Baghdad (AFP) – Hundreds of Iraqi women of all ages, along with male anti-government protesters, flooded central Baghdad on Thursday, opposing the order of the powerful minister Moqtada Sadr to separate the sexes at the rallies.
Some were veiled, some were not, and they covered their faces even more in black and white checked scarves. Most wore roses, Iraqi flags or signs that defended their role in the regime change demonstrations.
They marched through a tunnel and poured themselves onto Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the youth-dominated movement in a country where large regions remain socially conservative.
“We want to protect the role of women in the protests because we are just like men. There are efforts to throw us out of Tahrir, but we will only come back stronger,” said Zainab Ahmad, a pharmacy student.
“Some people instigated us a few days ago to keep women at home or to keep them quiet. But we have turned out in large numbers today to show these people that their efforts will fail,” she said.
Ahmad appeared to be referring to the controversial minister Moqtada Sadr, a powerful figure who supported the rallies for the first time when they broke out in October but has since tried to discredit them.
On Saturday, the militiaman, who had become a politician, claimed drug and alcohol use among the demonstrators, saying that it was immoral for men and women to mix there.
And a few moments before the women’s march began on Thursday, Sadr went to Twitter again to describe the protests as “full of nudity, promiscuity, drunkenness, immorality, debauchery … and unbelievers”.
In a strange twist, he said that Iraq should not “transform into Chicago,” which is full of “moral looseness,” including homosexuality, an allegation that was immediately ridiculed online.
Sadr, who has a cult following of millions across Iraq, has been subjected to unprecedented public criticism over the past few weeks for his dizzying tweets about the protests.
– “Freedom, Revolution, Feminism” –
While numbers in Tahrir have been declining in recent weeks, many Iraqi youths say that the rallies in the past four months have helped destroy widespread conservative social norms.
Men and women were seen holding hands in Tahrir and even camping together on the pitch.
On Thursday, men bandaged their arms to form a protective ring around the women as they marched for over an hour.
“Revolution is my name, male silence is the real shame!” they sang and then added “Freedom, Revolution, Feminism!”
Some of her chants were derogatory remarks from Sadr.
“Where are the millions?” Some said they referred to the cleric’s call for a million-dollar march a few weeks ago, in which much smaller numbers took to the streets.
The rallies beat up the Iraqi authorities for being corrupt, incompetent, and committed to neighboring Iran.
“They want us to be a second Iran, but Iraqi women were not born to be dictated to by men about what to do,” protester Raya Assi told AFP on Thursday.
“You have to accept us as we are.”
Other rallies took place in Basra, a stronghold of traditional tribal influences that have long restricted the role of women in public.
“The revolution is female,” read a handwritten sign worn by an elderly woman in a black veil and medical mask to protect her from tear gas.