No, no, your voice is not shameful, your voice is a revolution!”

Iraqi women take to the streets in a Tishreen demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on February 13, 2020. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Thousands of Iraqi women shouted these words in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in October 2019. The unprecedented scale of women’s participation helped turn what could have been just another wave of popular protests, which had grown more common over the past decade, into an uprising. Thawra Tishreen (the October Revolution) saw ordinary people demonstrating against the political class and the system that had been put in place following the US-led invasion in 2003.

Women’s participation and visibility in Tishreen highlights the dynamism of women-led grassroots movements today. Groups like the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Iraqi Women Network as well as informal women’s networks have emerged in the past 20 years. As wider protest movements have developed in Iraq, particularly in the past decade, these women-led groups have also broadened their scope to include social and political issues. A new generation of young women protesters has emerged. The nature of their demands speaks to the daily challenges they face amid economic crises, the collapse of state institutions and services, waves of violence and militarization and the rise of heteropatriarchal conservatism. The politicization of both gender and sect has had disproportionate consequences for women—jeopardizing their legal rights and control over their mobility and bodily freedom. Women have also endured the repression of a regime supported by various armed groups, one that rules through armed violence. Women activists are fighting back in the limited social and political space they have left.


Sectarian Politics and Women’s Rights


The US-led invasion and occupation administration put political groups in power that attempted to undo one of the most important legacies for Iraqi women: the Personal Status Code.

Prominent feminist groups such as the Iraqi Women’s League, as well as the anti-imperialist, secular left, had championed the 1959 Personal Status Code to protect women’s rights. It established a minimum marriage age of 18 and guaranteed the right to divorce and inheritance. The law was a product of the Iraqi women’s movement, and the first woman minister in Iraq and the Arab world, Naziha al-Dulaimi, helped write it. It united the rights of Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’as under one law and openly challenged the conservative political elite installed during the former British mandate.

From the Archives: “Conspiracy of Near Silence—Violence Against Iraqi Women,” in MER issue 258.
In 2003, however, political groups linked to Shi’i Islamist political parties (largely in exile) proposed to completely abolish Iraq’s Personal Status Code. When this attempt failed, thanks in part to protests by women’s groups, Shi’i parties proposed an alternative: to establish a sectarian-based Personal Status Code. Their proposal marked a significant break with the code’s political legacy, reflecting instead the nature of the system put in place by the US administration in 2003. Commonly called the muhasasa system, it defined political representation based on communal belonging through ethnic (such as Arab or Kurd), sectarian (Sunni, Shi’a) and religious (Muslim, Christian and other) affiliations.

Along these lines, some Shi’i political forces have been pushing for the Iraqi parliament to adopt a code based on Shi’i jurisprudence commonly referred to as “Jaafari Law.” This law—which would apply to Iraq’s Shi’as—could permit marriage for girls as young as nine and allow unions with no legal protection for women. It would also weaken the power of the previously state-appointed judges in determining whether cross-sectarian marriages are possible, instead granting this power to sectarian religious authorities.

If the Jaafari Law was adopted by the Iraqi parliament, it would render women second-class citizens and provide a further legal foundation for the marriage of minors, which has proliferated in the last two decades in the absence of functioning state institutions and services and widespread poverty. Women’s rights groups like the Baghdad Women’s Association have launched campaigns over the years to combat child marriage, advocate for a welfare state and fight to preserve legal protections for women.

In the past decade, women’s rights groups have also fought to adopt a law that would criminalize domestic violence and provide shelters for women victims of abuse and trafficking. Instead of supporting these campaigns, however, Iraqi authorities have repressed some of the groups. The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, for example, the only organization that runs shelters in the country outside of Iraqi Kurdistan, has been criminalized for its advocacy. In 2020, the Iraqi government filed a lawsuit attempting to strip the organization of its legal right to operate. Meanwhile, its leader Yanar Mohammed has faced death threats.


