Surma Hamid: an organiser for Iraqi women’s rights speaks out!

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Surma Hamid demands freedom for Iraqi women at a protest rally organised by CDIWR and the Melbourne International Women’s Day Collective. Photo by Alison Thorne.

On November 3, the Committee in Defence of Iraqi Women’s Rights (CDIWR) put out a call to protest the mass killings of Iraqi women accused of prostitution. On orders from Saddam Hussein, women and girls are being hunted down and publicly beheaded. Accused of “dishonouring the country,” they are Saddam’s scapegoats in a ruthless campaign to crush internal dissent. At least 100 political prisoners have also been murdered.

Debbie Brennan spoke to Surma Hamid from CDIWR. Surma explained who are the targets of the clampdown: “Saddam ordered paramilitary militias (the notorious Fedayeen Saddam), led by his older son U’day, to behead women suspected of prostitution. Information about these women is supplied by members of his ruling Ba’ath régime, particularly the Federation of Iraqi Women. Even ordinary people are required to inform on neighbours suspected of selling sex. CDIWR recently received news from comrades inside Iraq that the number of women beheaded exceeds 200. However according to media reports, the total is much higher. The régime is also using the campaign to eliminate people who dare to protest its policies. Some female doctors and nurses who had spoken out against government corruption, such as the monopolising of drugs reaching Iraq through the Oil for Food Program [part of the economic sanctions imposed by the UN in 1991] were among the murdered. But the main victims of this campaign are the women forced by the barbaric sanctions to sell their bodies in order to feed their families.”

Holding back revolution. “This campaign against women is designed to terrify the people of Iraq. It signals Saddam’s own fear of revolt, once the UN’s economic sanctions against Iraq are lifted. And the sanctions will end. In 1991, Washington successfully mobilised 33 countries to wage war on Iraq and impose this barbaric embargo. Now the U.S. position in the Middle East is substantially weakened. Apart from the inhuman consequences of the sanctions, there is now its failure to mediate a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. There are also competing interests in the region — for example, those of France and Russia. Internationally, there are strong, growing objections to the sanctions.

“Saddam knows that as the sanctions erode, it will face new demands from the Iraqi masses — especially the most disadvantaged sections, mainly women. He has no answers to the massive unemployment, homelessness, starvation and sickness; the destruction of the country’s infrastructure; and the prominence of the army. His régime faced a similar experience after Iraq’s 1980-1988 war with Iran. At that time, popular protest against intolerable living conditions pushed the régime to invade neighbouring Kuwait as a quick solution. After former President Bush’s 1991 Desert Storm, the sanctions helped Saddam’s régime maintain its rule for an entire decade. It can now only hold onto power through oppression, killings and torture.

“Today’s war on women is Saddam’s warning to the Iraqi people that once the sanctions are ended, they cannot raise new demands. He claims that Iraq is fighting the United States and Israel, and any demand against the régime would be treachery against the nation, against the Pan-Arab cause. The same was said during the Iran-Iraq war. There is always an excuse to crush popular demands for a better life and freedom.”

Sexist shock troops. “Saddam’s régime blames the country’s problems on women. It says that they are taking men’s jobs; they wear short dresses and lipstick (meaning they are too independent). The régime wants women kept at home to raise families.

“In his crackdown, Saddam started with sex workers, because the killings would be less likely to attract organised protest. By executing these women, the régime is enforcing Islamic law.

“According to Islam, women must be killed if they commit adultery; they cannot go out alone; they cannot travel on their own; they cannot choose their partners; they have to hide their beauty and so on. There might be small differences between Saddam’s and the Taliban’s interpretations of Islam, but they are fundamentally the same: women have no right to live as independent human beings.

“Responding to growing rightwing reaction during the 1990s, Saddam has raised the Islamic flag alongside the nationalist flag in order to appear as the leader of the region. He poses as the representative of the militant nationalist and religious trends against Israeli/U.S. imperialism.

“Mixed together, nationalism and religion have huge potential for suppression: who can protest against the killing of sex workers? If you do, you are godless — you don’t respect the traditions of society; you are morally corrupt! Those who do organise against the murders, like the Committee in Defence of Iraqi Women’s Rights and the Worker Communist Party of Iraq, are declared socially alien and dangerous.”

Blood on Canberra’s hands. When asked about the imprisonment of Iraqi women, men and children in Howard’s detention camps, Surma said: “The people who escape from Iraq and other countries like Afghanistan are escaping the murderous policies of the ruling class. Iraqis are escaping the deadly consequences of the Gulf War, the sanctions and the ongoing air strikes. They are escaping the policies of the Iraqi régime which came to power and has maintained its rule through the backing of countries like the U.S. and Australia. They are escaping epidemics, hunger, despair, killing and repression — brought on by the western countries as well as the Iraqi régime.

“It isn’t too hard to figure out why Iraqis take grave risks to escape in small boats to Europe and Australia. More than 4 million have fled Iraq since 1991 — despite western countries’ racist persecution of refugees, despite the drownings of thousands at sea and the suffering they face on their journey. The same is happening to Afghanis, Iranians and others.

“By locking these refugees in camps — which are no better than the prisons of Saddam Hussein — the Australian Government is punishing the victims for the hell it has helped to create: Canberra has always supported the war against the Iraqi people. I think everybody should be free to choose where they live.”

Stop the killings. “CDIWR and the Worker Communist Party of Iraq believe that change in Iraq should come from the Iraqi people, with the support of the international progressive forces. We initiated an international campaign against the beheadings. We distributed a petition demanding an immediate end to the slaughter and the right of women working as prostitutes to organise in a union. It has attracted widespread international support from labour, leftist, feminist and human rights organisations as well as many individuals. Thousands of protest letters have been sent to the Iraqi régime from different countries. Demonstrations were held in more than ten countries around the world. In Australia, the response — especially from women’s organisations and activists — has been great. I think these efforts have put huge pressure on the Iraqi régime, especially in this period when Saddam is trying to return to the international community.

“The campaign against the barbaric régime must continue. CDIWR is calling for the establishment of a coalition of political parties, trade unions, women’s organisations and all freedom lovers to stop the killings and make Iraq a lesson to reactionary forces everywhere.”

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