Solidarity, struggle and resistance

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Iraqi-born writer and activist Haifa Zangana talks to Judith Orr about the struggle of Iraqi women still fighting for the liberation of their country.

Your new book, City of Widows, looks at the history of Iraq and in particular the role of women, which is often hidden in official histories.

During the period of Islam and the emergence of Islam and the building of the Islamic empire, there were always women leaders, poets - quite influential women in society.

Prominent women are more common at times of expansion, and when there have been struggles for national liberation women have been there, and have been quite powerful. So it varies from one period to another historically.

When you were a student, a politically active communist under Saddam Hussein's regime, you were arrested and imprisoned. It was your mother's courage and determination that ensured your survival.

If it wasn't for her I might have been like the rest of my group. Four of us were arrested; three young men and myself. The three men were executed while I survived. At that time, in the 1970s, the execution of women was rare. I was put with women who had been sentenced to execution much earlier but had been pardoned. But if it wasn't for my mother making all the noises possible to protest at my arrest and to find out if I was still alive, I would have been forgotten altogether.

Outside the ministry of defence they had a little corner, the information service, where people used to go - though not many people would dare go there because they were intimidated and terrorised. She sat there day after day in the sun with my little sister, until someone took pity on her and asked her who she was looking for. When the official took a box for me she realised I was still alive.

What impact do you think this experience has had on you as a political activist and a writer?

The horrors of torture are always with me. I took it on myself then at that early age that if I lived I'd do everything possible to stop people going through the same thing we went through. I also believe we must not wear the faces of our torturers in revenge. Because sometimes if you have been subjected to abuse and torture you can yourself become a torturer of a future generation.

The real shock and awe was not just the bombing of Iraq in 2003 but how the US and Britain subjected Iraqi people to torture again. They continue to torture in Guantanamo, and it hasn't finished in Iraq even after the awful pictures of Abu Ghraib.

The US and British governments claimed that liberating women was one of their motives for the invasion of Iraq. You describe women who colluded with this as "colonial feminists".

Women were campaigning and fighting against Saddam's regime for many decades and no one took any notice. But suddenly there was a huge interest in women's issues and exposure in the media about the untold stories of women in the months before the invasion.

An organisation called Women for a Free Iraq was established. Within two months it was given all the media space available by the US administration with videos, interviews and meetings at the White House.

Women were telling stories about their suffering - of course some of their stories were absolutely true, but it later transpired that many were fabricated for the occasion. These stories were used to justify the war. Those women were used to add a feminist face and give a moral justification for the aggression. This was for a war which has been proven to be a war against Iraqi women.

Women have played a role in government and in political life in Iraq in the past.

Iraqi women have never been victims waiting to be liberated. And this is the case for the whole Iraqi population. They did not receive the US and Britain as liberators. Women have a long history of struggle and achievements, which would have continued without the war and the United Nations sanctions in 1990.

The occupation reduced Iraqi women's struggle to just one aspiration, and I quote an Iraqi woman when asked what she aspired to. She said, "All we want at the moment is to bury our dead with dignity." When you open your window in the morning you see dead bodies in the street, and people daren't approach them to bury them. So this is what women are now reduced to, thanks to the occupation.

Your book's title refers to the fact that it is often women who now carry a great burden because men have been murdered or imprisoned.

Since 2003 some 1.2 million Iraqi people have been killed, and unlike many other wars and conflicts, where women and children are the main victims, 91 percent of the dead are men. This is because in the first three years of the occupation young girls were stopped from going to school for fear of their safety, and women did not even leave the house without being accompanied by a male relative.

But since men have become physically targeted by the occupation women are increasingly doing all the jobs outside of the house. This means queuing for hours for petrol, dealing with the dead, looking for the missing, for the detainees, and sorting out basic needs like electricity. These mundane things are time consuming and risky. In the last year there has been an increase in the number of women being killed and their bodies thrown in the streets. This is not what feminists would welcome as success in gender equality.

