Dispatches from CSW: A conversation with Layla Alkhafaji

After years of oppression and suffering, Iraq's women are making strides across the country, empowering themselves and each other, and ending the culture of gender-based violence.

NEW YORK – Layla Alkhafaji, a participant at this week's United Nations Commission on the Status of Women representing her NGO, Al-Hakim. She took a moment, on the sidelines of the CSW, to recount her experiences battling violence against women on the ground of Iraq in a conversation with GlobalPost.

Alkhafaji had just finished her schooling in Baghdad when she was arrested for continuously refusing to sacrifice her traditional ideologies for allegiance to the Baathist regime. It was the early 1980s. 

The Baath party had established political hegemony throughout Iraq and opponents of Saddam Hussein’s regime faced violent oppression. After her arrest, Alkhafaji was subjected to six months of torture, after which she was convicted of anti-government activity and sentenced to life in prison.

Following the fall of Kuwait, she was released and fled from her country to Canada, only to return to Iraq to be part of the newly reformed parliament. Now a Canadian citizen, she is a vital activist in the movement to eradicate violence against women in Iraq, and plans to run for re-election to Parliament in 2014.

This interview has been slightly edited for continuity. 

More from GlobalPost: A short primer on CSW 2013

Cora Engelbrecht: What compelled you to return to Iraq after you managed to flee the country?

Layla Alkhafaji: After I fled from my country, I was living in Canada, working for the high-tech industry in Toronto. I started a newspaper in 1995 with my brother to reveal the continued suffering of our people under Sadaam Hussein. I was waiting for the fall of the regime. People often ask me if my suffering was worthwhile, and I respond "yes, without hesitation." But I would not feel this way if it weren’t for the fall of the regime in 2003, and my return to Iraq. After the US invasion, I knew that sacrifices I had made would not be worthwhile if I did not go make a contribution to Iraqi society.

CE: This spring marks the ten-year anniversary of the fall of the Baath regime. What specific changes or improvements have you noticed when considering violence against women?

LA: In general I have seen improvement since 2003, since the fall of the regime and the transition from a state of dictatorship to a state of democracy, especially in the political sphere. We have participated in elections. We have participated in the drafting of the Iraqi constitution.

Starting in 2005, a quota system guaranteed 25 percent – 80 out of 325 seats – representation [by women] in the Iraqi parliament. There were six female ministers in the first transitional government and four in the first elected government. But unfortunately, only one remains in the current elected government. Aside from this disappointment, the representation in the government is very positive for women. It prepares the society to give credit to women and accept the participation of female politicians. It is a critical moment for women to prove to society that they are qualified and deserve the trust of their country to lead, and make decisions.

But this has all happened after three decades of suffering, from dictatorship, militarism, and international sanctions. And it is clear that women are most victimized from this history and from the current security situation. There is still violence; there is abuse from husbands, there is extended family abuse, honor killings, sexual abuse, forced prostitution. Secular tensions are preventing families from sending their daughters to school, for fear they will be killed, or kidnapped and held for an expensive ransom.

Women must take a stand to ensure that the government prohibits the violations of democratic and human rights. In order for this to happen, there must be changes made. 

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CE: What are some concrete steps you are taking with the Al-Hakim foundation to combat women’s rights on the ground in Iraq?

LA: The Al-Hakim foundation was established in Iraq in late 2003. We function as an international non-profit and work to call for social justice for women in Iraq. Through many programs – educational seminars, literacy programs, women empowerment workshops – throughout the country, we strive to enhance women’s cultural and informational ability. In 2007 we gained special consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council. And now we have more than 35 departments in the country, as well as other commissions worldwide.

This year on December 15, we hosted the Annual National Conference of the Islamic Day of Anti-Violence Against Women in Iraq. Our leader of the foundation, Sayyed Ammar Al-Hakim (the son of our late spiritual leader) had the idea to host this initiative to activate the principles and religious values within our local communities. It is a day not only meant for our Muslim society; it is a day meant for all religions, because there is no religion that accepts violation, oppression or discrimination against any human being, let alone against women.

CE: As a returning participant in the CSW, can you speak about your involvement, and your hopes for the implementation of real change for women?

LA: In 2008 I started coming to CSW as a representative of Al-Hakim. I value the experience greatly [because] I get to hear and explore the experiences of female activists around the world. The NGO committee brings 2,000 global NGOs to the conference. Together we share our stories, we see what initiatives are introduced to counteract these hardships, and we bring these stories home, to inspire change.

It is my responsibility as an ambassador, to speak for the women of Iraq. My story is one of many. I must work to communicate both the struggles and improvements that are taking place in my country. When I come here, and I listen to others speak about my country, I realize there are many perceptions do not reflect reality of our situation.

As far as the plan to end all violence against women in 2015 – theoretically we can say many things; but in practice I am wary of setting such a deadline for change. However, I believe the main priority in reaching this goal is to educate women, worldwide. This will empower women to have the skills to lead and be active reversing their oppression. In Iraq, many Muslim women are often not educated about their rights. In this way, men often misuse Islam. Men will mistranslate the text of the Qur’an to allow for the abuse women.

Similarly, women must learn how they are represented in our constitution. They must learn to use their voice to combat violence. And we must be present in the decision making circles when discussing military, political, and economic decisions.

Finally, in the CSW, language is an essential aspect to communicating the needs of women to a global audience. I agree with [UN Women Executive Director] Michele Bachelet, when she stated on Sunday that we must choose the best language with which to approach society about violence against women. We must consider all tools and mechanisms when addressing this phenomenon. In Iraq, many women shrink from the language of the activists. They fear that women empowerment against men will destroy their families. We must be clever when dealing with such sensitive social and cultural structures. 

Check back with the RIGHTS blog through next week for more coverage of the Commission on the Status of Women. 

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