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Protests in Iraq take a new turn, on gender issues

“Revolution is not nakedness!” is not the kind of slogan one would hear most places. But political protests in Iraq have taken an odd turn this week.

Political turmoil in some form or another has been a near constant in Iraq since its artificial creation a century ago. Since October 1, 2019 it has principally taken the form of mass demonstrations in downtown Baghdad, commonly centered around Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square, across the Tigris River from the “Green Zone” where the US and other countries have their embassies, along with some government buildings. Americans are likely to hear of these demonstrations only when they target the US, as on December 31 when protests against American bombing of the Ketaeb Hezbollah militia penetrated the Green Zone and vandalized parts of the US Embassy compound, January 24 when influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for “a million” (estimates are that 200,000 showed) to march in support of the Iraqi Parliament’s call for American troops to be expelled from the country, or January 26 when despite al-Sadr’s call to avoid attacking the Green Zone again, three missiles were fired at the US Embassy, slightly wounding one person.

But anti-Americanism is not what the protests are mostly about. While only 22 percent approve of the American presence in Iraq, only 16 percent approve of Iranian presence, and the January 5 march while the Parliament was voting on American withdrawal featured the slogan “No to America, no to Iran!” demanding that both leave. Before the confrontation between the US and Iran heated up, the main focus of protest was the fecklessness and corruption of the Iraqi government. Elections in May 2018 were contested by hundreds of parties of which three dozen won seats in Parliament; al-Sadr’s Forward party with 54 seats out of 329 was the largest but with nowhere near enough allies to cobble together a majority. It took a month to settle recounts, three more just to choose a Speaker to chair the meetings, and another to choose Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, who accomplished little. Oil revenues are at their highest levels ever, and the government promised to spend the money on fixing the nation’s hospitals, but this has not been seen. After a year, people felt he had had enough of a chance.

Violent repression (al-Jazeera counts 536 deaths among protesters, 38 among security forces since October) became a further cause of protest. Abdul-Mahdi resigned December 1 and of course it was two months before a successor was chosen. New Prime Minister Allawi spoke on February 1 pledging to fight corruption, organize new elections, and end brutality against protesters. On Wednesday February 12, it was the 40th day since America killed Iranian general Soleymani, a traditional time for memorial services; and al-Sadr’s followers, who had been instructed to support Allawi, had gotten into fights the previous week with former allies still wanting to protest against the government; but security forces designated protest areas, to keep Soleymani mourners, al-Sadr supporters, and anti-government demonstrators separated, and generally got cooperation from all sides. Authorities even managed to open Sinak Bridge, a major crossing in the city that had been closed for months, to regular traffic (though they had to fire rubber bullets to make plain that protesters could not cross).


But tensions were growing over an odd statement by al-Sadr on Sunday, lamenting that men and women were not keeping separated during the demonstrations. He told his followers “not to follow their animal instincts and immoral lust” and that he “will not allow Iraq to become a Kandahar of religious extremists, nor a Chicago of immorality and homosexuality.” This was a reference to a chant by secularists in demonstrations years ago “We don’t want Baghdad to be Kandahar, we want to be Chicago”: Kandahar is a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, and Chicago was chosen as Obama’s home. Oddly, Republicans were also comparing Chicago to Iraq back then, as a dig against Obama. The portmanteau “Chiraq” became slang for the more violent neighborhoods, and was adopted as a title of a Spike Lee movie…


…and a now-shelved Kanye West album. Ayatollah Seistani, who has higher respect and more moderate positions within the Shi’ite community of Iraq than al-Sadr, responded obliquely on Monday that Muhammad’s daughter Fatima was always one of the Prophet’s greatest supporters. Pictures of Muqtada’s second cousin Saba al-Sadr, whose grandfather founded the influential Amal movement in Lebanon and was murdered in Qadhafi’s Libya in 1978, circulated on social media to show that she protests together with men and does not even wear a scarf let alone a veil. People were largely kept home Tuesday by an unusual snowfall (first in Baghdad since 2008). Wednesday was the careful separation of demonstrations by security. But on Thursday, tens of thousands of women and men marched together for gender equality: “We came out today against those who accuse Iraqi female demonstrators in Tahrir Square.”

Calls have gone out for a million to demonstrate for women’s rights on Saturday. Such calls often do bring out hundreds of thousands: we will see. Remarks at Friday prayers will be influential among some: as Seistani has shown, not all the Muslim clergy will be on the side of gender segregation.

Robert Eckert is a longtime member of the Underground Bunker community and author of the historical novel The Year of Five Emperors.

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