She’s not even 20 years old but Baghdadi university student Ruqaya Abdul-Ali has started a wildly successful Facebook campaign. It is called “Revolution Against Patriarchal Society” and it’s only three months old – and already Abdul-Ali has got almost 10,000 supporters involved.
Abdul-Ali says she aims to educate Iraqi women about their rights, to stop sexual harassment in Iraqi society and to get some of the country’s most discriminatory legislation changed. NIQASH asked her exactly how she plans to achieve those grand plans.
Baghdadi university student Ruqaya Abdul-Ali has started a wildly successful Facebook campaign.
NIQASH: Could you tell us exactly what you mean by a “Revolution Against Patriarchal Society”?
Abdul-Ali: It is a revolution against tribal, patriarchal norms and the traditions that deprive women of their basic rights, ones that cause them to live like machines whose sole purpose is to give birth and to do household tasks. It is a revolution that will make women more aware of their rights and help them become more informed, introducing them to new ideas. The campaign is about encouraging women to read and to educate themselves.
NIQASH: Why are you doing this?
Abdul-Ali: I launched this campaign on Facebook because of the pressures being put on women as a result of the revival of tribal traditions in Iraq [following the 2003 US-led invasion that ended former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime]. There are also increasing levels of violence, discrimination and verbal and sexual harassment.
The phenomenon of early and underage marriage also seems to be becoming more widespread and this prevents women from getting an education, not to mention the societal impact this has on divorced and widowed women.
And I used Facebook because I wanted to remind Iraqi women of their rights. Many women both inside and outside Iraq have joined the Facebook page and that number has almost reached 10,000. Many of them are human rights activists.
NIQASH: Have you planned any action outside the realm of social media?
Abdul-Ali: Not yet. First I want to build a solid base of supporters who believe in their own rights and who know those rights shouldn’t be taken away from them. But there should also be more active participation and that’s what I’m trying to encourage. I’m also trying to cooperate with local women’s rights and welfare organizations.
NIQASH: You’ve talked about sexual harassment in Iraq?
Abdul-Ali: Women in our society are increasingly being harassed. But our society doesn’t approve of women who respond to the harassers. They expect women to turn a blind eye.
If the women do respond aggressively, society doesn’t exactly sympathize with them. The women are described as “too masculine”, just because they defended themselves.
NIQASH: What about going to the appropriate authorities with these kinds of complaints?
Abdul-Ali: The law is not properly implemented because the authorities have no interest in these kinds of complaints. And in fact, it’s often the security personnel doing the harassing. So now women do not trust the army or security forces. Instead of being a source of security, they have become a cause for concern.
NIQASH: So what are some of your proposed solutions to these kinds of problems?
Abdul-Ali: On the Facebook page we discuss many ideas and how we could change people’s perceptions and the way women are treated in Iraqi society. Iraqi society thinks women are just there to satisfy the sexual desires of men. Which is why one of our first campaigns has been about convincing mothers not to let their daughters marry unless they’re older. We’re also working on amending some of the local laws that undermine women’s status and their dignity.
NIQASH: In this regard, which are the most important laws for you, the ones you want to change?
Abdul-Ali: As a human rights activist, the first law I would change is Article 409 of the Iraqi penal code, which relates to honour killings – if a man finds his wife or lover in bed with another man, for instance.
The second law I would change is Article 9 of the Personal Status Code, which allows a father, brother or uncle to sell related females in compensation for a crime and which also allows a male relative to trade a female relative for another woman in marriage [that is, if the man wishes to marry another man’s sister, for instance, then he can force his sister to marry the other man as part of the deal].
There are also laws that allow husbands to leave their wives without any compensation and others which give any presiding judge good reason to simply ignore a wife’s lawsuit if her husband leaves her without
justification after a short period of time.
Then there is a polygamy law where men may marry more than one woman if the husband is able to provide for both spouses. However this law doesn’t apply to widows.
There’s also discrimination within the country’s political spectrum. A quota says that there should be 25 percent female participation in the Iraqi Parliament. However this quota actually limits female participation.
NIQASH: Considering what Iraqi society is like – it can be deeply conservative – do you actually think you’re likely to achieve any of your ambitions?
Abdul-Ali: I am going to try my best. I have wanted to do this ever since I was younger and I will try and make this happen by creating an institution that can defend women’s rights in this male-dominated society. I am going to submit petitions to Iraqi MPs demanding that discriminatory laws be amended and I am also trying to drum up as much popular support as possible.