Rouaa's Journey for Women's Rights and Equality in Iraq
Meet Rouaa Hussein, a courageous advocate for women's rights in Iraq. She has overcome hurdles and stood tall for her beliefs from a young age. She started a 'Hijab Revolution' to support women's choices and is actively involved in projects enabling women to participate in civil society. Rouaa took part in the Women Leadership Programme in the Netherlands, a programme of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs that empowers women to become influential leaders and role models.
The Dutch MFA Women Leadership Programme, held last month, focuses on empowering women to be leaders in a world where women's rights are increasingly challenged. Participants engaged with government officials and organizations, participated in several training sessions, and built networks to enhance their leadership capabilities, aiming for lasting success beyond the program.
Growing up in a family involved in politics, Rouaa was drawn to civil society at a young age. During middle school, she became a volunteer and worked with displaced people and refugees. Now she works for 'Elbarlament,' a German organization, engaging in projects supporting women's active participation in peacebuilding processes.
As Rouaa began her college journey in the conservative south of Iraq, she chose not to wear a hijab at university, defying societal norms and encountering threats of expulsion and even death. Standing firm, she refused to compromise on her principles: ‘I thought to myself, If I give in here, how much more am I willing to sacrifice for my comfort? So, I decided to set a boundary, protecting this fundamental right at the very least.’ This led to legal action against the university, supported by a Ministry of Higher Education letter clarifying the hijab as non-mandatory.
Despite the challenges, her stance inspired girls from diverse backgrounds to also remove their headscarves. Rouaa: ‘One of my professors called it the Hijab Revolution’. This experience ignited her dedication to women's rights, understanding the need to be a voice and representation for women in their pursuit of equality.
According to Rouaa the most pressing issue is the lack of legal protection for women from abuse or violence. ‘In Iraq, for example, the law allows husbands to ‘discipline’ their wives without explaining what that means, leaving room for different interpretations’, she says. ‘It is also a problematic that there are articles in the penal code that allow for reduced sentencing or no sentence at all for men who kill female family members in the name of restoring honour. This encourages more violence to happen and keeps it going.
Despite efforts by women's rights activists and organizations since 2003, progress has been slow. Even in my work with the Ministry of Interior, police officers struggle to help abuse victims because they lack the legal authority to make arrests or provide shelter for these women. We urgently need a domestic violence law, but a proposed bill has been stuck in parliament since 2019. Progress is frustratingly slow.’
In her advocacy efforts, Rouaa has been focusing on educating women about their rights, even among those who oppose her. ‘We aim to show them the benefits and gain public support’, Rouaa says. ‘Initially, we initiated various programs for social cohesion, involving tribal and religious leaders. We organized discussions where we brought together tribal and religious leaders from across Iraq along with women's rights activists to explain how the domestic violence bill can bring positive change.
As we engaged in this conversation, it became clear that the concerns were rooted more in tradition and cultural norms than in religion. With this clarity, we have reopened conversations about the domestic violence bill with the same religious leaders. Our goal is to encourage more dialogue and hopefully move the bill forward for consideration within this year. Yet, it is vital to stress that this is an ongoing journey, and we are actively seeking significant support within the government, a crucial backing that has been challenging to secure thus far.’
The women leaders were welcomed by Minister Schreinemacher and had an inspiring conversation with her:
Rouaa advocates for a shift in language towards being more inclusive and engaging, ensuring that everyone feels involved and encouraged to participate in discussions. This inclusivity, she emphasizes, is crucial to capture and maintain people's attention. ‘Because if you feel that you are out of the discussion, then you will not listen to it.’
She believes the language used by activists plays a crucial role: ‘We often use complex language that's not easily understood by the majority of the population.’ She also points out how this issue extends to media, where political analysts often use language that is inaccessible to the majority.
According to Rouaa, social media proves immensely beneficial for her cause, particularly among the youth in Iraq. ‘Traditional media in Iraq is controlled mostly by the political parties’, she adds, ‘which makes independent media outreach to the youth challenging’. Social media platforms, however, offer a way to bypass this hurdle and connect with the younger population. Rouaa vividly recalls the powerful impact of social media: ‘The 2019 demonstrations started on Facebook. And people used that as a way to reach as many as possible.’
Yet, we cannot overlook the negative aspects. ‘Misinformation is rampant in Iraq, largely due to a lack of education.’ Rouaa stresses the importance of education to battle this, as it helps people with critical thinking skills necessary to discern and evaluate information. In her words, ‘It all comes down to education, because that's where you learn to have critical thinking.’
Women Leadership Programme
Reflecting on her experience in the Women Leadership Programme by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rouaa shared: ‘The storytelling training was fascinating and even more so because we had the opportunity to share our stories, discovering that they held common threads. It was an emotional experience that brought us closer together. Sharing stories does indeed bridge people, especially when we find shared challenges or successes.’
She continued, ‘In the second part of the program, we had a negotiation training that stood out. It involved a simulation of a country in conflict where each of us represented specific groups with distinct demands. Despite our competitive spirits, we worked towards finding common ground, showcasing not only our competitive nature but also our diplomatic tendencies.’