'They view us as slaves': black Iraqi women say discrimination denies them hope

Without a voice, many black Iraqi women feel they lack rights in a country where sectarian division blocks paths to power

Hanadi Saad, a human rights advocate who was nominated for the position of oil minister in Iraq. Courtesy Hanadi Saad
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Iraqi women of African descent say there is little opportunity to thrive in the country, even when nominated for senior positions in government.

Hanadi Saad, a political and human rights defender with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum geology, became the first black woman to be recommended for the post of oil minister by representatives of Iraq’s minority group.

Her nomination took place when backroom deals were being struck to form the government of Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi in May after the former government resigned following nationwide protests.

"It brought in some hesitation because there's no transparency or opportunity for a woman to hold this position, let alone someone of African descent, but I thought: let's give it a go," Ms Saad told The National.

They say there is no discrimination or racism but actually there is

In early June, Parliament approved the appointment of Ihsan Abdul Jabbar as oil minister. He was the acting director general of state-run Basra Oil Company.

Ms Saad said she was not surprised by his appointment.

“We have been experiencing social discrimination for decades now – they view us as slaves.”

Iqbal Shalal, an activist and member of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, said politicians in the country fail to acknowledge that black people even exist, let alone give them a platform to prosper.

“Hanadi didn’t get acknowledgement for the position because she’s a woman and has African origins,” Ms Shalal said.

“There are no black people in Iraq’s political field – they don’t even have rights. Blacks are still called slaves until this day.”

Karima Mubarak, an Iraqi black women’s rights advocate. courtesy: Karima Mubarak
Karima Mubarak is a black Iraqi human rights defender and founder of Basra’s Women’s Association. Karima Mubarak

Ms Shalal’s organisation has been battling against this but she says they received threats from officials who assume  they “are triggering anger within Iraq’s minority groups”.

Ms Saad, 38, has also played a pivotal role for reform and has advocated tirelessly for good governance and equality among Iraq’s various minorities.

From the oil-rich city of Basra, she worked in the oil sector for over a decade but left it behind several years ago to lead a humanitarian organisation that sheds light on the plight of black women in Iraq.

As the chairwoman of the Durar-Iraq Association for Humanitarian Development in Basra, she is now focusing on protecting and promoting the rights of Afro-descendant Iraqis, among other marginalised populations.

Black Iraqis are descendants of African slaves brought to the country from about the ninth century and have lived in southern Iraq for hundreds of years, with many today residing in Basra.

The killing of George Floyd during his arrest in the US city of Minneapolis earlier this year sparked global discussions around race and inequality that brought up the issue of Iraqis of African origin.

But Ms Saad says it’s not only racial discrimination she’s up against, but the sectarian division written into Iraq’s political structure that won’t allow newcomers to thrive.

The Muhasasa system, introduced in 2003, is a quota system whereby proportional government representation is divided among Iraq’s various ethno-sectarian groups.

Karima Mubarak (second left) an Iraqi black women’s rights advocate, with her colleagues from the “people of brown skin” movement. courtesy: Karima Mubarak
Karima Mubarak (second left) an Iraqi black women’s rights advocate, with her colleagues from the “people of brown skin” movement. Karima Mubarak

“The corrupt system doesn’t allow those in power to look at eligible nominees. They only think about how they can benefit and stay in power,” she explains.

Women in Iraq are not equally represented in parliament, including the current government, she said.

“Iraqi women are vulnerable – the parliament only has two female ministers in the cabinet. Although the gender quota law guarantees that women must make up 25 per cent of representatives in parliament, unfortunately we don’t have that in Iraq,” she said.

Poor representation at the political level leaves Iraqi women without a voice, making it harder to advocate issues that have long gone unaddressed.

Karima Mubarak, a black Iraqi human rights defender and founder of Basra's Women's Association told The National that she has been a victim of sexual abuse.

“It was humiliating and this is nothing compared to the challenges that black Iraqi women face. They are deeply rooted in their history and society cannot change its viewpoint,” she said.

Black women have little protection, she said, regardless of their position in society.

“We have a big problem and there is no solution to it,” she said.

Ms Mubarak, who has worked in the humanitarian sector for decades, blamed the media and religious authorities for allowing racism to prevail in the country.

“The foundations of any religion is to treat others equally, with respect and without any discrimination,” she said.

But black Iraqis have suffered from discrimination for centuries and nothing has changed. “We don’t have any support, not locally or internationally,” she said.

Many black Iraqi women are working in menial, low-paying jobs where they are at risk of exploitation and harassment.

Miriam Puttick, civilian rights officer at Minority Rights Group, told The National: "It would not surprise me if sexual harassment were part of this problem."

What Ms Saad aims to do is gather international support so that women and people from minority groups can speak out and be heard.

“When we speak of this subject the authorities accuse us of being racist,” she said. “They say there is no discrimination or racism but actually there is.”