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An Interview with Khayal Ibrahim of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq and Samir Noory of the Worker Communist Party of Iraq

by Bill Weinberg

March 8, International Women's Day, saw a courageous street mobilization by nearly a thousand Baghdad women (and some male supporters) against a proposed constitutional measure to impose Islamic Shari'a law in Iraq. The march was called by the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), which warned that the measure would legalize the stoning and beheading of women and eliminate legal rights in marriage, child custody, education and reproductive freedom. OWFI's protests helped pressure Iraq's Governing Council to vote down the measure--for now. But since the campaign, the organization's leader, Yanar Mohammed, has been receiving death threats.

On March 3, a group of OWFI supporters held a solidarity vigil with the Baghdad women at the Federal Building in downtown Manhattan. In attendance were Khayal Ibrahim of OWFI and Samir Noory of the Worker Communist Party of Iraq, who came down for the vigil from Toronto, where they live as exiles. Both are in close contact with the organizations they represent in Iraq, and serve as their North American voice. On the night before the Manhattan vigil, Ibrahim and Noory spoke with WW3 REPORT editor Bill Weinberg on his weekly midnight talk show, the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade, on listener-supported WBAI, 99.5 FM.

BW: Welcome aboard, Khayal Ibrahim of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, OWFI.

KI: Thank you.

BW: And Samir Noory, of the Worker Communist Party of Iraq. Welcome aboard!

SN: Thank you.

BW: Khayal was just giving me some interesting commentary on the music we played. This is the only music that we have from Iraq, so our listeners have heard it before. It was Les Maqams de Baghdad, and you were just telling us about how this older Iraqi music differs from the stuff which is in vogue today.

KI: Yeah, this was very famous music from more than 30 years ago, and everybody likes it because after that the songs changed to political things mostly--people would just sing for Saddam, or just sing Kurdish or Turkomani songs. That's why when I heard, I felt like "Oh god, that was a long time ago that I last heard it," and I really liked it.

BW: So the music today is somewhat polarized along ethnic lines...

KI: Yes exactly. At that time, nobody would think "Oh this isn't an Arabic song, we won't listen to it." If the singer is good, everybody liked it. Today it is different.

BW: So that's indicative of the whole cultural climate in Iraq at the moment...

KI: Yes, exactly.

BW: And, you're living in...

KI: Right now I live in Toronto, Canada. We came for tomorrow's demonstration, to support women against Shari'a law, which will bring suffering for women in Iraq, and Iraqi women have been suffering for so long. Even the civil law that we used to have was based on Shari'a, but at least it gave some kind of civil rights for women, like the right to refuse marriage. But with Shari'a law, woman will lose everything. She will just be like any other object at home. She will have no right to take care of her children when she gets separated, she will have no right to separate from her husband, even if she is stoned by her husband. It would legalize honor killing...

BW: For being unfaithful, that sort of thing...

KI: Exactly, so she can be stoned to death. It will take women back more than 300 years. It's not fair in this world, in this time, that women can live like that. We need to live just like women in any other country in the world--like American women, like Canadian women. So we don't accept that. For the Iraqi people, religion is supposed to be a personal thing. You can be a religious person, or you can be a secular person.

BW: Well, this is the way it traditionally was under Saddam, but there's now signs that this is going to be changing in the post-Saddam order.

KI: Well, even with Saddam, the civil code that was instated in 1958 was based more than fifty percent on Shari'a law, even if it guaranteed like some kind of rights--a little, we can say.

BW: This was instated in 1958, after the monarchy was overthrown?

KI: That's right. But after Saddam came to power, he added Article 111, which was a very big retreat for women. And since that time, thousands of women have been killed--and nobody even mentions it. People just think, OK, this is their tradition. There is no tradition! And even if that's a tradition, we have to change that...

BW: So Saddam actually reformed the law to make it worse...

KI: Yes, because political Islam was becoming stronger, they planted their nets everywhere. All over.

BW: This was the '80s?

KI: Yes, in the '80s. A huge retreat for women in Iraq.

BW: And just recently, there was a measure which was proposed by the Governing Council which would have imposed Shari'a law, but was defeated.

KI: It was defeated, and that is a really good sign that the Iraqi people are not accepting Shari'a law. We need to have freedom, we need to be educated, to marry the person we want. We don't want to be stoned by our husbands. We need full equality between man and woman. So that is our main goal. We have to get it, and we have to fight for that. And Iraqi women, they have a long, long history of struggling against this tradition.

BW: And OWFI has a strong presence on the ground in Iraq?