Women and the Collapse of the Welfare State


The US-led invasion is one node in a longer story of Iraq’s eroding welfare state and its outsized impact on Iraqi women. In 2003, Iraq was already in survival mode. Still not recovered from the Iraq-Iran war and the US-led coalition bombings during the first Gulf War, it had also faced over a decade of UN sanctions, some of the most drastic ever imposed on a country. Sanctions constituted what philosopher Joy Gordon has called “the invisible war.”[1]

Read Joy Gordon on “The Enduring Lessons of the Iraq Sanctions,” from MER issue 294.
Sanctions altered the social fabric of Iraqi society, destroyed the middle class and plunged the majority of the population into poverty. The Iraqi state, historically a major employer, could no longer rely on its main source of revenue, oil sales. It cut employees’ salaries as well as essential public services. As has been well-documented, sanctions also played a central role in the development of everyday corruption and in the formation of mafia-like groups connected to the Baath regime.

Prior to the sanctions, Iraqi women were among the most educated in the region and worked in almost all sectors, although predominantly in the public sector. They took advantage of strong state services, such as higher education, health care, childcare and public transportation. Since 2003, however, public services have been mostly privatized, which has left them dysfunctional or absent. The dire conditions in post-invasion Iraq are not the result simply of neoliberalism, where aggressive privatization is often related to public land grabbing and violent dispossession. Iraq used to have robust and functioning infrastructure before it was destroyed by US-led wars. Women can no longer rely on universal health care and supported childcare. Every aspect of life in Iraq is costly, including access to running water, electricity, childcare and basic health care. Women’s employment has plummeted with the collapse of the public sector. These changes have impacted all Iraqis, but it is women who are disproportionately affected and who are already facing challenges from legal discrimination and heteropatriarchal societal norms.


The Everydayness of Violence


Despite all the rhetoric claiming that the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq would support or “save” Iraqi women, 20 years later the so-called War on Terror continues to shape women’s everyday experiences of insecurity.

The spatial political economy of the post-2003 regime is materialized in T-walls…Together with razor wire, sandbags and a maze of checkpoints, they form the pattern of everyday life in the capital.
The limitations on women’s social and spatial mobility are particularly visible in Baghdad, a city divided by concrete walls and checkpoints. The spatial political economy of the post-2003 regime is materialized in T-walls—reinforced, blast proof concrete slabs, commonly referred to as “Bremer walls,” after the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority during the early years of US occupation, Paul Bremer. Together with razor wire, sandbags and a maze of checkpoints, they form the pattern of everyday life in the capital. Women have to go through these checkpoints guarded by armed male soldiers on a daily basis.

In many ways, cities like Baghdad and Basra have experienced what Stephen Graham, in his reflection on military capitalism, has labeled an “urbicide,” a form of political violence intended to kill cities by pushing away the urban poor, maintaining ethnic and class separation through armed violence and privatizing public goods for the benefit of corporate interests and big business.[2]

In Baghdad, ethno-sectarian separation has a very concrete spatial, bodily and material reality, determined by the US administration’s decision to divide areas of the city according to sect, religion and ethnicity. Class divisions are in turn connected to political divisions since access to resources and wealth is often conditional upon being part of a network with strong ties to the political elite.[3]

Political clashes between armed groups result in yet more roadblocks and T-walls and thus more social control for people who circulate. Of course, such mechanisms of control impact everyone, but their effects on women are particularly pronounced.[4] In Baghdad, armed groups associated with the political elite police the streets in ways that reinforce a heteropatriarchal social order.

Since 2003, Iraqi women’s rights activists have been caught between fighting to preserve their existing legal rights—under threat from conservative social forces—and demanding their basic rights to security and dignity—under siege from the violent social, political and ethno-sectarian crisis provoked by the invasion and occupation.


“Your Voice is a Revolution”


The pretense of “saving” Iraqi women was a dimension of the neocolonial narrative of democracy building leveraged by the US administration to invade and occupy Iraq. “Saving” implies that US imperial domination is superior and even necessary and inherently good for women. Iraqi women are perceived as an ahistorical homogenous object, portrayed as essentially voiceless victims. Even 20 years after the destructive and devastating invasion and occupation, the gendering of the democracy narrative on the Middle East remains.

