“I lost my love because of you. She is Sunni and I am Shia!”
These were just some of the satirical slogans carried by demonstrators at ongoing popular protests against the Iraqi government in Nasiriya, in the southern province of Dhi Qar.
Others included this: “Whoever strives shall succeed. Whoever graduates will sit at home. Whoever has wasta, shall harvest. This is Iraq, my son” - with wasta being the local name for who you know, not what you know. Wasta is so important in Iraq that it means you can get a job even if you have not graduated or been doing some other kind of striving.
Another banner had “Iraqi Parliament” written on it in white on black, in a similar way to the flags flown by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
Young people have started to speak about political and social taboos; some of the language has gone beyond obscenity.
Some of the jokes were also being made at the expense of religion in Iraq, normally a very sensitive subject. People even used the language of clerics to protest. For example: "I seek refuge with God against the evil of the Parliament”, or “in the name of religion, the looters came”.
The strong satirical language is the only way protestors can express outrage at the indifference of government officials and at the delays in promised reforms, says Haider Mahdi, one of the activists participating in the demonstrations. “As the government keeps breaking its promises, the demonstrators’ imaginations go wild,” he says.
“Sarcasm and ridicule are the best ways to mobilize people and to protest against the speed at which the al-Abadi government is implementing the promised reforms,” says Maytham al-Saadi, another activist. In doing this, the protesters show they are aware of what's going on. “They will make the government review its policies,” he says optimistically.
There are also several symbols that are being widely used. The coffin is one – there is a coffin for the Iraqi Parliament, one for the government and one for the judiciary. A heater has also become a strange symbol for demonstrators right around the country. It is used to poke fun at a statement made by the Minister of Electricity, Qassim al-Fahdawi, when he suggested that Iraqis could solve their own power problems by “turning off their heaters”. This, in the middle of a summer where temperatures were higher than 50 degrees Celsius.
Sarcasm and ridicule are the best ways to mobilize people.
Some say the reckless jokes about religion and politicians indicate that the protesters are people who feel they have nothing left to lose. In the past in Baghdad and in southern Iraq, “red lines” - that is, subjects or people who cannot be ridiculed – would have included leading clerics like Muqtada al-Sadr or Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This was true especially after 2003. However the new generation seem to feel that religious authorities may be just as corrupt as political ones and in fact, many of the new generation of Iraqi protestors may not even be religious. Which is why, many locals believe that they have no “red lines” anymore - unlike during the days of Saddam Hussein or when militia warfare caused widespread violence between 2006 and 2008, when making a dodgy joke could get you arrested or beaten up or worse.
“Young people have started to speak about political and social taboos; some of the language has gone beyond obscenity,” says Yasser al-Barrak, a professor in media studies at the University of Dhi Qar. “The large numbers of people participating in the protests has given them a moral momentum and made them speak out about taboo subjects. This is a very important development when it comes to changing the culture here, making fun of the sanctity of religious, tribal and partisan customs that are deeply rooted in the Iraqi people.”
Not everyone agrees with that theory though. “In reality, the protesters are hiding behind satire and jokes,” suggests local journalist Amer Doshi. “The satire criticises certain people or acts but it also masks a fear of authority.”
The impact of the satirical banners and jokes is not limited to the protests at which they appear. They are also being passed around on social media and on local television stations. And they will keep appearing, protestors promise.
“We need to come up with more jokes so that we keep attracting the attention of the people,” says Murtada Hamza, one of the protestors. “And we need to do it to keep up with the way the government is behaving.”