KI: Yes, of course. It was founded more than 12 years ago in Kurdistan. Today it has members all over Iraq, and committees all over the world. We started in secret, because this was under Saddam's regime. And we had a very rough time even in Kurdistan. When the two ruling Kurdish nationalist parties, the KDP and PUK, first came to power they killed thousands of women. We have documented all these so-called honor killings. So while we finally had shelter from Saddam there, we had a hard time at first. We had our newsletter, al-Mosawat, which means Equality, and they closed it down; we had our office closed many times...

BW: The office was where? What city?

KI: It was in Suliymaniah, and we also had an office in Erbil. They closed both of them, and they threatened all the women there, they threatened them with honor killings, and we had to fight against that.

BW: And OWFI has recently led some public protests in Baghdad.

KI: Of course, OWFI led the demonstration against Shari'a when they tried to impose it, and we had many public speeches. Yanar Mohammed is the head of OWFI and she has been threatened two times now by the political Islamic forces, and they taunted her the second time that if she doesn't stop her activities she will be killed in a few days. So here we need support from all the activists, all the freedom lovers ...

BW: She is in Baghdad?

KI: She is in Baghdad, and she gave us a call a few days ago. She said she has to be more careful, but our struggle continues, we'll keep fighting ... We have no choice, but to struggle and fight for our rights until the end.

BW: During the Saddam era, was she in Iraq? Or she was in exile?

KI: She was with us as an immigrant in Canada since about eight years ago. But after Saddam's regime was gone she went back for political activities, to start our Baghdad office, and publish our newspaper, Equality...

BW: In Arabic?

KI: Yes, in Arabic, and we have it in English on the website.

BW: Samir Noory of the Worker Communist Party of Iraq: could you tell us something about your organization, and how it fared under Saddam, and how it's been faring in the post-Saddam era?

SN: Our party was established around 1993 as an underground organization, and a lot of our members and cadres were arrested by Saddam. There was no freedom, not any freedom of speech, so there was no open political activity at that time. But we started our work in north part of Iraq, in Suliymaniah...

BW: In Kurdistan?

SN: In Kurdistan, yeah, Suliymaniah and Erbil and Dahuk. And we had our newspaper, ash-Shuyu'iya-al-Umalliya, and we were involved in a lot of activity with the workers movement, the council movement, in 1991. I was there, I was one of them ...

BW: What is the council movement?

SN: We built a lot of workers' councils in the factories, like the cigarette factories in Suliymaniah and Erbil. This was a new independent labor movement in Iraq.

BW: This emerged after the Kurdish autonomous zone was established...

SN: It was in the uprising [against Saddam] in 1991. But this movement was opposed by the nationalist movements in Kurdistan, the PUK and PDK, and threatened by them--they sent the militia against those activities...

BW: So you were opposed to both the Kurdish parties and the Ba'ath party...

SN: Yeah, for sure! From the beginning until now, we were against the Ba'ath party because it was against all the political movements, all the other political parties. Yeah.

BW: And does the council movement still exist? Today?

SN: Yes, it is very strong in Baghdad and Kirkuk now, and we still have a presence in Suliymaniah and also in Erbil.

BW: Linked to your party?

SN: Yeah, supported by our party. And also in Nasiriya, and I hear they have started in Basra too.

BW: And was your party able to have any kind of presence at all in Saddam-controlled Iraq?

SN: We protested Saddam's fake elections, and they arrested some our members in Najaf and Nasiriya. They were in the Abu Ghraib prison until Saddam was toppled.

BW: And that was when? When was this fake election?

SN: In 1995.

BW: And your people were arrested for what exactly?

SN: For writing on the walls, using paint against Saddam and against this fake election. Some of them were sentenced to seven, ten years in prison.

BW: And have they been able to resume political activities now?

SN: Well, now they face another problem with political Islam. I don't know if you heard about how the Italian forces were sent to take over our office in Nasiriya.

BW: Oh, really?

SN: Yeah, the troops protect the forces of political Islam there! And now our office in Nasiriya is down...

BW: When did this happen?

SN: This is happened two months after Saddam was toppled.

BW: The Italian troops shut down your office in Nasiriya...

SN: Yeah! We made a demo in Toronto and we entered the Italian consulate, and we gave them our letter about that and they said "We're gonna resolve this one," and they didn't! They are really helping political Islam.

BW: On what grounds did they close the office? With what justification?

SN: I think they said, "We don't need any problems here, and you are communists and the Islamic forces don't like it..." I don't know, maybe they used this as an excuse...

