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16. May 2019

Northern Iraq: Interview with the founders of the women's rights organisation EMMA

In 2013 Dr. Bayan Kader Rasul and Bahar Ali decided to set up the women's rights organisation EMMA (“we”). Since then it has grown to have 32 staff members and reach thousands of women in northern Iraq with its work. The priorities for EMMA are empowerment and the protection of women, participation of women in politics, rehabilitation of IS survivors, and campaigning against female genital mutilation. EMMA offers direct advice and counselling for women and girls, organises awareness raising events for the public, and provides training for social workers. medica mondiale and EMMA both have feminism as the basis of their approach, are both involved in the struggle against sexualised violence, and since 2018 have been implementing two projects together.

When did you start working on women's rights?

Bahar Ali: We both come from political families. Even my mother, who had not gone to school, was a convinced feminist. But for me, it was reading that opened my eyes.

Dr. Bayan Kader Rasul: The books of Nawal El Saadawi were a great influence on us both. We grew up in a very patriarchal society. In my work as a doctor I saw so many women who had experienced violence. Often I have had to listen to people pointing out that I'm okay and that I'm not oppressed. So I always respond: “It's not enough that I'm free!”

What led to the decision to set up EMMA?

Bahar Ali: We had both returned to Iraq after being abroad for a long time. I found it very difficult to settle back in. I was working for a human rights organisation but often felt I was being held back in my political work. I had known Dr. Bayan since the 90s, and she felt similarly. So we thought, “Let's set up our own women's organisation!”.

What has happened since then?

Dr. Bayan Kader Rasul: Very soon we began to advise mothers in hospitals on the issue of female genital mutilation. Our concepts were taken on board by the Ministry of Health and are now being used in many health centres.

Bahar Ali: By offering psychosocial counselling, we can speak directly with women. However, we have always understood our work to be political. We want to influence laws and change things! For some time now, for example, we have been working with the Education Ministry in order to bring gender mainstreaming into school education.

What challenges do you experience during your work?

Dr. Bayan Kader Rasul: We experience a lot of animosity because of our work. Men accuse us of turning their women against them. And media attacks are becoming more and more common. So it is very important for us to support each other. That is a source of strength to continue working.

Author: Esther Wahlen, Press and Public Relatitions Officer at medica mondiale