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“We do not focus on the most sensitive topics, but rather try to gather women around the problems that basically every woman encounter," says Shameran M. Odisho, president of Iraqi Women's League. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.
“We do not focus on the most sensitive topics, but rather try to gather women around the problems that basically every woman encounter," says Shameran M. Odisho, president of Iraqi Women's League. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.

"I fight for a unified Iraq"

The history of Iraq is not only a story of violence and conflict. It is also a story of women’s courageous struggle. Meet women human rights defender Shameran M. Odisho, who refuses to give up her hope of a united, peaceful Iraq, despite the fact that she has been persecuted for her political activism throughout her whole life.

Shameran M. Odisho is 65 years old and the current president of Iraqi Women’s League (IWL), a women’s rights organisation that was founded in 1952 and has members in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Shameran herself became a member in 1975. She had already been politically active for a decade, in the student movement and within the Iraqi Communist Party.

“When I grew up it was the Baath Party that dominated. They were directed at Arabs, while the Communist Party welcomed all people regardless of ethnicity. Since I belong to the Christian minority, I joined the Communist Party,” Shameran says.

Left after death threats

Due to her membership in the Communist Party, she was moved from her position as a hostess of a state-controlled TV channel to an administrative post. She also began to receive threats from the Baath party. A death threat the last straw – she decided to quit her job and managed to get a permit to leave the country to study in Moscow for a year.

Women human rights defenders Dalal Jumaah, Shameran Odisho and Liza Hido discussing how to make Iraqi politicians take violence against women seriously. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.

Women human rights defenders Dalal Jumaah, Shameran Odisho and Liza Hido discussing how to make Iraqi politicians take violence against women seriously. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.

When Shameran returned to Iraq in 1979, the persecution of members of the Communist Party had increased. One day, one of her friends asked her to meet up. It turned out to be a trap: the friend had been tortured until she gave information on, among others, Shameran, who was taken by the police.

“On June 16, 1980 I was arrested because I was a communist,” Shameran states.

She was in jail for 32 days, of which 21 were spent in solitary confinement. The whole time, she was subjected to torture.

“They tore off my clothes, tied my legs, hit me all over, made sure I broke my nose and damaged my ears and teeth. I could not sleep at night because they came and started torturing me again. They tried to force me to give them information about my friends, but I gave them nothing,” she says.

Badly hurt

After 21 days of isolation, Shameran was transferred to a room where about 30 other women, mostly from the Communist Party, were held captive. Shameran could not walk after the torture she had suffered. To get to the bathroom, she had to crawl on her knees. When the other women saw her skirt slither past, they knew it was the woman who had been so badly tortured.

“I suffered a lot. Sometimes I don’t want to remember everything I’ve been through,” Shameran says.

At about the same time, Saddam Hussein came to power. In an attempt to show off a new Iraq, he released a large number of political prisoners, including Shameran.

“But shortly after we had been released, we were told that they’d soon come to arrest us again. They felt compelled to temporarily let us out because the international community had its’ eyes on Iraq.”

Went into hiding

Shameran went straight home, but only stayed for a few hours. She cut and washed her dirty hair and did her best to hide the wounds that covered her body. Due to the threat of re-arrest, Shameran did not dare to stay at home. She moved from place to place, stayed with friends and acquaintances; sometimes for three to four days in a row, sometimes a week, at the most one month.

“I lived like that for two years. Then, a friend helped me to get a job as servant for a wealthy Christian family,” Shameran says.

Her friend introduced her as “Samira” to the rich family. The following six years, she spent serving them. She put her political commitment aside. But one day, the family received a visit from one of Saddam Hussein’s guards, who demanded to see everyone’s ID card. Shameran saw no alternative but to tell the wife about her true situation.

The wife began to cry. The wealthy couple asked if there was anything they could do for her.

“I said that I’m good at sewing clothes for women and that it would be great if they could help me open a shop for that.”

Once again, Shamerans’ life changed. The shop became well known and for once, her life was fairly peaceful. But something inside her pushed her to start over once again. In 1998 she applied to the university.

“I was 48 years old and started building another life,” she says.

Back in politics

When we meet it’s the beginning of 2015 and Shameran has studied everything from economics and political science to languages and media. In 2003, the same year as the US invaded Iraq, she went back to the Ministry of Culture that had kicked her out in the 1970s and said that she wanted them to employ her again. And they did.

Today, Shameran holds two high positions in the Ministry of Culture. In addition, she is president of IWL, that the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation cooperates with, and recently she stood as a candidate with her own list for the elections in Iraq in 2014. She’s back in politics, full force.

How have you been affected by everything that you have been through?

“I have had to let go of my personal goals in life. I wanted to have a family and children, but it was not possible. At times, I almost forgot myself, there has been no space for thinking. Today, that makes me sad. I have fought for human rights and a peaceful future, but it feels like Iraq is going backwards rather than forwards. And all my relatives have left Iraq, there is only me left.

Have you ever thought about leaving Iraq yourself?

“No!” Shameran responds, quickly and firmly. “I can not leave Iraq – my country.”

We talk about the present. I ask what it’s like to be president of the country-wide organisation IWL in these times, when tensions between different ethnic and religious groups seem to be increasing day by day. IWL is active in almost all Iraqi provinces. Currently, they have members who live separated from the outside world since their communities – including the Anbar province – are under the control of the Islamic State (IS).

“We do not focus on the most sensitive topics, but rather try to gather women around the problems that basically every woman encounter, such as violence against women and illiteracy.”

What are your thoughts about the future?

“I fight for a unified and secure Iraq. I think it is possible, if only the rest of the world allows us to become a stable country. After all that we’ve been through, I still think that I myself am an Iraqi – as well as my neighbor – and that it is our duty to support each other.”

Karin Råghall

Updated in: 2015-04-16