BW: So has your office reopened? Or it's still closed?

SN: No, they didn't allow it.

BW: So have you been able to resume, for instance, putting out a publication? Anywhere in Iraq?

SN: Yeah, right now we have our newspaper ash-Shuyu'iya-al-Umalliya ...

BW: Which means what?

SN: It means "Worker Communist" in Arabic. 12,000 distributed each issue.

BW: In Baghdad?

SN: In Baghdad, and in all the cities in Iraq. Mostly in Baghdad because you know the population of Baghdad is around six million people.

BW: And when you call yourselves communists, what are your political roots, what sort of tendency, ideology...

SN: You know, communist! It means another society, against the capitalists, it means equality between the people, economically. That's the basis of our movement. And politically, we want socialist rule, worker rule. That's what we call for.

BW: Clearly. But certainly throughout the history of the world communist movement, there's been all sorts of divisions and struggles, so, do you come out on any side in terms of Trostskyism or Maoism..?

SN: We don't agree with Trotskyists or Maoists, or the old Soviet model... We believe in Lenin and we don't agree with the Trotskyists. Our leader in Iraq is Rebwar Ahmed, and we have links with the Worker Communist Party of Iran, founded by Mansoor Hekmat, who died of cancer two years ago ...

BW: Forgive my ignorance. Is there a relation between the Worker Communist Party of Iran and the Tudeh, the traditional communist party in Iran?

SN: No, no, the Worker Communist Party of Iran is a new party, built after 1991. Before that, there was the Communist Party of Iran, established in 1980. But Tudeh is the old party that was linked to the Soviet Union... But this party is not, it's different, ideologically and everything...

BW: Gotcha. Thanks for the correction. So, do you want to say a little bit about your personal stories? Where each of you come from, and how you wound up in Toronto, and what your experiences were along the way? You were born in Iraq?

SN: I was born in Iraq, in Kirkuk, the old city. Yeah.

BW: And when did you leave? If you don't mind talking about it publicly...

SN: I was in Kirkuk most of my youth, I was a medical student, but in 1983, I was forced to leave because of my political activity. I was mostly in Erbil, with a fake identity. I came to Toronto in 1998.

BW: And Khayal?

KI: I'm from Kurdistan, from the city of Dahuk. I left Iraq in 1995. And that was also because of political activities, especially with women's activism. When I was in university, I found that the whole society was going backward, and women were losing their freedom, and we were getting killed, we were getting stoned in honor killings, a big difference opened between brothers and sisters, a big difference between men and women, and the whole society was against women.

BW: What era are you referring to?

KI: I'm talking about when I was in university, from 1991 to 1993.

BW: In Kurdistan?

KI: In Kurdistan in the city of Dahuk. After the first US war in Iraq in 1991, Saddam Hussein lost his authority in Kurdistan, and the two Kurdish political parties came to power--first they fought each other, and then they started the honor killings. Nobody in Canada can believe it, they say, "OK, where are the rules, where is the government, where is the court?" The whole society was going back. So we had to fight that. And our lives were in danger. A friend of ours was killed, and then me and my husband received threats, and we had to leave. We moved to Turkey and we applied to the United Nations from there and we landed as immigrants in Toronto.

BW: Who was in power in Dahuk at this point? This was one of the Kurdish parties?

KI: Yes, the KDP. But both [KDP leader] Masood Bazani and [PKK leader] Jalal al-Talabani, they only build their own political movement, they did not pay any attention to poverty, women's issues, education. I remember when we were children, girls and boys used to go to school just the same, there was no idea of "OK, the girl has to stay home." But after these two parties came to power, about seventy percent of the girls stayed out of school, they couldn't continue their education.

BW: So things actually got worse after the KDP came to power?

KI: A lot worse! Girls just five years old, had to be hijab-ed, had to wear the veil, that was compulsory, she has no right to say no... She is stopped from going to school but her brother, it's OK he can go to school. It was a very big retreat for women.

BW: OK, but that did begin to turn around in Kurdistan in subsequent years, right?

KI: Yes it did. But at first there was not much difference between Saddam and the Kurdish parties, because the political Islamic movements had their nets are all over. They would tell the workers, "Come and take some bread and rice, but you have to bring your young daughter, and she has to memorize verses from the Koran, and she has to wear a veil." They started to brainwash, especially the young teenagers, they try to make them rule at home, "Your mother is not allowed to do that, your sister is not allowed to do that..."

BW: These groups were able to maintain their activities openly? Both in Kurdistan and Saddam's Iraq?

