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Feryal al-Kaabi: women’s rights in Iraq since 2003

What to wear today?

In the past, when Feryal al-Kaabi used to leave her home, she never had to think much about what to wear. Her outfit was always the same: a black robe, an abaya, and a headscarf of course, the hijab. This was not so much compulsory for women in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but just something they did. Particularly so in the conservative city of Al-Diwaniyyah, some 150 km south of Baghdad, where women’s rights activist Feryal lives.

Colourful clothes

After 2003 this changed rapidly. When Saddam Hussein’s regime crumbled, satellite TV dishes were introduced en masse in the land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. Just like millions of other Iraqis, Feryal was now able to explore the world thanks to television channels. They watched BBC, CNN and Fox Movies. Inspired by international images, women spontaneously started to dress up in a more colourful fashion. People were suddenly allowed to express themselves more openly, which was a somewhat unreal experience after decades of repression. 

Similar to freedom, however, repression comes in many shapes and forms. For example, some women in the extremely conservative outskirts of Al-Diwaniyyah are kept indoors. Their husbands do not allow them to leave the house. Imagine that someone sees your wife on the streets! The shame it would bring!

Grounded or free? A striped jacket

Feryal, who is a civil engineer by profession, goes into these neighbourhoods on her own. Without wearing an abaya, but with her striped jacket on. She gets disapproving looks and comments. But the activist and board member of the women’s rights organization Awan continues to calmly and joyfully send out her message to the women who are locked up in their own homes: “You are also free to go out, just like me!”

‘Being grounded in your own home’ is one of the many injustices that Iraqi women face every day. The extreme violence pervading Iraqi society is encouraged by the fierce battle against ISIS, honour killings and domestic violence. Indeed, according to article 41 of the Penal Code, a husband is allowed to actually beat his wife. Perhaps women’s rights have never been worse in Iraq than they are now.

Women in politics

This is why Feryal focuses on what needs to be done: changing legislation and making sure that women are represented in politics. In her campaign, she joins forces with other NGOs, lawyers and activists. Together they identify legislation that must be replaced to improve the position and rights of women. Then they move on to the parliament. The lobby makes sure that there will be a quorum: at least 25% of the members of the Iraqi parliament must be women.

Some pressure will be required, particularly when it comes to changing a political culture. After all, the satellite TV dishes didn’t just pop up by themselves.