Yifat Susskind is executive director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization based in New York. Jillian Schwedler spoke with her on October 28, 2015, the week after Yanar Mohammed, head of MADRE’s partner group the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), testified before the UN Security Council about women’s vital role in sustainable peacebuilding and about the task of sheltering women fleeing sexual violence, including from areas controlled by ISIS.

What are the basic challenges for your work in Iraq, where the state does not fully function?

In places where governments are either unable or unwilling to meet their obligations regarding social and economic human rights, local grassroots organizations step into the vacuum. And when we are talking about basic, life-sustaining services—food, water, shelter, health care and education—it is often community-based women’s organizations that provide these essentials. Small women’s organizations are doing the work of the state—it happens in the United States as well—but it should not fall to small NGOs to provide food and shelter in situations of mass displacement.

The challenge is compounded by the anti-terrorism financing regulations in the US and in Europe. These laws are designed to prevent money from ending up in the hands of terrorist organizations, but they are not very fine-tuned, so it becomes impossible to send money to places like Iraq or Syria. In the summer of 2014, after the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, private banks like Chase just stopped wiring money to Iraq, because they didn’t want to run afoul of regulations. So we had to be very creative and do what MADRE is set up to do, which is to get money to grassroots women’s organizations, no matter what the conditions. Grassroots organizations, especially progressive women’s groups, are at the front line, not just defending communities under attack, but also preventing violent extremism. The irony is that US counterterrorism finance regulations are getting in the way of supporting the very people who are countering terrorism.

There is another problem: The activities of OWFI, in particular the operation of shelters for battered women, are not legal in Iraq. The shelters stayed illegal even though the need for them grew a great deal after the mass displacement of 2014. And there was the gender-based violence of ISIS and of local sectarian militias, including frankly the Iraqi government-affiliated Shi‘i militias as well. If you’re a woman or an LGBT Iraqi, there is a big overlap between needing shelter because of armed conflict and needing shelter because of the kind of violence you face every day from within your own family and community. Those forms of violence are on a continuum. So we try to point out to the Iraqi government—both at the municipal and national levels—that there is a tremendous need and the government shouldn’t get in the way. “Why don’t you make an exception,” we say, “because this really is an emergency.” Once they make an exception, and allow women’s groups to run shelters due to displacement, we’ve created the precedent to argue that these shelters should remain in operation even once mass displacement subsides.

Why did the government disallow the shelters in the first place?

There is no modality of women living independently. In the very conservative mindset that prevails, the only interpretation of a house where single women live is that it’s a brothel. There is widespread acceptance of everything from blocking women from making independent decisions to domestic violence to honor killing for transgressing social norms. Tolerance of honor killing is institutionalized in the Iraqi constitution that the US brokered. Someone escaping the threat of honor killing is seen as a fugitive who has done something wrong. Therefore, a shelter is not seen as providing sanctuary to innocent victims; it’s seen as harboring people who have broken social norms and deserve punishment.

And even as encouraging them to defy social norms.

Right, and our partners at OWFI are in fact encouraging women to change social norms. They’re not just running a shelter. This work is part of a whole feminist and human rights norm-building program. And to say that it’s frowned upon is an understatement. The shelters have faced different degrees of harassment, from police raids to the appearance of OWFI activists’ names on the “kill lists” of militias affiliated with the government.

Including Yanar Mohammed.

Yanar received death threats earlier, in 2003, when she started the shelters. Both the shelters and the OWFI radio station, the only women’s station in Iraq, which reached a listenership of 7 million in Baghdad, have come under attack. The radio station was shut down in the summer of 2014, and its frequency given to al-Haqq, an Iranian-backed Shi‘i militia that has acted as the strike force for the government.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that the frequency was taken away from a self-described left-wing, non-sectarian, progressive organization—the only organization in the history of Iraq to stand publicly for LGBT rights, for instance. In part, it’s a reaction to the ISIS invasion, and the same thing we experienced here after September 11, 2001—an uptick in conservatism and a reactionary turn inward. Space for dissent closes down as people feel under attack and right-wing extremism is fueled.

In Iraq, that dynamic has created a whole new level of threat to progressive activists, to trade unionists and to LGBT folks. LGBT Iraqis aren’t enjoying a social movement in Iraq, per se, but for the first time are starting to think about how they might begin to organize themselves and how they might want to understand themselves in political terms. That nascent work has happened almost entirely because of the courage of individuals (like Amir Ashour, founder of the new LGBT organization, Iraqueer), and the support of OWFI, which recognizes that LGBT people are strong potential allies for the women’s movement there.