KI: Very openly, yes. Later they were put down by the KDP and PUK. But the nationalists and Islamists--they have no better future for the Iraqi people.

BW: But let's say, two years ago, when Saddam was still in power--things were better for women in the part of Iraq that Saddam controlled? Or better in Kurdistan?

KI: In Kurdistan it was better, because of the movements, especially the radical movements. The Worker Communist Party was a very big help for us. And Saddam was not there, so we had more chance to talk freely, even if the KDP and PUK also killed many of our friends and closed our offices. But, overall, the Kurdistan radical movements had more freedom. Saddam's society was completely closed, he was the dictator, and there was no tolerance under his power. Otherwise, their ideas were the same.

BW: Arab nationalism versus Kurdish nationalism?

KI: Yes. When Article 111 was passed, instating Shari'a law, hundreds of women were hanged in southern Iraq--like 200 in about a week. Mostly they were accused of being prostitutes. I have a friend who was in Baghdad then--she stepped out of her house and she saw her neighbor's body on one side of the street, and her head on the other side of the street ...

BW: And this was done by who? This was carried out by...

KI: By Ba'ath regime.

SN: Saddam's Fedayeen. He beheaded more than 200 women in Mosul and Baghdad especially. Sometimes they allowed the brother or father or husband to kill, the do the honor killing. They could kill any woman in the family without punishment.

BW: OK, so the measure which was just now before the Governing Council would have made things even worse?

KI: The Governing Council is a lot worse--instead of having one Saddam Hussein we have about 25 Saddam Husseins with a much more restrictive Islamic political program. And every day there is a bombing in Iraq, by some kind of reactionary movement trying to impose the same Islamic rule...

BW: How would the Governing Council's proposed Article 137 have differed from 111, the one from the Saddam era? More stringent?

KI: It is completely different. Under this one, women will have no right to take their children in separation, no custody rights, and no right to say who I will marry or to get divorced. Girls just 12 years old can be married against their will with an older man, with no right to say no--her brother or father can say, "you are going to marry." She has no right to education, she has to wear the veil, she is not allowed to leave the country, she has no civil rights, no human rights. She has none.

BW: But this was defeated? How was 137 defeated?

KI: It was defeated by OWFI. That's the main thing--there was a demonstration, thousands of women in the street. They could no impose it, we say it's impossible in a country like Iraq. It is a modern country, it is not Islamic, it has many religions... And people in Iraq are educated, we have many professionals. It is impossible to impose a reactionary resolution like 137.

SN: The first day this resolution came out, there were 85 organizations--not only OWFI but 85 other organizations, women's and other civil organizations--they all came out and said no to this resolution. See, the Iraqi people are a secular people, I do not agree with anyone who says the Iraqi people are religious, this is an Islamic country! I don't agree with that, this country is secular, a good percent of women go to the university, many of our writers are women. And now, Resolution 137 would mean stoning, cutting off hands...

BW: But after your protests, the Governing Council voted it down?

SN: Yeah. They defeated it, five to fifteen.

KI: But they defeated it under the pressure of the movements, the women's movements.

BW: Are there women in the council now? There are a couple, right?

SN: I think three, but those women in the council, they wear a veil, they are not radical ...

KI: They don't speak for us.

SN: Really, women's activists are not in the council, they're not represented there.

BW: I think the most important question for our listeners is, what is your positive vision of Iraq's future? Everybody wants the US out, even George Bush is saying at this point he wants the US out--but what happens after that? You oppose the occupation, but how do we get from here to there? What are the circumstances under which the US can leave without fundamentalists coming to power, or civil war...

SN: First, before the war started, we said this is the dark scenario. Right now it has become darker. Everyone can see--explosions on the street, kidnappings, especially of women--gangs take women and kids, in Baghdad, and sell them in Arabia, in Jordan... All this has never happened in Iraq.

BW: Women are being abducted from Iraq and sold in neighboring countries? As prostitutes? As slaves? As what?

SN: We don't know have the exact picture, but women can't walk in the street without guards, without a brother or husband. This is the situation. A very dark situation. This is what happened because of the occupation. This occupation brought all the forces of political Islam back. They opened the door for all the kinds of political Islam, from Saudi Arabia, from Pakistan, from Iran--they are sending weapons and money. If the occupation forces leave, the people of Iraq can decide what they want to do. But right now they have no choice, the choice is in the US forces' hands, the occupation forces. Really, we want them to leave, and we know what we have to do. The Iraqi people want a secular state. We want separation of religion and state.