Each Iraqi family has on average five children, so for every man killed who is a head of a household he leaves a woman with five orphans. So Baghdad is becoming a city of widows, with 300,000 widows there and one million across the country.

There is a lot of government propaganda from the US and Britain portraying the violence now as sectarian violence - Iraqis killing Iraqis.

We have never had a civil war in Iraq based on sectarian violence. The occupation has been there for only five years but this division has been planned since day one. The head of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer decided that every aspect of the creation of a government and a timetable for the political process in Iraq should be based on sectarian and ethnic divides.

The claims of Sunnis killing Shias, or Shias killing Sunnis or Christians have been manipulated and have been very useful for the propaganda operation led by the US forces to justify staying forever in Iraq, saying they are protecting Iraqi people from killing each other. We have seen this logic by colonial powers in modern history time after time.

The US also want to hide the fact that there is genuine physical resistance by Iraqis united against the occupation.

By making the picture foggy they can disguise the presence of Iraqi people's resistance to the occupation and also claim they are terrorists - Al Qaida or foreign fighters. But Iraqi people don't need foreign fighters; they are fighting themselves.

The Iraqi resistance is growing, and there is support within society at large. These people are facing and fighting the most powerful military power, aided by informers, collaborators, and a parallel army of security firms and contractors. How else can you explain the persistence and growth of the Iraqi resistance and attacks on those powerful armies if they weren't protected and supported by the Iraqi people? Yet the US and Britain want to deny the existence of people who use their free will to fight the occupation.

We want to rule ourselves. We have the right to rule ourselves, to enjoy independence, sovereignty, and to have the control of all our resources.

A theme throughout your book is resistance, but what about cultural resistance?

Cultural resistance is one of the most powerful because it touches on the deepest levels of our humanity. There is poetry, literature, art, and now there are also modern ways of resistance such as blogging. We have fantastic bloggers from inside Iraq, many of them women. Bloggers offer a first hand commentary on what's happening in spontaneous, uncensored, beautiful ways. Often they combine the components of poetry, proverbs and storytelling. Poetry is important. Iraqi women are some of the best poets of all Arab countries. So some of our poets are contributing to the resistance.

We have songs of the resistance the occupiers tried to ban. Young people exchange songs of resistance through their mobiles and text messages, and this is something that has proved very difficult for the counter-insurgency to put an end to. There are various aspects of resistance. Not everyone who is fighting is carrying a weapon.

Do you think recent talks about attacking Iran are partly because the US government realises it is being defeated in Iraq, and is looking for ways to distract from that defeat or to find a way out?

The Iraqi resistance is delaying the expansion of the empire. The US did not expect that. Their expectation was that Iraqi people would receive them with flowers and sweets and then they could move on to Iran or Syria, or any other country they wanted to put under their control. They have failed in Iraq and this is a huge blow to their plans.

There are blocks of resistance to any further expansion, at least for the time being, even within the US administration and its military. The main factor is what is going to happen in Iraq in the next year.

US defence secretary Robert Gates is putting pressure on what is called the government to sign an agreement for military bases in Iraq, and the new oil law, giving full control to the big corporations. Iraqis have been adamant these should not be signed and the unions and the workers in Basra are fighting it tooth and nail.

The US want to settle these things before they move to another country.

What role do you think the anti-war movements in Britain and the US have played?

I think it's very important, because while Iraqi and Afghani people themselves are resisting the occupation inside their countries, they definitely need solidarity, especially from the people of the invading countries.

I cannot really emphasise enough how important it is. Whenever I meet an Iraqi inside or outside Iraq, they say it is very important to make us feel that we are not alone in our struggle. It is also important to influence the government's policy.

The Iraqi people are proud, peace-loving people. They are sick and tired of war, and need all the help available from people around the world. The work and the links with organisations and people who stood, during the sanction years, with the Iraqi people, and stand now against the war, are very important for us.


City of Widows is published by Seven Stories Press, £12