Is any organization that receives foreign funding automatically suspect?

It’s always an issue when a local organization is seen to be pushing the envelope and has outside support. That makes them vulnerable to accusations of having a “foreign agenda.” And frankly it’s an issue that we navigate everywhere we work in the world because we are based in the US. We have a model of listening very closely to what our partners say, in Iraq and other places, so as to position MADRE to help clear the path in support of local women’s organizing without putting itself at the center of the narrative.

Another narrative is that women were better off under Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Asad.

Better off is a relative term without a lot of nuance. Some things were better, some things were worse.

I think the difference lies in the fact that the Iraqi Baathist regime—and this is somewhat the case in Syria, too—for a long time suppressed civil and political rights, but to some degree protected social and economic rights—certainly more than its successor does now. Arguably, the Sunni Arabs in Iraq have few civil and political rights now, because of the sectarian nature of the government that the US boosted into power. But the whole balance has shifted, and today most people are much worse off in terms of social and economic rights. For women, there were previously much higher levels of health care, education, safe public transportation and participation in the public-sector work force. It was a repressive, but high-functioning state.

The US destroyed that and replaced it with a sectarian government with strong theocratic leanings. It also put significant obstacles in the way of the Iraqi government providing social services, trying instead to turn Iraq into a neoliberal laboratory. That created tremendous poverty and hunger, and it contributed to sex trafficking, militia violence and entrenchment of reactionary authority as people became more dependent on tribal leaders for jobs and other resources. I have a lot of sympathy for people in Iraq and Syria who say that things were better before. They weren’t living through this war, and that’s the biggest difference.

But we should remember that whatever social services the Baathist regime provided, including for women, didn’t come from commitment to feminist values. The regimes offered these services because it is easier to control women as citizens when they are benefiting from the state and not under the control of their fathers and husbands. So they provided free higher education, state-sponsored child care, paid maternity leave—all these services that women need and, in the US, have not won. They wanted women to participate equally in the work force and also fulfill their responsibilities as wives and mothers. But they didn’t do it for women; they did it to consolidate state power.

The shelters were not permitted under Saddam’s regime, either.

No. Saddam’s government did the same thing that the US did after the invasion: Use women’s rights as a bargaining chip with self-appointed clerical and tribal leaders. Whenever these men were agitating for more state power, Saddam would chip away at women’s rights as a concession to them, allowing, for example, reactionary religious interpretations of the country’s marriage, divorce and child custody laws. Women’s rights are always easy to concede because women have no representation in government and there is no one to argue on their behalf. Saddam Hussein also mounted “social cleansing” campaigns, systematically killing women who worked as prostitutes, among other atrocious human rights violations.

How are women identified and moved to safe locations where they can receive support?

OWFI runs a program that we call the Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women—an escape and support network for women facing the threat of honor killing, which rose dramatically after the 2003 US invasion.

The name “Underground Railroad” took on a renewed and horrifying significance when systematic sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS became entrenched in the north of Iraq. In those places, OWFI was able to offer the only safe houses for women, thanks to a diffuse network of activists and a corps of male allies, and with support from MADRE. To a significant extent, everyone is at risk, but people who are known to be progressive activists, who do not follow ISIS orders as to dress, behavior and conduct at work—those people are at real added risk. We have had occasion to do what we hope is temporary emergency relocation, for example, getting people out of Mosul and into some other parts of Iraq.

We also will soon be opening the first rape and crisis center for women and girls—mostly Yazidis, but others as well—escaping conditions of sexual slavery. That will be located in Kurdistan. At this center, we hope, women and girls will eventually be able to heal from what has happened to them. The center will offer everything from reconstructive surgery for really young girls who have terrible internal injuries from multiple rapes, to trauma counseling, to reintegration, support services and job training, in order to help women rebuild their lives. A lot of these women are the sole surviving members of their families, so the rebuilding has to happen on every level—physical, psychic, social, cultural.

At this moment of terrible crisis, we may also be able to modify the social norms surrounding women who are survivors of rape. As in the US, women are routinely blamed for being raped and carry the stigma for the rest of their lives. In Iraq, the stigma is so strong that women can be killed for having been raped. Now, however, both in Iraq and in Syria, there are small but critical indicators that change may be possible, because of the sheer numbers of women who are being identified as rape survivors. It’s almost like the community is reaching a tipping point where it is hard to blame a woman for being raped because it’s happening to everybody. It’s both horrifying and a very important opportunity for local women’s rights activists to entrench this shift in attitude, to make it permanent. This isn’t something outsiders could ever do, but we can support it, for instance by facilitating strategic conversations between women who are experiencing this moment in Iraq with women in Congo and Bosnia, who have valuable lessons to share. This is part of what MADRE does.

