The protests are changing local attitudes towards women, among others. (photo: جيتي: احمد الربيعي)
Despite a lack of coordination between all the different groups of Iraqi protesters taking part in anti-government demonstrations around the country, they do all seem to have one thing in common: They are contributing to what appears to be a new era of national unity and tolerance.
And that’s having an impact on the way Iraqis have previously described social groups they considered less worthy of respect – up until now. The culture around prejudices is changing and not just in the southern Iraqi areas where protests are taking place but also in the central and northern areas, where residents are not demonstrating. New attitudes and new descriptions are replacing epithets and ideas that have been around for decades.
There are already posts on Iraqi social media suggesting orgies are taking place in Tahrir Square. Most people do not believe a word.
In particular, attitudes towards Iraqi women are changing. In a country where tribal traditions still hold much – and in some cases, the most – sway, females are subject to customs like arranged marriages and the dowry system, and are expected to behave in a traditionally modest way. In conservative areas, women often may not leave the family home without a chaperone and the man of any house is always in charge.
The fact that increasing numbers of local women, many of them students at schools and universities, are independently taking part in the anti-government demonstrations is impacting these attitudes.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily easy. Often a young woman’s parents may be against her engaging in such politicalized behaviour. “There’s a lot of pressure,” confirms Hawraa Mohammed, a student at Basra university. “But luckily we can often hide our faces behind the masks the protesters use to protect from tear gas, to hide our identity. That’s helped us hide our faces, which means our families and relatives don’t know that it’s us,” she explained to NIQASH.
Mohammed says her father actually found out she had been protesting because the universities declared a general strike, but she didn’t come home from classes. “When I got back, he didn’t speak to me angrily though,” she recalls. “He was quiet and he wasn’t even against my protesting. He was just afraid that I might get hurt.”
In Baghdad, a more open metropolis compared to many of Iraq’s more conservative towns, hundreds of local women have joined in the country’s largest, flagship protest. They do things like helping with protesters who have been wounded, they paint murals, serve food and call out slogans.
What’s particularly interesting is the level of sexual harassment these women are facing – that is, none (or hardly any). There has not been one case of grievous harassment recorded as yet. In fact, many of the young men present are careful not to allow any behaviour of this kind because they want to make sure that the image of the protests remains positive. There are already posts on Iraqi social media being circulated by anonymous users that suggest that there are orgies taking place in Tahrir Square, the site of the demonstration in Baghdad. Most people do not believe a word of these scurrilous rumours though.
Since the protests began – and they started in the deep south – the term has become a source of pride.
Another group that has changed Iraqis’ past opinions of it, are the inhabitants of the southern province of Dhi Qar. Some of the most aggressive protests have happened here, with demonstrators setting political party offices on fire and gaining some measure of control over the provincial capital of Nasiriyah. The government dispatched the military counter-terrorism forces there but, thanks to the latter’s good reputation (after their fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State) the situation was defused without further violence. In the meantime, the protesters of Dhi Qar have gained heroic status among their country people.
This is despite the fact that, for decades, the city’s inhabitants have had a bad reputation – they’re often described as “wicked” fruit who have fallen from the “evil tree” that is the city of Nasiriyah. If somebody did something bad elsewhere, the neighbours might whisper that the person is probably from Nasiriyah.
However since the demonstrations began, Iraqis have started to praise the people of Nasiriyah. “We, the protesters of Baghdad, have been trying to cross the bridge to the [high security, government-controlled] Green Zone for weeks,” as a slogan originating in Tahrir Square goes. “Now we ask our fellow protesters in Nasiriyah to help us do that more quickly.”
There are other examples too. When the Iraqi soccer team recently won a match against Qatar, among the celebratory messages were dozens of notes praising the two goal scorers for coming from Nasiriyah.
The protests are also evolving Iraq’s traditional north-south bias. One of the most insulting words in the country is “shurukiya”. It’s often used to describe the poorer southern provinces of the country and denotes poverty, lack of refinement and manners. For example, if somebody in Baghdad behaves in an uncivilized way, he might be asked why he is behaving like a “shurukiya”.
Since the protests began – and they started in the deep south – the term has become a source of pride. Iraqis all around the country are now using it to praise the residents of those cities. And those from the south write things like “I’m shuruki and proud of it!”.
The protests are also fusing the generation gap. In the past, this younger generation of Iraqis was criticized in the same way western teenagers often are – for being too lazy, for playing too many video games and spending too much time online. But it’s well known that most of the demonstrators are younger and that kind of criticism has died away.
Recently two older men were spotted at the protests carrying a sign that spoke of exactly this change: “To those who woke us from our slumber and broke the barriers that were keeping us silent, we bow down before you,” their sign said.