Mariam and her fellow students were proud to join the protests.
The teenager used to sit in her bedroom, reading books and listening to international pop music, mostly in English. It was natural. After all, Mariam Firas was only 16 years old.
However recently the young woman has undergone what may best be described as a change in personality – and it is all due to the anti-government demonstrations happening in her hometown, Baghdad.
Firas says she first heard about the anti-government protesters and their demands on social media, via Facebook in particular. The information coming through social media accounts was different to that available on Iraq’s mainstream channels and websites and she watched all of it with great interest.
These women are no longer just seen as potential wives. They are seen as equals and colleagues.
“What really compelled me was the fact that people were demanding their rights and they refused to be silent,” she explains how she was drawn in. “When people began to die in Nasiriyah, myself and other students I knew decided we too should act – so we organized our own demonstration at school.”
Almost overnight, her family says, Firas became a different person to the isolated teen who had once engaged in self-harm. Firas began to lead student demonstrations, during which she loudly demanded that perpetrators of violence and injustice be brought to account.
Her grandmother recalls accompanying Firas on one protest, which highlighted the killing of a student at another Baghdad school. Firas told her grandmother to return home and was unafraid to remain alone, holding a picture of the dead student and shouting slogans.
Previously Firas says, her life was well planned out. She was excellent academically and behaved, a good daughter for her mother, an engineering graduate who had struggled to get her own degree in a male-dominated system. But now Firas has stopped listening to English-language pop songs or worrying about when she will next get to visit the local shopping mall. Now the teenager mostly listens to revolutionary songs coming from the various protests and her mobile is a library of numerous music files, along with videos and pictures from the demonstrations.
She has also discovered a new interest in local feminism, watching how women protesters have taken their place proudly alongside Iraqi men in various provinces. These women are no longer just seen as attractive partners or potential wives, Firas argues. They are seen as equals and colleagues, with the women’s role complementing that of the men’s.
Firas has carved out her own niche at local demonstrations. She has used her English language skills to translate protest slogans for an international audience and she and her fellow students also collect donations to help fund protest activities. “We save a little of our allowances and send them to Tahrir Square so the protesters can use our money to buy food,” she explains.
Firas is very different from the girl she was before. The young woman is enthusiastic about life and before she leaves the house to go to a protest, she always asks her family if anybody wants to join her. She won’t hesitate to ask them hard questions either – such as, why did you keep silent all this time about the situation in our country? Usually nobody answers. But one thing is clear: Her family is proud of their daughter’s new momentum and her ability to confront difficult challenges.