BW: I would like to believe that, and you know I have not been in you country, but just looking at the media coverage here, even most of the opposition to the occupation, the big rallies we've seen, have been organized by Shi'ite groups and Sunni fundamentalists...

SN: No, no, the Shiites are in with the council, they are with the occupation forces. Who says they are opposed?

BW: Well, not all of them. There's the Sadr group which is opposed, right?

SN: Most of the Shi'ite groups are in the council.

BW: OK, so how is some kind of democratic secular state going to be established in Iraq after the US pulls out? How do you envision this happening? Who can we concretely loan solidarity to here in New York City and the US?

SN: We believe there is a strong movement--the women's movement, labor movement, the radical leftist and communist movements, the democratic movements--they can establish a secular country in Iraq. A lot of people! The majority of people in Iraq, they want a secular country. They don't want a religious or ethnic state. They do not want that.

BW: And you feel the US occupation is collaborating with the fundamentalist elements?

SN: I don't use this word "fundamentalism," I use "political Islam." I don't divide political Islam into good and bad--I think all of them have the same idea, the same goal. The US doesn't like bin Laden, so they go with Sistani, they sit down with him and they give him power, they give his people a council seat and everything, just like the US supported political Islam in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. They say "this is fundamentalism," "this is terrorism," this is good, this is bad. I don't know, there is no good and no bad with political Islam--there is just political Islam, they all want Shari'a, they want an Islamic republic like Iran, like Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia. And everyone knows that means stoning, that means cutting off hands, that means no freedom of expression, no freedom of speech, no freedom to publish...

BW: It's also being portrayed that the only resistance to the US occupation is coming from the al-Qaeda types, or else the Ba'athists. So where is the resistance that we can actually support?

SN: I told you! There is a movement with the people's support. You can support OWFI, you can help see that Yanar Mohammed is not threatened... Now she is under threat every day. You can support this movement. You can't change the situation in Iraq in one day or two days. This is a process. Because the US came and toppled a government in Iraq, and every militia has become a local power. No one has the power! This is the dark scenario that US has brought to Iraq. They brought it by their hands, and they have to leave and the people will decide what they do. We know what to do! We are Iraqi, we have our movement, we know how we change the situation to the better.

KI: To make sure the country survives, the United Nations forces can stay, just to make places safe until a whole government is elected ...

BW: They also blew up the United Nations headquarters!

KI: That is right, but that is all because of presence of US. If the US is out, they may keep bombing--because political Islam make no distinction between a child or a soldier. They bomb everywhere. Didn't they bomb the Twin Towers? There was no George Bush or government target there, and they killed all people like me and you sitting in the office doing their work... But if the US leaves, it will be a struggle between the civil people and political Islam, and they will lose, I'm sure! They will lose.

BW: Political Islam? Will lose?

KI: They will lose their power. They can't stay long. The whole world is changing, and they cannot accept it.

BW: What is the organizational force which is going to effectively oppose them? You've mentioned your two organizations, but do the Worker Communist Party of Iraq and OWFI really have the organizational capacity to take on Sistani, and al-Qaeda, and so on?

KI: Well, we're not saying it's easy. Women in US didn't get their freedom--and I know it's not over yet--but they didn't get it in just a matter of days, they struggled years and years and the society changed, the law became better and better, and that's our goal. It doesn't matter how long it takes--we have to do our best to become like the US and all the other countries where women are equal. And even here, I don't agree that women are completely equal to men...

BW: Things are going backwards in some respects.

KI: Exactly. That's why we need to support each other... We believe women's rights are universal. Like humans rights are supposed to be universal. And we say we have to support each other to build a better world. I came to Canada and US because there is some kind of human rights here. And that is why I go back home to fight for the same, even if it's not easy.

BW: How can people get in touch with OWFI? Are you on the web?

KI: Yes, we have a website, and many newsletters in English and Arabic, and Farsi, also.

BW: Great. And the Worker Communist Party, how can people contact you?

SN: Also, we have a website.

BW: Great. So everybody, please join us tomorrow at Federal Plaza at noon. I want to thank you so much for joining us! Khayal Ibrahim of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq and Samir Nori of Worker Communist Party of Iraq. So glad you could make it!

KI, SN: Thank you, thank you.

BW: And why don't we go out with some more of Les Makams des Baghdad...


OWFI: Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq

Worker Communist Party of Iraq

Khayal in front of WCPI banner
Bush promotes theocracy
raised fists
Khayal speaking

Transcription: Sarah Falkner

Special to WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, May 1, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Reprinting permissible with attribution.