Iraqi Women Take to Streets of Baghdad Against Powerful Shiite Cleric

Women take part in a protest in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Hundreds of Iraqi women took to the streets of central Baghdad and southern Iraq on Thursday in defiance of a radical cleric's calls for gender segregation in anti-government protest sites. Iraqis began protesting on Oct. …
AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

A group of Iraqi women joined ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Thursday — a daring exercise given both cultural stigmas against women participating in politics and the proclivity of Iran-backed Shiite militia thugs and Iraqi government security forces for murdering demonstrators.

The women were particularly angry at influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for attempting to impose a set of theocratic rules on the protests, one of which would forbid female demonstrators to mix with men.

Sadr, who vacillates between supporting and opposing the protest movement, decided he was a “reformer” again last week and published a “Reform Revolution Charter” laying out 18 rules for demonstrators to obey. 

Most of the rules called on protesters to refrain from blocking roads, forcing businesses to close, or taking other actions that interfere with daily life, but one of them commanded: “Religious, social principles of the country should be taken consideration as much as possible, and for no mixing between the two sexes in protester tents to take place.”

“Women’s play a big role in Tahrir. Because of what was said, that it is prohibited for women to go to Tahrir, we organized a march to come and support our brothers and youth here,” one of the women marching in the square told the Kurdish Rudaw news service on Thursday, responding directly to Sadr’s edict.

“This is wrong. There is already mixing in universities between males and females. Even primary schools are mixed. This is very normal,” another woman said

“Women actually have the right to come out and protest the same as men. They are our sisters,” a male demonstrator chimed in.

Sadr, in turn, blasted the female demonstrators on Twitter, calling them “sinful, immoral, licentious, and against Iraqi values.” He bizarrely compared the women to ISIS and the Taliban for good measure, as if they were the religious extremists in the debate.

“We today are committed to prevent Iraq from becoming like Kandahar for religious extremism, and neither Chicago for liberation, moral decadence, homosexuality for the licentious and immoral,” Sadr thundered.

“I advise these aberrant bunches of the Daesh of civility and liberation not to follow their animal instincts and fleeting lusts. We won’t stand by and watch while religious belief and homeland are abused,” he continued. “Daesh” is another name for ISIS. 

This line of criticism is unlikely to win Sadr many friends outside his dedicated base of followers since women were victimized by ISIS with savage glee, a fact many of the female demonstrators took pains to point out.

Women’s march organizer Ban Aaraji said her goal was to emphasize that women have always been part of the protest movement, including using their bodies to shield young men when the protesters have been physically attacked. Many of Thursday’s demonstrators were female students chanting slogans against discrimination and demanding equal rights.

Al-Jazeera took stock of Sadr’s position last week and speculated his political opportunism and volatile temper are finally catching up with him. His secular former allies in the protest movement are unlikely to be charmed by Sadr presuming he has the authority to draw up a list of religious commandments for the protest movement, and the Iraqi people are clearly hungry for much more than the “reform agenda” of minor tweaks to the system Sadr supported during those periods when he decided to be a gadfly instead of an establishment player.

According to Al-Jazeera’s scorecard, Sadr made a show of “protecting” protesters against militia goons and government troops last fall, but he was actually trying to take over the protest movement. His gambit failed as the committed Iraqi protest movement made a point of distinguishing itself from the cleric’s “Sadrist” foot soldiers and kept demanding regime change long after Sadr made it clear he would never go that far.

Sadr is not even in Iraq at the moment — he is living in the Iranian holy city of Qom and studying Shiite religious law in a bid to become a full ayatollah. The Iraqi protest movement rejects Sadr as a stooge for Tehran, whose influence over Iraqi politics they wish to reduce, and the Iranians have convinced him his life will be in danger if he returns to Iraq. He is primarily communicating with his deputies in Iraq via social media.

“This may be the first time that al-Sadr has had a head-on collision with his support base. His most ardent followers will stick by him, but it is clear he is losing his clout in the streets. As a result, his position may be weaker in the next election,” Al-Jazeera concluded.

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