Short, wispy silver hair surrounds her freckled and slightly worn face. She speaks with a decisive tone, and though the tongue in which she speaks is unfamiliar to me, I was fascinated by the story of Hana Ibrahim when I met her in February at SOAS in London.
The lifelong Iraqi resident began campaigning for women’s rights about ten years ago and founded the Women’s Will Association, an Iraq- and Syria-based NGO, in Baghdad in 2004 and Gender magazine, which discusses women’s rights issues.
But these were not the first gutsy moves Ibrahim made to spread her message. In 2001, she began working publicly to bring attention to the lack of rights and brutal treatment of Iraqi women. Her flagship was the Cultural Centre, which opened in Baghdad as an outlet for people to express their ideas about women’s rights.
The cultural club for Iraqi Women was a way of opening a dialogue about the issue of women’s rights in an acceptable way, without getting into trouble with the government. By discussing the roles of women as they were expressed in poetry, scripture, music and art, the group could present their opinions without directly putting themselves in danger during Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Ibrahim helped organise weekly meetings, led discussions and even fended off four different groups that attempted to close down the cultural centre – which sometimes required smooth talking on her part. As the centre gained popularity among women and men alike, a fifth group, headed by colonel Ahmed Shraidah, with his lawyers and armed soldiers, came to close down the centre. Shraidah offered Ibrahim and her group two options: join us or else.
“I said to them ‘you can take this space, and you can take these walls, but you cannot take this cause out of me. You cannot stop me. You cannot confiscate our minds or our consciousness.’” The centre still remains open to this day, thanks in large part to Ibrahim’s courageousness.
But Iraq is not the only place Ibrahim’s bold stance and important message have graced. In February, she made a weeklong visit to the UK, meeting with women’s rights groups and Amnesty International. She says that the occupation in Iraq must be ended, but just pulling out the troops will not suffice. Everything tied to this illegal war, including soldiers, military bases and political leaders, must be removed from Iraq so Iraq’s internal problems can be solved by the Iraqi people.
Ibrahim said the occupation has not only caused great confusion and upset among the Iraqi people, but has also set her work back several years. Rather than focusing on internal issues that have plagued the country for decades, like the lack of women’s rights, Iraqis have turned their attention to coping with foreigners illegally invading their country.
Though ending occupation is high on Ibrahim’s priority list, she says her main focus in the struggle for women’s rights is gaining better health care for all women in Iraq.
She said that due to destruction of infrastructure, the majority of Iraqi hospitals have no clean running water or sewage disposal and the Tigris is full of rubbish and excrement; many hospitals have inadequate equipment for medical and surgical services and patients are often required to bring their own supplies of consumables and medicines. She said another concern central to this problem is the high illiteracy and poverty rates among women in Iraq. Many women have been widowed and choose to spend their resources on their families, often neglecting their own health.
Ibrahim says rebuilding the country will not happen overnight, but the Iraqi people are strong-willed and desire this change. She too wants nothing more than a hopeful future for her home country.
“I am not frightened of what will happen to me. Bombs, guns, threats – these things do not scare me,” she said. “What scares me most is that my country will never recover and that sexism will not be conquered.”
Sexism, which Ibrahim says applies to both men and women, is a problem which requires cooperation with one another to solve. Because prejudice is a problem for both men and women in Iraq, both must stand up in the face of adversity to defeat it.
This, however, is not always so easy to do. Recently, Nawal al-Samarraie, the Iraqi state minister for women’s affairs, resigned in protest, because the country’s puppet government (set up by the invading Bush administration) was not giving her enough money to support the women driven into poverty by the invasion of Iraq. Even more concerning is the fact that she has not been seen or heard from since her resignation. Despite this worrying set back, Ibrahim said she plans to continue her work.
Justin Alexander of Christian Peacemaker Teams, who met Ibrahim in 2004 in Iraq, said her dedication to giving women a voice is astonishing. He said though her quest for women’s rights has not always been smooth – she has rubbed shoulders with members of Hussein’s Ba’ath party to keep the centre open – she has maintained her focus.
Tahrir Swift, a member of Iraq Occupation Focus who helped arrange Ibrahim’s recent visit to the UK, said it was important to have Ibrahim spread her message outside Iraq. “Hana has been working tirelessly in Iraq, but few people outside Iraq think or know about what she is fighting for,” Swift said. “This is an issue that we need to publicise in order to solve. This struggle cannot be won without our help.”
For near of an hour, speaking mostly in her native tongue, Ibrahim emphatically described her story to me. Her personality, her tenacity and her vigour for this cause made the message perfectly clear. “Society can only fly with two wings: women and men,” she said. “We have to think together, to be partners together, to build the change from under, not from above.”