Also read: “The Challenges for Women Working at Iraqi Universities,” from MER issue 266.
The 2005 Iraqi Constitution adopted a 25 percent quota for women in parliament. Women have since been visible and present in parliament and on candidate lists in elections. United Nations Women and many non-governmental women’s groups have insisted on the importance of such achievements for women’s political participation. Yet, if the quota has allowed some significant women figures to enter parliament, it has also facilitated the presence of party line women, who follow certain political groups even to the detriment of their gender-related interests. The focus on women’s political participation and visibility is a central dimension of the democracy narrative that has dominated the US discourse on Iraq: the idea that Iraq now runs free elections, has women in its parliament and therefore the country is a democracy. In reality, Iraqis have turned away from the polls—the 2021 elections had the lowest voter turnout in Iraq post-2003—and many have decided to take to the streets to voice their political vision outside of the democratic façade.

In the context of the militarization and widespread violence that followed the invasion and occupation, Iraqi intellectuals, writers and activists have been targeted by armed groups, assassinated, threatened or forced into exile. Specific legal mechanisms have also been adopted that limit freedom of expression. For example, a draft of a 2023 “content regulation” law was leaked. If passed, Iraqi activists warn, this law would give the authorities broad control to determine what speech is permissible and shut down speech they oppose. Additionally, a number of Baath-era laws are still used to stifle freedom of expression.

These oppressive conditions have led hundreds of intellectuals, journalists, judges and activists—including women’s rights activists—to speak back against the post-2003 political order. On June 3, 2022, they released a “Statement for Freedom of Expression,” which openly criticized the Iraqi regime’s intensification of repression against any form of political dissent. Since October 2019, at least 540 peaceful protesters have been killed, 20,000 injured and many forcibly disappeared.[5] The repression has been carried out by various entities from the state’s security forces—using stun grenades, anti-riot tanks and military-grade teargas as bullets—as well as by paramilitary groups and mercenaries using live ammunition and machine guns. The Iraqi government has imposed media, internet and telecommunication blackouts as well as curfews. Many protesters have been threatened, intimidated, arrested, beaten, kidnapped and even assassinated.

While most of the protesters killed during the uprising were young men on the front lines of confrontation with the Iraqi security forces during protests, women protesters were also targeted. Protesters like Saba Mahdawi and Mari Mohammed were kidnapped. In Basra, Sara Taleb and her husband ‘Adel and Reham Yacoob were killed by armed groups as was Zahraa Ali in Baghdad.

The main slogan at the heart of the 2019 uprising, Enrid watan (we want a country), expresses what so many Iraqis have lost: A functioning, livable country with robust infrastructure and services as well as the possibility of living without fear of being killed by a vast network of armed groups affiliated with the Iraqi establishment for simply expressing their demands. The struggle against restrictions on women’s rights, the silencing of their voices and the erosion of their bodily autonomy are poignantly reflected in the protesters’ chants. “Your voice is not shameful, your voice is a revolution,” is a rallying battle cry for freedom and dignity, especially for women.


[Zahra Ali is an assistant professor in sociology at Rutgers University, Newark.]


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This article appears in MER issue 306 “The State of Iraq–20 Years After the Invasion.”




[1] Joy Gordon, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[2] Stephan Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London/New York: Verso, 2010).

[3] Omar Sirri & José Ciro Martinez, “Of Bakeries and Checkpoints: Stately affects in Amman and Baghdad,” EPD: Society and Space 38/5 (2020), p. 849.

[4] Renad Mansour, “More Than Militias: Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces Are Here to Stay,” War on the Rocks, April 3, 2019.

[5]Human Rights Violations and Abuses in the Context of Demonstrations in Iraq October 2019 to April 2020,” UNAMI and OHCR Report, August 2020, p. 15.

How to cite this article:

Zahra Ali "Iraqi Women’s Activism—20 Years After the US Invasion," Middle East Report 306 (Spring 2023).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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