On February 13, 2020, the streets of Iraq were flooded with pink and purple. In response to claims by influential Islamist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that “promiscuityby demonstrators at popular demonstrations across the country, women’s rights activists donned pink and purple garments to demonstrate their right to be heard in Iraq’s male-dominated political arena.
That was two years ago, but today the legacy of the Tishreen (October) movement that precipitated the women’s march is more important than ever. It revitalized the history of women’s struggles in Iraq, largely ignored by the West, and inspired a new politically active generation that is determined to change Iraq for the better.
Despite years of various anti-government protests across the country since 2011, the Tishreen movement that erupted in 2020 was bigger than any other protest movement Iraq had seen in recent history. This organic movement represented the sentiments of much of Iraqi society opposed to Iraq’s systemic corruption and sectarian, paternalistic political system that failed to meet political and economic demands. Iraqi women have become essential to its success.
During Tishreen, women from all walks of life participated, regardless of sect or ethnicity, especially in more conservative towns such as Nasiriyah, Najaf and Karbala. Big cities filled with Iraqis demanding an entirely different political and social reality: one that is socially just, non-violent, non-sectarian, equal, resilient and progressive. From the start, women were central planning peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins: setting up protest tents, organizing intellectual discussions, composing, writing, painting, cooking and volunteering as doctors and legal advisers.
The pioneering leadership of women in the Tishreen uprisings challenged misogynistic and exclusivist political institutions in Iraq. Their efforts represented the values and opinions of a broad segment of society throughout the Middle East. The protesters confronted beliefs about the passive role of women, institutionalized for decades by Islamists and non-Islamists.
After months of continuous protests led by determined young women, on February 8, 2020, Muqtada al-Sadr, arguably one of Iraq’s most powerful figures, tweetedamong a broader list of pointers for protesters: “Sharia rules and social codes of this country must be taken into consideration, there should be no gender mixing inside protest tents. “
Protesters saw the tweet as demeaning and discrediting, especially women who saw it as an attempt to delegitimize their participation. Despite their sacrifice and the risk to their lives, Sadr tried to silence them with allegations of promiscuity. Over the years, Sadr has been at the heart of many anti-government protests, and he has been among the protagonists, defenders, and sometimes hijackers of those protests. Sadr’s comments were tweeted in light of his strengths assault protest camps with the aim of getting people off the streets. For protesters, his tweet further revealed that he was part of the problematic status quo that has plagued Iraq since 2003 and is hampering democratic progress.
Protesters responded on social media with support posts and hashtags celebrating women’s political action. Calls for a feminist march soon followed, leading to the pink and purple protests that took place days later. The movement’s wearing of gender-specific colors has visibly put women’s demands at the forefront of broader protests, with placards reading: “صوتج ثورة، مو عورة” – “Your voice is a revolution, not an indecent act”.
Today’s women’s movements challenge the dominant conservative and sectarian political forces in Iraq. For example, some conservative and sectarian political parties demanded the publication of sectarian family laws to replace the Unified Family Law. personal status code, that would disproportionately affect women’s rights. They also have hindered the implementation of a long campaign for a law against domestic violence, despite the persistence of cases of gender-based and domestic violence in the country.
The anti-Islamist and anti-cultist energy behind the pink and purple protests will most likely increase as small changes occur. Iraqi women represent a progressive and forward-looking force that pushes back against regressive and exclusionary forces.
Unlike other countries in the Middle East, women’s leadership in the pink and purple protests in Iraq has shifted from the streets to political representation, as evidenced by the electoral gains made by women. Determined to place their priorities for a more inclusive, equal and just Iraq at the forefront of the political debate, hundreds Iraqi women braved intimidation and violence to run for parliament in last year’s snap elections. Following government concessions in light of the protests, elections in Iraq were brought forward, as well as reform of the voting system to increase transparency and allow the emergence of independent candidates. Despite low turnout, especially among youth who had led the protests and constituted the majority of the population, the female candidates did well. The number of women elected exceeded a quota of 25%, 97 of the 329 (nearly 30%) seats in the Council of Representatives of Iraq were won by women.
Women tried to apply the 25% quota for parliamentary seats to other branches of the Iraqi government, but these efforts have so far failed. The region’s history teaches us that despite the protesters’ progressive vision for Iraq, there remains a danger that as demands for change remain unmet and broader mobilizations occur, opportunist voices Populists and conservatives emerge. Rather, the Iraqi political elite should recognize that they do not represent the majority of Iraqi thought. As women become more organized and inclusive, their exclusion from political decision-making will only further widen these gaps.
The pink and purple protests sparked by Sadr’s tweets reveal the growing rift between the Iraqi government and its people. As we write this, Sadr is trying to consolidate his power in Iraq. Iraqi politicians and political blocs are haggling to form a new government after the 2021 national elections and, once again, women’s priorities and participation are not on their agenda. This is their big mistake: if Iraq wants to succeed as a state, it will need all its men and women to face its many challenges.
Shayan Talabany is an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. His research focuses on international relations and Middle Eastern politics.
Jemima Shelley is a Research Fellow in the Extremism Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where she focuses on women’s rights and extremism in the Middle East.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.