Women have participated in anti-government protests in a number of ways, including as first aid responders, artists, cooks and online activists [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]

Hundreds of Iraqi women challenge al-Sadr's call for segregation

Shia leader's call for gender separation at anti-government rallies prompts hundreds of women to take to streets.


Baghdad, Iraq - Defiant chants and combative banners filled Tahrir Square in Iraq's capital Baghdad on Thursday as hundreds of women from all walks of life gathered to demand their rights.

The march, spearheaded and organised by women, sought to challenge a Twitter post by Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr which called for gender segregation in the anti-government rallies that have swept across the capital and southern cities.


The mercurial Shia leader, who initially backed the protest movement only to later withdraw his support and then reinstate it, had also suggested that demonstrators were making use of drugs and alcohol.

"We refuse [al-Sadr's] tweet," said 20-year-old protester Ruwayda Khteer. "We're protesting for our rights because in Iraq they've been stolen."

Fuelled by long-standing grievances, the popular uprising has seen Iraqis take to the streets to demand basic services, more job opportunities and an end to government corruption and foreign interference in the country - and women have been at the forefront of the movement.

Both the young and old have played critical roles in securing the continuation of the protests by lending their support, including as first aid responders, artists, cooks and online activists.

A new, confident generation

One result of women taking on leading roles, protesters say, is that Iraq's often conservative gender dynamics have started to shift as more women carve out a place for themselves in the country's public sphere.

"Society inside the square has changed," said one of the march organisers, 23-year-old Fatama Ramadan. "You can see there's a difference [in how women are perceived] between inside and outside [of Tahrir Square]."

In Iraq, where gender segregation is often the norm, protesters have challenged the country's conservative communities by sharing the same living quarters and ensuring the equal participation of both sexes.

"Taking into consideration that the challenges of violence [are] so great against them, but they have broken down all these tribal norms, the religious fatwa, the hegemony of male mentality against them. This is a new era we are living in," said 74-year-old Hanaa Edwar, an Iraqi civil rights activist.

"They are very much different from the old generation in this respect," said Edwar, who has been active in women's rights movements for more than 50 years.

Edwar praised Iraq's young women for their public expression of anger and confidence in taking on the long-standing patriarchal norms and challenging the recent attempts to exclude them from the country's popular uprising and the public sphere. This, she went on to say, is unique to today's women of Iraq.

"These young women, they are very much different from us," she said in reference to her own generation.

"They express confidence, they express the will and determination to be at the forefront of changing Iraq," she told Al Jazeera.

'Stop discrimination against women, stop gender segregation,' they chanted [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]

Even in the more conservative cities of Najaf, Karbala, Nasiriya and Basra, where women also rallied to march, "they got ... respect from the local public opinion."

"I feel that the young people will never give up ... there is nothing to lose, we have nothing to lose. We are ready to die for the change and for our homeland," said Edwar.

Wileding large Iraqi flags, the women in Tahrir Square also sang for their country. "We will give our soul and blood to Iraq and only Iraq," they chimed in unison.

Three women led the multitude: One wore a symbolic gas mask, another donned a black hijab, while the third wore a red and white keffiyeh around her head.

"Who is [al-Sadr] to say men and women should be separate?" remarked Kamal Dabr, one of the people responsible for the security of the march. Beside him, men interlaced fingers in a long human chain set up to ensure the safety of the event.

According to Dabr, he and other male protesters had been warned on Wednesday night of a potential attack on the march. Al-Sadr's die-hard supporters have recently attacked women protesters, said Dabr.

A number of men also attended to ward off potential intrusions on the march [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]

The men, tasked with keeping the women safe from ill-intentioned onlookers, kept a watchful eye as the women marched.

"Our voice is not shameful, it's the key of the revolution," came the collective response to what they view as al-Sadr's attempt to marginalise them. "Stop discrimination against women, stop gender segregation," they chanted.

Amid Baghdad's crowd of pinks and purples reminiscent of International Women's Day, Shams, a protester wearing oversized sunglasses and an infectious smile brandished a sign that read: "Women rule the world."

"Muqtada al-Sadr said women shouldn't be here but we're proving him wrong," said the 21-year-old.

Other placards mirrored the anger and frustration of a generation of women yearning for change.

"I can't believe I'm still protesting this s***," read a sign held by a keffiyeh-clad young woman.

"The woman is no less than the man, the female participants [also] fought in the protests," said 31-year-old journalist Shahad al-Khaleel who left her adoptive home of Jordan in October to join her countrymen and women in the anti-government movement.

Over the course of the warm winter morning, celebratory ululations, chants and songs rang out through the heart of the capital.

Onlookers perched on either side of the march, curious to get a glimpse of the boisterous women sweeping through Tahrir.

Some men responded to the women with chants of their own. "Heroes, we come to support you," they sang.

Men and women have painted murals in graffiti in the once-neglected areas of Tahrir Square [Sofia Barbarani/Al Jazeera]

But not everyone was in agreement with the women's chants. One young man said he supported the women but was quick to add that he agreed with gender segregation.

"We are a religious country, and Muqtada al-Sadr refuses such contact with women," he said.

One elderly woman, disagreeing with the anti-Sadr sentiment of the march, pushed her way out of the crowd, waving her arms and hurling insults at the other women. "I was supporting you, but now you're chanting against cleric Muqtada al-Sadr," she yelled, wielding a small Iraqi flag.

On Thursday evening, al-Sadr took to Twitter to attack the march, calling it sinful and warning against the country's moral demise.

"We shall not be slaves to temptation and the infidel West," he said. 

In what appeared to be a move to counter Thursday's protest, al-Sadr called on women to join his own march on Friday.