Between the reeds, Umm Kazem, 64, spends most of her time in the Iraqi marshes, known as the Ahwar wetlands, in order to deliver milk to her customers. Every day, this resident of the Chibayish district (70 km southeast of Al Nasiriyeh, Dhi Qar province’s capital) makes her way deep inside the wetlands on her mashhoof, a traditional marshes boat, and comes back loaded with buffalo milk to sell before returning home.

Umm Kazem has been selling milk for more than 12 years. Milk is the basis of the marshes’ economy. For Umm Kazim, it is the only source of livelihood. She makes milk from her buffaloes and then travels long distances in southern Iraq. 

The quality of her products has made her a successful milk seller. “My milk is homemade with the help of my family. I get customers that travel long distances to buy it.”, she shared. Even though she has a profitable business, Umm Kazem remains humble, and hopes that there will always be a demand for her milk so that she can live without fear of poverty in the future.

Instability can indeed have an impact on her business: “The demonstrations that started in October 2019 severely affected the milk sale since most of my customers were from the cities and it was difficult to reach them”. This crisis was followed by the Coronavirus epidemic and a subsequent curfew during which most people were reluctant to buy homemade milk. However, after a while, people came back to their normal habits and her commercial activity resumed, although not as profitable as it was in the past.

Like Umm Kazem, Halima Sawadi also spends most of her time in the heart of the marshes. This fisherwoman owns her own mashhoof and fishing equipment. Every day, she competes with other fisherwomen to get the best yield. She is a skilled fisherman that has learned where to find the best fishing spots in the marshes. For this purpose, she goes for long distances deep into the marshes to fish before selling her harvest.

In the Ahwar, like in the dairy and fishing industries, there are dozens of women working in the markets and other commercial activities. There is no difference between men and women when it comes to making a living.

Despite the escalation of violence against women in Iraq in the last years, the marshlands have recorded low rates of violence. This is principally due to the role played by Marsh women in the economic life and their active social role as a productive individual.

The Marshes: a simple yet special life

The Ahwar cover more than 35,000 square kilometers. They stretch over three governorates, namely Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar. The marshes host approximately 370 species of animals, including the famous water buffalos. These unique wetlands are distributed mainly into the Al-Hawizeh, Al-Hamar, and the central marshes.

The marshes’ population is considered one of the oldest societies that settled in Mesopotamia. In this land surrounded by water from all sides, people lived and developed their own customs and traditions that differ from the other communities settled in the south of Iraq.

These customs are mainly linked to their direct natural environment: water and buffalos. These elements form a part of their memory and are a fundamental source of life. Their way of living has not evolved much in the last centuries as they seldomly mix with the inhabitants of the cities. Their unique environment ensured their social specificity. Yet, this fragile ecosystem and community is subject to changes. Indeed, life changed drastically at the end of Saddam’s regime and whenever drought periods occurred.

In 1991, an unprecedented insurrection against the baathist regime shook Iraq. Some rebels used the Ahwar as a natural stronghold from where they would launch their raids against government positions. In order to put an end to the uprising, Saddam Hussein ordered the draining of the marshes by diverting the water income from upstream rivers. The marshes lost about half of their initial size in a few months, only to recover 75% of it in 2008. Yet, today, the water influx is reducing once more, as Iran and Turkey recently achieved major dam projects on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, or on their tributaries.

Social status and economic role

Raad Al-Asadi is the head of the Al Chebayish Eco-Tourism Organization. He explained to The Red Line how central the woman was in the life of the community: “The Ahwar women have great responsibilities and play a fundamental role in their families. They possess many skills including traditional handicrafts inherited from their ancestors. They have mastered the manufacture of reed mats.”, he explained, before describing the different crafts endemic to the marshes. 

The Ahwari women are also known for manufacturing clay ovens (locally known as tandoor, which are made of moist soil and other materials including wheat straw (Nafash). The clay ovens are used to bake bread and grill fish. “They also excel in the manufacture of food preservation baskets and hand fans, known as (Al-Mahfa), which Iraqis use during the hot days of summer especially. These homemade fans became fashionable during the heavy handed embargo in the 90s, as an alternative to electric air conditioners due to the huge electric cuts”, the NGO director explained.

Big challenges

Despite the mastery of these ancestral skills by women, Mr. Al-Asadi affirms that they still face great challenges. Because of their daily work in the Marshes and the absence of governmental support, illiteracy among the Marshes’ women and lack of health guidance are very common. “All of this is due to the absence of programs related to women and their empowerment in these areas,” the activist explained.

