In early October, Iraqi people took to the streets, fed up after years of rampant unemployment and lack of basic services like health care, electricity or education. They were initially led by youth and students, who say their futures have been stolen from them by war, corruption and sectarian politics.
In the weeks since they began, the protests have intensified and their numbers have grown — now the biggest protests the country has seen since 2003, when the US illegally invaded Iraq. The government launched a brutal crackdown against the protests, with more than 300 people killed and thousands injured.
Beyond demanding reforms that would create jobs and ensure access to public services, protesters also target the fractured, unaccountable political system — run by sectarian party factions and their militias — calling for it to be rebuilt from the ground up.
These protests in Iraq also figure in a global surge of uprisings, from Lebanon to Chile, Haiti to Ecuador. People are mobilizing to reject austerity policies that slash public spending and raise the prices on basic services, like food, fuel, education and health. Whether these uprisings can win lasting change depends on sustained organizing work rooted in communities — and that’s where grassroots women’s organizations play a pivotal role.
Here are three key questions to better understand this moment in Iraq, what are the root causes of this uprising and how people are mobilizing to secure change.
How are women leading on the ground?
The protests of the past weeks have been supported by an infrastructure of human rights and social movement leaders. In particular, our local partners at the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) have a long track record of creating networks to organize for women’s rights, shelter people in danger, support activists on the ground and spread the word for democracy and justice.
For more than 15 years, OWFI has been at the forefront of resisting the sectarian political order and fostering new spaces for political discussion and understanding. For example, during the height of sectarian violence in 2007, they hosted Freedom Space gatherings, bringing youth together across sectarian divides to share poetry and music, discuss their country’s future and build relationships. One OWFI activist continues this legacy and has become known as the “poet of Tahrir Square” for reciting his poetry each day at the main site of the protests. For this, he has been targeted by the government and militias and forced to go into hiding.
OWFI has long grasped that the toxic blend of sectarian politics with fundamentalist religious politics would breed violent extremist groups like ISIS. They have not only worked to confront these root causes, but also to support the women and LGBTIQ people most targeted.
With MADRE support, OWFI also runs a human rights radio station, which constantly navigates government attempts to shut it down. Today, the station is on hold because the government has sought to quell the protests by shutting down the internet and news sources.
Members of OWFI and their community have been targeted and injured during the crackdown against protesters. Government curfews and restrictions have made it all the more difficult for them to do their vital work. Despite these obstacles, they have found ways to take action — joining the mobilizations and handing out food and emergency supplies, including baking soda as an antidote to tear gas. They have commissioned local taxi drivers to shuttle people safely in and out of the protests.
OWFI organizers have also set up tents at protest sites to disseminate information. They have built dedicated space for women at these sites, to encourage their voices and leadership in the protests, to build solidarity and to protect each other. Women participating in the protests have been targeted with kidnappings as they make their way home, as happened to volunteer medic and women’s human rights defender Saba Al Mahdawi. OWFI is organizing groups to accompany each other and stay safe.
OWFI members go beyond providing material support that sustains protesters day-to-day. Through their own statements and participation in protests, they also deepen public understanding of how sectarian politics not only marginalizes and impoverishes communities, but also empowers fundamentalists whose worldview is rooted in gender oppression. Crucially, OWFI creates sustained, welcoming channels for community members to take action, keeping the vision of these protests alive into the future.
What are the root causes of these protests?
This wave of protests has emerged primarily in Shia-majority cities. This undermines any assumption, based off dominance of the Shia majority in Iraqi politics, that this sectarianism has improved the lives of Shia people. Previous Sunni-led protests were dismissed as driven only by sectarian opposition, but this uprising cannot be cast aside in that way. Moreover, protesters have emphasized that these are not sectarian demonstrations, but rather expressions of national unity, and some from Sunni communities have also turned up to show support.
The Iraqi political landscape and division of power were shaped by the 2003 US invasion. Just months after that attack, the US installed the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and handpicked its members. This was an early move in a strategy of building a government rooted in sectarian divisions, where power would be allocated according to Shia, Sunni or Kurd identities and where religious fundamentalists would be empowered to shape policy. These sectarian politics fueled years of violence, corruption, and attacks on human rights, including women’s rights.
Women have suffered particular abuses under sectarian regime politics. One of the IGC’s first acts in late 2003 was to seek to replace Iraq’s family law, one of the more progressive in the region, with religious laws that would restrict women’s education, employment, inheritance and other basic human rights. In the years since, women have faced the rise of sectarian and fundamentalists militias — from Shia militias to the extremist group ISIS — who have targeted women with kidnapping, sexual violence, and assassination.
Across the country, people have suffered years of worsening poverty, marginalization and violence. That’s why protesters today are calling for a more transparent, unified and accountable government. They also trace their government’s inability to create jobs, provide basic services, and ensure their country’s future to more than 16 years of divided sectarian rule beholden to external influencers, from the US to Iran.
For years, US occupation also systematically attacked people’s collective efforts to protect their labor rights, secure decent wages and to unionize. With all the Saddam-era laws that the US dismantled, one that they saw fit to leave on the books was a 1987 prohibition on public sector unions. The US and their Iraqi political allies used this law to attack labor organizers who stood in the way of the rush to privatize Iraqi industries, undermining unions that could advocate for jobs and worker protections.
What would a progressive US foreign policy response look like?
The US must recognize its accountability in creating this crisis through years of propping up sectarian politics. It must denounce any crackdown on these protests and support people’s demands for political reforms.
Progressive policy must also put this uprising in a global context. Across the world – Haiti, Honduras, Ecuador, Egypt, Lebanon, Chile and beyond – people are rising up to confront neoliberal policies that have decimated their communities, and worsened inequality and corruption. Women bear the disproportionate impacts of these policies, doing the essential work needed to educate, feed and care for communities when governments abdicate that responsibility by slashing and privatizing public services.
The outcomes of these popular mobilizations are not always predictable, but one thing is certain. A critical mass of people worldwide refuses the harmful impacts of privatization, corporate deregulation, and cuts to public spending. A progressive US foreign policy must recognize the failures of the status quo and advance more just alternatives, where people’s well-being and public services are prioritized over corporate profits.