Posted by on April 02, 2015 in Blog


By Maha Elsamahi
Winter Intern, 2015

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it’s important to remember the women in the Middle East and all over the world who work daily and without fanfare to ensure that their communities are just and peaceful places. When the cameras are off and journalists have moved on to the next story, their work continues—often at great personal risk. In a panel this past Wednesday, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) highlighted the work of two women activists in Iraq, Fatima Kadhim Al-Bahadly and Amina Hassan, as they come up against the political, social, and cultural forces that attempt to silence women’s voices.

Although civil society in Iraq began to flourish after 2003, demands for change and emancipation were still unwelcome by some. A journalist by trade, Amina Hassan was often on the receiving end of these attitudes, culminating in an assassination attempt in which she was shot four times. Undeterred, she found herself reflecting on the difficulties faced by Iraqi women at every level of society. Hassan realized that Iraqi public discourse lacked a multitude of content on women and minorities and their important role in rebuilding Iraq. She founded the Masarrat Cultural and Media Development organization, where she writes and produces visual content on Iraq’s pluralistic, vibrant society. Seeing the incredible value and reach that visual content has, Hassan chose to highlight the work of Iraqi women activists who were working under the same pressures and threats.

In her quest to highlight the vital role of Iraqi women in civil society, Hassan produced short documentaries on four women, one for each bullet that she was shot with, who continued on despite similar forces that “didn’t want to hear the voices of women talking of liberating themselves.” Partnering with the World Movement for Democracy, Hassan developed a documentary on Fatima Kadhim Al-Bahadly, an Iraqi activist from Basrah who to her community “represents Basrah… and the Shatt al-Arab [river]” that gives this coastal city life. Working to engage Iraqi women at all levels of society in local and national politics, the short film highlights Al-Bahadly’s refusal to allow sectarian attitudes to dictate her work. Fearing that the wave of sectarian violence would sweep her young sons along with it, she reached out to the country’s youth—a generation that has spent the majority of its life surrounded by strife—encouraging them to reject violence and serve their country through more peaceful means.

Across the Middle East in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and beyond, women have long played a vital role in healing divides and building up communities. Women like Fatima and Amina continue to work in an environment that is hostile to all those who have the courage to speak up, let alone women who defy cultural notions of a woman’s role in the public life. Threatened not only by their audacity to demand change, it is their determination to empower others as they lift up themselves that threatens the status quo. Their success and valued role in society has not come through any amount of fiscal or material aid they’ve brought into their country, but through their ability to reach across sectarian and cultural lines and encourage others to advocate for themselves. Their ability to connect with and produce change in their community has, for the most part, come about by using cultural markers and practices that have been cultivated over generations.