Entrenching this shift to end stigma is particularly urgent in the Yazidi community. Earlier this year, the main Yazidi cleric issued a declaration, saying that people who are returning from ISIS captivity should be welcomed home. It was very clear to Yazidis and all Iraqis that he was saying—without coming out and saying it—that girls and women who had been raped should not be killed by their families. It was completely unprecedented.

Are there others, perhaps religious women, who are more open to such change, because of the scale of the crisis?

We just convened in Istanbul the second in a series of meetings of about a dozen Iraqi women’s organizations and a dozen Syrian women’s organizations. We talked about a range of issues—among them, how to survive under ISIS, but also how to move a women’s rights agenda forward in a context of failed states and armed conflict. And they are figuring that out. There is a range of ethnic-religious identity and political views, and a growing coalitional sensibility. Compare that to a time earlier where many of these women’s groups would not have wanted to sit down with OWFI, for example, because they are perceived as so radical.

Has that change occurred because ISIS is so bad?

It’s a combination of things. The international advocacy work that OWFI has done with MADRE has raised their credibility and visibility, to the point that they cannot be dismissed. Moreover, sometimes the basis of working together is not mutual agreement, but the hope of building greater common understanding through the work.

Anything else we should know?

There is a lot of frustration about how women’s rights are being exploited by the US and Europe to mobilize public support for their war on ISIS and the “war on terror” more broadly. We’re very aware that the only reason that Yanar was chosen to speak in front of the UN Security Council this year was that she would condemn ISIS, a common enemy of Council members. For many years, we were extremely vocal in our opposition to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and believe me, she was not invited to express that view in front of the Security Council.

We know—and so do Syrian and Iraqi women—that our work is given visibility right now because the women are under attack by enemies of the US and its allies. There’s not the same sympathy for communities that are under attack by Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel, for example. And all of the focus on ISIS is taking away from what should include a focus on the atrocities of the Syrian government. ISIS is one piece of the puzzle.

What’s more, the violence that women and girls face under ISIS is on a continuum of violence that they faced before and are going to face afterward. This moment is distinguished only by the brazenness and scale of the ISIS violence. It’s difficult for the international community to know what the hell to do about ISIS—or the Syrian war, for that matter. But there are a lot of eminently doable and not particularly expensive policy changes that would go a very long way toward protecting women’s rights—before, during and after these crises—that would make women much better able to survive and resist in moments like the ISIS onslaught. Allow women to run women’s shelters, for example. Make it legal for a woman to get an ID card without her husband’s permission so that she can get food and health care, or get her kids into school if she’s displaced. Currently, if your husband dies and he’s not there to vouch for you, you can’t get an ID card.

There’s a counterpart in Syria—all these kids born stateless because the mother cannot pass on her nationality. Who knows what the state is going to look like, or if there will be multiple states? What will happen to this newest generation born without adequate documents, unless we take action to solidify their legal status? This situation gives us a real opportunity to demonstrate precisely how gender discrimination undermines prospects for society as a whole, and certainly for any kind of genuine democracy.

Also, we and our local partners are doing a lot of documentation of human rights violations, in particular against women and LGBT folks. OWFI is the only group taking testimony from LGBT people. In general, effective documentation of sexual violence in armed conflict is still rare. But it’s critical, because one of the lessons of Bosnia is that we can’t go back afterward and build that evidence base to prosecute war crimes. Through several years of training from MADRE, the activists of OWFI now have both the skills and the sensitivity to collect legally viable documentation and do it in a way that empowers the survivor of violence. They have a methodology that avoids re-traumatizing or endangering that person and offers the psychological support and broader social services that a person may need to give testimony safely. There are some organizations, MADRE and others, who have developed and advanced that skill set. We are only able to do this, though, because the women and men of OWFI are willing to risk their lives in places like Mosul and Tikrit (when that city was under ISIS). We do the training, and they actually do the documentation. The idea is to build a base of evidence now, so that violations against women and LGBT folks are part of any transitional justice process that emerges to address and heal from these wars.

This work is happening because grassroots women and their allies are putting their lives on the line to defend their communities and the possibility of a peaceful and progressive future.

Image: Yifat Susskind. To her right is Oula Ramadan, executive director of the Badael Foundation. (Courtesy of MADRE)

How to cite this article:

Jillian Schwedler "“ISIS Is One Piece of the Puzzle”," Middle East Report 276 (Fall 2015).

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