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Basra Feminist Team Fights Violence Against Women and Promotes Their Rights

Fifteen young Iraqi women in the southern city of Basra have come together to form an organisation to campaign against violence against women and for women’s rights.

The organisation, called the Basra Feminist Team, hopes to change stereotypes of women and generally improve their lives.

One member is 22-year-old Shukr Huyam, who said she joined the group because she had experienced various “patterns of discrimination” at university.

Young women in Iraq “are constantly subjected to bullying, harassment, and violence of all kinds in daily life,” Huyam told Al-Fanar Media.

Since last year, the team has been working to promote women’s issues and mobilise the public against domestic and other forms of violence, by documenting such acts and spreading information about them.

The founders are also trying to introduce the concept of feminism and explain terms that may be misunderstood because of what they call “widespread stigmas and myths about feminism.”

In Defense of Rights

“The team seeks a balanced life in which we can naturally obtain our rights to education, and general life choices without guardianship or coercion.”

Shukr Huyam Co-founder of the Basra Feminist Team

The Basra Feminist Team is trying to create “a balanced life, in which women can naturally obtain their right to education and general life choices without guardianship or coercion,” Huyam said.

Huyam is a final-year student at the College of Education for Girls at the University of Basrah who has a physical disability. She said she faced difficulties because she could not go to the rehabilitation centre without being accompanied by a male relative. Her family has also been criticised because a driver takes her to university.

She sees women as “victims of false beliefs and traditions that exclude and marginalize women in the public sphere.”

Demanding their rights puts women in the position of being accusers, she added. They are called “traitors” because people are unwilling to examine traditions that “constitute a barrier to women in their normal daily life.”

A government statistic published last year recorded 5,000 cases of violence against Iraqi women in a single year. The report, issued by Iraq’s General Secretariat for the Council of Ministers, said “the real number exceeds the published figures because many cases are not reported due to some customs and traditions that prevail in society.”

Raising Public Awareness

The Basra Feminist Team organises activities at Basra’s educational institutions. The events aim to empower women by presenting positive role models and raising awareness of women’s rights, including the right to jobs they have been excluded from and their right to drive a car. Women drivers are rarely seen in Basra because of “religious, security, or tribal restrictions,” team members say.

The team also organises vigils to demand improvements  to divorce legislation, especially  in regard to a mother’s rights to custody of her children.

Safaa Abd Ali, another co-founder, said the Basra Feminist Team was created because of a feminist need, and a feeling that too many “wrong things happened to women.”

Abd Ali, who is a law graduate, told Al-Fanar Media that the team wanted to spread hope through positive messages about women’s rights and demands. She said it did not receive financial aid from any party and financed its work through monthly contributions from members, ranging from one to five dollars.

“The hard work of organisations like the Basra Feminist Team makes us witness a greater public discourse on women’s issues today, which is a step in the right direction.”

Ruba Ali Al-Hassani An Iraqi scholar in the U.K.

The team aims to change the perception that a woman’s role is limited to raising children in the home and other concepts that allow guardianship of women.

Adyan Yarub, another team member, aged 24, said she joined the Basra Feminist Team as a volunteer in the media department to “restore the rights of Iraqi women, in Basra in particular, and support women in rejecting restrictions and violence.”

Yarub, who has a diploma from Basra’s Southern Technical University, said she would continue to be a member despite constant campaigns attacking the group.

The Role of Social Media

Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, an Iraqi postdoctoral scholar at Britain’s Lancaster University, noted an increase in news about violence against women and girls in Iraq in recent years. She said there were two reasons behind this: Social media helped people know about such stories, and Iraqi society had become more militarised after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The chaos that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime “caused the spread of terrorist groups and non-state armed groups, which made Iraqis more vulnerable to violence in all its forms,” Al-Hassani said.

She told Al-Fanar Media that high rates of poverty contributed to men’s feeling aggrieved by state and non-state groups. She said this had always applied to Iraq’s patriarchal tribes. They now exploited the political and security vacuum to intervene and try to resolve their disputes according to their own customs. These include child marriage and the exchange of women to resolve disputes.

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Al-Hassani’s research focuses on Iraq’s justice system and the behavioural mores of Iraqi society. She says that the hard work of organisations like the Basra Feminist Team was “making us witness a greater public discourse on women’s issues today, which is a step in the right direction.”

Al-Hassani said there was violence against women throughout Iraq, not just in Basra. But there was “more violence in conservative cities,” she said, “because they are more associated with patriarchal traditions.”

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