(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Women's groups under threat in the new Iraq

Threats against women's rights groups in Iraq appear to be on the rise, with the environment becoming increasingly unsafe over the past weeks, activists say.

According to American-educated women working at the Women for Women humanitarian agency, the mood against them is threatening to turn ugly. Threats and poor security kept half the workers at home for two days in the past week, the agency's Manal Omar told IRIN in Baghdad. The other half were evacuated to Amman, Jordan, she said.

Women for Women was started following the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war by an Iraqi woman exiled in the United States who wanted to help women in post-conflict zones. It has recently opened other centres in the country.

Other women's organisations have also been targeted, National NGO Support Working Group representative Anissa Badaoui told IRIN in Baghdad.

Earlier this year women's rights activist Yanar Mohammed received death threats after she defended women's rights on Iraqi television.

"Stop speaking out for women's rights, or we will kill you," read the email sent to the activist, who founded the Organisation of Women's Freedom, in Iraq, after her media appearance.

The email threat was the first of two and was signed by the Army of Sahaba, a shadowy Pakistani group that Mohammed believes follows conservative Wahabi Islam and has connections to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

"They said, because of my psychologically disturbed ideas, they would have to kill me and crucify me," Mohammed told IRIN in Baghdad, "It sounded to me like a serious warning."

In response, Mohammed and her colleagues hid in her simple, downtown office or at home for a week, wearing bullet-proof vests and canceling all appearances. But then she got angry.

"I was in a state of shock. I'm a woman activist and all of a sudden, I'm a target," Mohammed said. "Women are oppressed, and they're still being oppressed."

Prior to appearing on television, Mohammed had also given lectures against a conservative Islamic code that many say discriminates against women. The code, based on Islamic Shariah law, was approved by the interim Iraqi Governing Council in December but has since been overturned by the US authorities.

Mohammed continues to receive threats, but she says she remains committed to promoting women's rights under the new constitution.

The constitution will make Islam one source of law, and this could mean that anything contradicting religious codes may not be allowed, Mohammed worries. For example, Islam allows men to marry many women and does not require a minimum marriage age. Both issues should be addressed by the new constitution, she said.

"After the war, groups from Iran and Saudi Arabia have funding to come in and teach these ideas - that women's rights are less than men, that they can be harassed on the street," the women's activist said. "I'm living with fear every day, but I cannot wear a bullet-proof vest anymore."

There are also suggestions that American lawyer Fern Holland may have been killed because of her work with women's groups and her efforts to promote women's rights in the new Iraqi interim constitution. Holland died on 9 March when a car she was travelling in was shot at, allegedly by Iraqi police, on the road outside Hilla, about 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Officials have not said directly that Holland was killed because of her work with women, but they say they are investigating the possibility. Holland had been working on women's issues in the region, and had just opened a women's centre, an open community building with Internet access and other community-oriented plans.

"She was visiting a women's centre the day she was killed and was well-known in the community," Dan Senor, a spokesman for the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). "We have to let the process play out, because the conclusion that targeting of women is now happening has enormous implications. We don't want to say that unless it's valid."

Other high-profile women have also been targeted in the months since the US-led war on Iraq. Akila al-Hashimi, an Iraqi Governing Council member, was gunned down several months ago by unknown assailants, the only temporary government member to be killed so far. Some say she was killed because she was a woman, while others say she was seen as a collaborator with the former regime. Minister of Public Works Nasreen Barwari, another prominent Iraqi woman, also has received threats but so far has not been targeted.

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