. And the protesters within the October Movement kept on pushing back by promoting women, by supporting women, and by speaking up against a system that uses legislation to silence women, to control women.
And so, while the movement was not originally feminist, it became feminist. And we’re talking about a feminist that’s not quite feminist. We’re talking about the different one that brings men and women together to fight a system that is very patriarchal, based on oppression, based on coercion. I mean none of what we’re seeing in Iraq is based on consent.
There was an election. People made it very clear that they do not want the system. They did not turn out. They did not vote. Only very few did. The people are saying, “We do not find this system legitimate.” And yet, these politicians are coercive. They’re pushing themselves onto the people. They’re violating national security, while claiming to protect and defend state institutions.
So, we’re seeing a lot of patriarchal elements and politics. And the Tishreen, or October Protest Movement, went out against all of that.
Stephanie: One thing we’ve seen in some movements, is when women have found protest spaces safe, stories later emerge of repression against women as more severe in some cases. I asked Ruba to comment on this increased repression against women after participating in protest.
Ruba: Yes. Whenever there is a protest movement or wherever there’s a shift in consciousness, there’s always going to be a pushback that’s even harder. And so, the armed groups have pushed back harder than ever before. They have shown how desperate they are to stay in power and that they will do anything – the armed groups and the politicians.
Many women have been assassinated, unfortunately, since then. Whether they were activists or non-activists, just pushing for a change in the status quo. Iraq is definitely not safe for anyone right now. But I will say that if you are an intelligent woman, if you are a woman who challenges the status quo, you will face challenges.
And the problem is that since 2003 with the emergence of these armed groups, with the militarization of society, toxic masculinity has escalated. And the Iraq we see today is not the Iraq we knew decades ago. Even under Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was terrible by all means, women were able to move a little more.
Mind you, Saddam Hussein’s son was a notorious rapist. He would drive by schools, select a girl, take her and rape her. So, Iraq was never safe, you know, whether during Saddam’s time or now. But the protest movement, the October Protest Movement, encouraged women to be part of public spaces. And there has been much discussion about that, that women can go out. But they’re very careful about what they say online.
Some are bold and brave and, you know, I worry about them, about what will happen to them. Some will use pseudonyms and will use, you know, different images to protect their identities while mobilizing online. We don’t know what will happen next, but women are more vocal in Iraq.
And we are hearing more and more stories of domestic violence, of other forms of gender-based violence because of social media, because of these women who are being more vocal. So, I don’t know if this increase in violence is a new thing or is it that social media and this increased vocalization is bringing things to light. We don’t know, but we’re definitely learning more about these instances of gender-based violence thanks to the women online who are engaging, who are doing something, who are using public pressure, who are trying to inform others.
So, the shift in consciousness that I mentioned earlier, it’s present. Women are speaking up. They’re gaining allies amongst the male community. Obviously, not enough allies. There will never be enough allies. Not just in Iraq, all around the world. And last week there was an incident which reminded us that there’s still a lot of toxic masculinity out there, but it’s a step in the right direction that these women are taking.
Stephanie: In this last part of the interview with Ruba al-Hassani, we wanted to go back to what she said earlier, that her goal is to help amplify the voices on the ground, so my last question for her was about academic communities on the ground and what they are recommending.
Ruba: Yes. So, as part of my research with Lancaster University and Project SEPAD, which stands for Sectarianization, Proxies, and De-Sectarianization, I ran a workshop that included activists, a lawyer, and some academics. And I followed up with research interviews with the academics, in particular, because of an emerging theme. And the theme was we need more attention to the social sciences.
So, I followed up with these academics and asked them, “Could you please elaborate?” And the general pattern that I found was that people lack a sense of national identity in Iraq. And this is a result of all the violence, all the divisive language that’s been used over the years. And especially the sectarian rhetoric that has been pushed on people.
In order to nurture a robust national identity, we need to focus on the social sciences. That’s what they all said. It was as if they had agreed. It was unanimous.
And this goes inline with the theory or the idea of sectarianization. Sectarianization means that a society is conditioned to think in sectarian terms because of this pattern of enforcement by social and political institutions. So, people – it’s like racialization. It’s a process of teaching people and conditioning people and to think in certain terms, and to discriminate against certain people, and to afford privilege to other people.
And what these academics said was that since sectarianism has been created through this process, we can encourage a similar kind of process to desectarianize society. And I work with Simon Mabon who, you know, talks about de-sectarianization and other members of the community who work in this field. And again, these academics in Iraq, who are not necessarily connected with the outside world of academics, are thinking in similar terms.
They’re thinking, “We need to use the same kind of process that racialized and sectarianized society to desectarianize it. We can condition people and teach them, through social and political institutions, to think in different terms and to reconfigure identity, to reconfigure national and ethnic and sectarian identities. And to reprioritize, and to talk about citizenry, not just citizenship. To talk about duties of citizens, and not just rights. And this was an enlightening set of interviews that I did with the academics. I look forward to following up with them more on this subject.
And I should elaborate that because of this conversation – these conversations that I had with them, I wrote that piece on critical race theory. Because I thought if we add critical race theory to this conversation on de-sectarianization, we can engage in a more nuanced approach which examines layered identities and intersectional oppression. Because as I mentioned earlier, Iraq is so pluralistic that you can be Turkoman and Shia, for example. You can be Kurdish and Shia. You can be Arab and Sunni, you can be Arab – sorry, Turkoman and Sunni.
And Yazidi – I forgot to mention them earlier. If you’re a woman, and if you’re Yazidi, you have been massively oppressed. So, using critical race theory, and merging it with de-sectarianization discourse, can help us look at these nuances and can help us look at the systems of oppression. The systems that push for the sectarianization of society, just like they push for racialization of society.
When Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said that there’s no sectarianism in Iraq, he engaged in this similar kind of rhetoric where one would say, “I don’t see color.” You know, “I don’t see sect.” And this is a problem, and critical race theory addresses that.
There are some Iraqis today who will say, “No, I don’t see sect. “Oh, we don’t have a problem.” And they’re engaging in this denial, either to protect themselves or to cope with trauma, or for whatever other reason. And we need to deal with that. So, when we engage with critical race theory and de-sectarianization, maybe we can come up with a much more productive kind of conversation over the long run.
Stephanie: You’ve been listening to Nonviolence Radio. I’m Stephanie Van Hook from the Metta Center for Nonviolence. We want to thank our guest, Ruba al-Hassani. Thank you very much to our mother station, KWMR, Matt Watrous, Ashley Jordan, Bryan Farrell over at Waging Nonviolence, to all of our syndicator stations over Pacifica. Thank you to our listeners. Until the next time, please take care of one another.