Iraq 10 years on: 'phenomenal violence against women'

I first encountered the campaigner Hanaa Edwar in 2005 while researching the murder of women's rights campaigners in Iraq by the militias responsible for the worst violence. 

We met then at her offices in Baghdad, where I sat with a group of women she had gathered to tell me their stories of death threats, murder and intimidation. 

"The dream!" Edwar exclaims as her three dogs jump on to her lap. "The dream was to build a new life with a democratic system. Of course we got pluralism and some civil society and a working, independent media. But not real democracy. The problem is …" She hesitates. 

"The problem is that the democratic project was like a baby. After 10 years, baby is growing up and sadly you can see that it has abnormalities. " We had this opportunity to build a new society. I was in Erbil [in Kurdistan] in exile when Baghdad fell. I came back a week later. 

I must admit I felt very optimistic. The taboo of isolation from the world for more than two decades was broken. It felt as though there could be a new communication with the world. People were able to think for themselves. 

To express themselves for the first time. Now, a decade later, we have no ethics, no policy and no dialogue. And everywhere you see the failure of public services. Every entity is run by its own director and becoming more sectarian. This position is for a Sunni. This for a Shia. Even the universities. It's disgusting." 

Edwar has been threatened for taking the positions that she does. Two days after she publicly criticised the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, at a conference,, captured on YouTube, a bullet was left in an envelope outside her office. 

More sinister was the rumour on the website of one of Iraq's newspapers in November that her body had been found on the airport road. Despite women's rights being partially enshrined in Iraq's post-Saddam constitution, she is angry that Iraq's women have been politically sidelined, that women are increasingly under-represented. 

"In 2005, there were six women ministers. Now there is only one – the minister for women! Women are being marginalised in civil society as well. We spent two years drafting a law on domestic violence only to see it get stuck in the Shura [state] council. 

We have also been working on a strategy for the advancement of women's issues. Two years ago, the prime minister said he supported it. But it's just talk. There's no reality.

"There is still phenomenal violence against women as well as sexual harassment. I've been hearing about cases of rape in prison during interrogations. It's alarming. Terrible. And it is police officers who are doing it. There's also the issue of the religious culture we have here, which supports women being disciplined by their husbands and only considers women in terms of marriage ." 

Edwar is worried about the future once again, having lived through the sectarian war and its excesses. "I think now we're reaching a critical moment again. A moment of great danger. What we need is a new political movement. 

New blood. New thinking. The current generation [which has dominated Iraqi politics in recent years] has fixed religious ideas. They want to impose the past on the future. "The political situation is fragile. Because of that, security is very fragile too. 

Corruption means that political partnership exists only between parties for the distribution of wealth among themselves. It's not a partnership with the Iraqi people. We don't really have a state. It has weak institutions and weak rule of law. And people are afraid of a new dictator emerging. There is a very dangerous vacuum. 

What is required is for our religious people to play their role with wisdom and use their voice against armed conflict. "I went to Anbar province [centre of the growing Sunni protest movement against the Shia-dominated government] a few weeks ago. People really felt they were being oppressed and had just demands. And who actually defeated al-Qaida in Anbar?"

She demands. "It was the people [in the tribal Sunni Awakening movement] not the Americans or the government. This has been their compensation. To be treated with suspicion. 

"The very slow response by the government to the demands, I fear only opens the way up to extremists. These are people – tens of thousands of them – who've been dismissed from their jobs, marginalised by the state. I feel it even here in Baghdad. Sunni graduates from university, even with excellent degrees, struggle to find jobs. 

It's a policy. And it's a shame in the 21st century. I ask Edwar if her own organisation has had problems other than the personal threats against her. "Oh!" She cries: "The government is very suspicious of civil society organisations like mine. Three months ago the prime minister's office sent us a letter asking us to disband. 

I think it is because we're independent and have a loud voice on human rights issues. This was in November. It was sent to a number of NGOs asking us to dissolve. But the law doesn't allow them to demand it. So I said – what are you accusing us of – because we're clean. 

"All my siblings have left, three to the US and my sister has settled in Cardiff. One brother was kidnapped in Basra twice, the first time in 2003. It cost $35,000 to release him. When he heard they were planning to kidnap him again he fled. 

So I am here on my own. I have one room in the office where I live. I'm single. But I'm too busy to be lonely and when it gets me down and I feel that it's all hopeless I have my dogs and my friends." 

Peter Beaumont in Baghdad

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