In ‘virtual civil society’, Iraqi women are the leaders
The message to Iraqi women was loud and clear: social media might have given them an unparalleled platform to air their views, but societal norms had not caught up.
For Iraqi women who choose to share their thoughts and lifestyles on social media, the gossip cycle can quickly besmirch them and their family’s reputations. Intidhar Ahmed Jassim, a parliamentary candidate in last year’s elections, fell victim to a vicious smear campaign when an alleged sex tape went viral. Although Jassim said it was “fabricated”, it forced her out of the race, effectively destroying her political aspirations.
Despite such misogynistic attempts to frighten them away from the public sphere, many Iraqi women remain active on social media. Iraq is one of the most youthful countries in the world with over 60 percent of the population under the age of 25.
There is an internet-savvy generation armed with access to global audiences. Within moments of any incident, the country’s societal norms are held up to scrutiny not just locally, but on the world stage.
In light of tragedies like Fares’ murder and the role of social media in fuelling regional extremism, it is easy to focus on the negatives. But why should Iraq’s women give up a platform where they can be equal?
Women in Iraq are far more vocal on social media than men, and they are more critical of society, because they bear the brunt of misogynistic traditions
- Ruba al-Hassani, an Iraqi-Canadian scholar and PhD candidate
Ruba al-Hassani, an Iraqi-Canadian scholar and PhD candidate, says that social media has helped to democratise the "public space", as Iraqi women use it as a forum to discuss their rights and freedoms.
"Women in Iraq are far more vocal on social media than men, and they are more critical of society, because they bear the brunt of misogynistic traditions. The flip side of that is that [they are] in turn targeted due to their critiques," Hassani, who is researching the “virtual civil society”, told MEE.
In this virtual civil society, she added, activists can organise and communicate - and women have taken it by storm. A parallel Iraqi society exists in which women, not men, are the leaders.
Cultural and legal challenges
The power of social media has not gone unnoticed, and while it is largely unregulated, there have been social media blackouts by both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil at times of social tensions and protests. But with many young Iraqis proficient in technology such as VPNs, they have been able to circumvent the bans.
In contrast to many of its neighbours, Iraq has made important strides towards gender equality. The 1959 civil code governing family affairs was described as "the most progressive in the Middle East", and the current constitution proclaims equality for all Iraqis.
Yet, cultural and legal challenges remain. The constitution guarantees that Iraqis are equal before the law, without gender or other types of discrimination.
The sectarian nature of Iraqi politics and society further hampers attempts for women to be recognised as equal to men in all walks of Iraqi life.
Statistics show a slightly better rate of progress in the Kurdish region, with more opportunities for women to speak freely. Although some progress has been made since 2003 - parliamentary quota systems ensure that 25 percent of MPs in Baghdad are female and 30 percent in Erbil - a glance at cabinet photos shows how scant female participation is at the top.
Building a platform
Amid debates over plum cabinet positions in Baghdad and the ongoing government formation process in the KRG, one would be hard-pressed to find many female candidates being considered for top positions. Instead, the merry game of musical chairs among familiar male faces continues.
So how can this be changed? The internet means that people no longer have to wait on the government for progress. British-Kurdish blogger Ruwayda Mustafah, a PhD researcher at Kingston University and mother of three, told MEE: “I used to think change was blogging and shouting about the failures of the KRG, but I’m realising that some failures are cultural.”
In recent years, she has built up a following of more than 86,000 on Facebook, 67,000 on Twitter and 18,000 on Instagram. She says social media gives people the opportunity to build their own platforms.
“We no longer need mass media to get a message across,” Mustafah said. “With the aid of Facebook groups, like-minded individuals can carve out spaces of ‘thinking’ for themselves.”
In 2017, a photo of Marina Jabar riding her bike in Baghdad went viral, initially prompting ridicule - but this quickly changed, as hashtags spread to encourage other women to get back on their bikes. Groups of women now meet monthly in Baghdad to cycle in groups.
Many NGOs and activists in Iraq have used social media to promote campaigns to end violence against women, including female genital mutilation. Although this is still a significant problem in the KRG, continued campaigning has seen the regional government outlaw the practice and rates drop.
Social media pressure and local campaigns are forcing change in areas from which politicians would previously have shied away.
The KRG has also taken steps to combat sexual assaults on female taxi passengers through new laws to regulate taxi drivers - a crime that was hushed up in the past, for fear of bringing shame on the victim rather than the perpetrator.
It is not perfect, and risks remain, but it is empowering women across Iraq to exercise their constitutional right to equality
Regardless of the challenges, social media platforms are giving women the chance to have their voices heard more clearly. Whatsapp groups have developed exclusively for female experts in the region to band together, along with female coalitions on Twitter, who retweet and help to spread each other’s work.
It is a public space that was previously hard to come by. It is not perfect, and risks remain, but it is empowering women across Iraq to exercise their constitutional right to equality - regardless of what the boys say.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.