In addition to the lack of empowerment programs, the marshes’ societal norms, patriarchy, and hierarchy are also influencing and limiting the emancipation of women in spite of the great and massive work they do. At an economic level, the head of the Ur Organization for Women and Childhood, Mona Al-Hilali, explains that women in the marshes suffer from the lack of marketplaces to sell and dispose of their products: “The economy of the marshes depends on women, and this is impacted by the distance to the provinces’ urban centers. This also contributes to their lack of access to health care, education, training and empowerment.”, she described.

During her interview with The Red Line, Mrs. Al-Hilalli asserted that Marshes women show great strength of character, courage and self-reliance. “This is obvious when we consider that they are skilled fishermen, boat riders and also raise buffaloes. In the marshes, the women would strongly benefit from dairy and handicraft facilities. The latter would empower them while helping preserve ancestral craftsmanship that are close to extinction such as rug and wicker manufacturing.”.

Despite their specific lifestyle, Mona Al-Hilali pointed out that Marshes women face similar challenges than those in other parts of the country. “They need to be aware of their rights to access justice, reduce underaged and forced marriage. The government should be more active and provide education in modern and accessible schools for girls as well as enforcing the compulsory education law.”, she stated.

If damaged, the fragile ecosystem in which marshes women are born can also have a significant impact on their life. “The lack of water contributes to thirst, migration, death of animals (especially buffalos) and climate change. Developing eco-tourism and providing job opportunities for women and youth would contribute to diversifying the family’s income and providing economic opportunities for local communities.”, she added.

Regarding empowerment, Al-Hilali pointed out that a governmental resolution related to the expansion of women’s social participation and protection is underway. This initiative also includes a section about economic empowerment of women. As of today, the weakness of international and governmental funding contributed to the reduction of women’s opportunities in the areas. There is still a lot to accomplish to enhance the visibility of women’s organizations, Mrs. Al-Hilali noted.

As for the projects to restore the marshes that were launched in government plans over the past years, Al-Hilali claims that they did not focus on empowering and supporting women. “If funding opportunities had been available, women should have been included in these programs,” she concluded. The recent decision to include the Ahwar as a UNESCO site raised hope that the area would develop steadily, but has not been established in close cooperation with the local community. Even worse, the growing environmental crisis related to drought and the excessive exploitation of water resources in Iraq but also Iran and Turkey, is threatening the Iraqi marshes like never before

Women and their rights in Iraqi law

As in most parts of Iraq, patriarchal traditions keep endangering Iraqi women, including those living in the Ahwar. This is even more true since these backward traditions have been enshrined in the laws of the Iraqi republic. Jurist Ali Hussein Jaber affirmed that the text of Article 409 of the Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 of 1969 legitimizes discrimination against women by giving a legal excuse to the author of a feminicide if the victim breached customs or traditions. At the same time, the legislation sets a penalty that can amount to three years of imprisonment which supports the idea that the woman has actually committed the act of indecency.”

“The most surprising is that the article has become an excuse to target women who oppose the masculine desire within the family. It happens that men force their female relatives into marriage, work, or school dropping out of fabricated charges. These women regularly get killed on the pretext of honor killings. What is more painful is that many women have lost their lives without the knowledge of legal authorities, allowing the perpetrators to go unpunished.”, Mr. Jaber added.

He added, “Many women murder cases end up by closure, either because her parents or relatives do not report them or because testimonies are fabricated in order to mislead the justice as the only witnesses are usually the victim’s relatives. Furthermore, social customs prevent non-relatives from reporting murders due to fear of tribal targeting.”

He continued, “This legislation which mitigates the penalty for a murder is the result of a masculine domination of society. The legislator has condoned backward social custom with their regulations.” The mitigating of a perpetrator’s crime is even more perceptible as the murderer will eventually benefit from an anticipated liberation for good conduct, or if he had not been sentenced prior to a femicide. These criterias lead to the suspension of sentences against the perpetrators who have the possibility to shorten their three-year sentence. These regulations are clearly a symbol of how deep masculine domination within society can be enshrined in the judicial system at the expense of women.”

According to Mr. Jaber, the law breaches the principles of Iraq’s new constitution of 2005, as it violates the principles of equality and justice both in administrative and judicial procedures. Therefore, the jurist added that it must be amended.

The law related to punishment for honour killings is also in violation to Iraq’s international obligations, especially when it comes to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the CEDAW Convention (Convention against all forms of discrimination against Women, concluded by the United Nations in 1979, which Iraq ratified in 1986). These treaties compell Iraq to produce and enforce legislative and executive policies in order to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

It will be a long road for Marshes’ women to emancipate themselves from these measures that affect all Iraqi women. Yet, the unique environment in which they live, the Ahwar, provides a natural ecosystem in which their traditions can offer a tool to ensure their prosperity, if only the government in the international community would invest to protect and promote it adequately. 

VIAAlaa Koli