Local 2627, DC 37, AFSCME interviews labor leader Houzan Mahmoud.
This interview was conducted on March 5, 2007, at an event sponsored by the Center for Study of Working Class Life and cosponsored by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). Houzan Mahmoud is the international representative of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq and the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. She is a co-founder of the Iraqi Freedom Congress, a project to build a democratic, secular, progressive alternative to both political Islam and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The interview was conducted for Local 2627 by Gary Goff.
Local 2627: How has the situation for women in Iraq changed as a result of the occupation?
Mahmoud: The lack of all kinds of basic services — medicine, water, electricity — makes daily life so difficult. There’s no security. Women cannot go out alone. There are no jobs for women. Their situation is much worse than before.
Local 2627: Explain how women’s safety has changed under the occupation.
Mahmoud: There’s no security for the entire population because the Iraqi police force is dysfunctional. The American forces are not providing protection on the streets or in the neighborhoods. So we are speaking about a society that’s actually run by militias — armed groups of brutal Islamists. This is why women have no safety at all.
Local 2627: Are you talking about violence toward women?
Mahmoud: Women are subjected to all kinds of violence — rape, abduction, and killing. Beheading for not wearing the veil. Women are sold to neighboring countries for prostitution. In some neighborhoods where the Islamists have strongholds, they are forcing girls as young as 9 years old to marry the mujahideen, their fighters. This is rape. Another issue is the entertainment marriages. A man can actually marry a woman for half an hour or several days, for as long as he wishes to have sex with her, and give her some money. I call it Islamist prostitution. This is open, brutal, violence against women.
Local 2627: What is the situation of labor unions under the occupation?
Mahmoud: For the last three decades under Saddam there was no independent union organizing. There was just one general federation of trade unions, which was a tool of the Baath party. It was used to oppress workers, to spy on them if they were organizing. Workers had no right to organize a protest or a strike. Basically, the unions were just to keep workers passive in terms of fighting for their rights. We call them yellow unions.
Local 2627: And now?
Mahmoud: Now, under the occupation, we have formed the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq. We try to organize a labor movement that’s independent from both the occupation and the government. After the occupation the state formed its own union, called the Legal Union for the Workers. It gets the support of the Iraqi government and the U.S. and UK governments as well. Our federation is banned. We’re anti-occupation, therefore we are illegal, but we still organize. We organize a lot of protests, conferences, strikes. We’re forming branches in factories and other places where people are still working. We’re known as a real working-class mass organization, and we’re gaining popularity among the workers.
Local 2627: What political space is there for people such as yourself who are secular rather than identified with a particular ethnic or religious group in Iraq?
Mahmoud: Iraqi society has a big potential to be secular, to have equality and freedom. Unfortunately, the politicization of the religious sects and the occupation itself have created a situation where it’s difficult for a woman to go out and not be veiled. But secularism is deeply rooted in Iraqi society. People don’t want Islamic sharia [Islamic law] to be implemented. They don’t want a theocratic regime. This is especially true of the youth and the women. Iraqi women were among the most educated women in the Middle East, so of course they don’t want such a society. They do not want to go backward.
Local 2627: What is the relationship between the U.S. occupation and the power of the militias?
Mahmoud: Actually this occupation of Iraq led to the empowerment of the Islamist groups, both in the government and in the opposition. The United States came with the notion of ending Saddam’s regime which they saw as a Sunni minority oppressing a Shiite majority. The United States empowered the Shiites in the ruling council. Now the so-called parliament has a Shiite majority and they are implementing sharia law. They are forcing Islamization on Iraqi society. And outside the government there are various terrorist networks: al-Qaeda, Muqtada al-Sadr, and all these mujahideen from the different terrorist networks. The list is endless. They terrorize people, carry out all kinds of suicide bombings and attacks, all under the name of fighting the occupation. Really, the occupation is a breeding ground for these Islamists. They use resistance to the occupation as a cover to kill Iraqi people, to violate women, to impose Islamic sharia law. They say, “Well, this is occupation, and we are resisting.” But in reality they are implementing their own agenda. It’s not an anti-imperialist or an anti-occupation agenda.
Local 2627: What do you see as the connection between your situation in Iraq, and the situation of American union members? Why should we as union members oppose the war?
Mahmoud: I think we have a lot in common. The workers in Iraq are paying the price for being under occupation. Often they don’t get their wages. They get sacked easily from their jobs. It’s difficult to organize. In the United States there are also many problems. Your rights are cut down because the country is at war. All these taxes and all these resources are going to Iraq. Two years ago I was at the AFL-CIO convention, and for two days I was hearing about all these rights that were being cut and how to fight to get them back. So you can see there are a lot of drawbacks for American workers because their country is at war. This war is not in the interest of the working class in Iraq or in the United States.
Local 2627: What can American union members do to support Iraqi workers in this period?
Mahmoud: Political and moral support for the workers’ movement in Iraq is so important. Our struggle is one. If we end the occupation it would be a victory for the workers in this country as well. Solidarity has been very important to us. If it weren’t for the labor movement in this country, if it weren’t for U.S. Labor Against the War and other trade unions supporting the workers’ struggle in Iraq, we wouldn’t be able to continue. In Iraq we can continue our work because we have international support. I think the struggles in the United States and Iraq are really linked.
Local 2627: If U.S. troops were to withdraw, what do you think will happen in Iraq?
Mahmoud: It’s very difficult to predict, considering all the problems, all this bloody sectarian and civil war. We have had the occupation for four years, yet basic services are still not restored and security is still a major problem. I’m talking about just being able to go to the store safely. There is more chaos and violence, more sectarian and religious division. It’s turning Iraq into a bloody battlefield. Having the occupation there for a few more years will drive the country into complete destruction. If the occupation ends, all this military apparatus will be gone. The situation will still be difficult and bleak, but I think there will be an opportunity for progressive, secular, democratic organizations and movements to sort out these problems with the Islamist gangsters and militias. At that point, we will need much more international solidarity to enable us to be an alternative force. And that’s the only scenario that I can predict at the moment.
In the history of colonialism, and in the history of occupations by the United States and other governments, you can see they usually install puppet regimes. These puppet regimes are almost dysfunctional and irrelevant to the society. They just fulfill the demands of the occupier. That’s the case in Iraq. We don’t have a government. We don’t have services and security, or the most basic standards of society. The occupation has to end.
Local 2627: A lot of Americans think that the United States and its military can be a mediating force between various Iraqi groups. What’s your reaction?
Mahmoud: The American government created these divisions. It can never do anything to help these factions work together. The United States is the cause of the chaos and the dismantling of our society. It started this war to impose its hegemony. Otherwise why would they put all these resources into this war? It’s not to free us from dictatorship. There are dozens of dictatorships around the world that they tolerate or even support.
They [the United States] don’t want any countries to be in the hands of their own people. They don’t need countries that have egalitarian, secular governments. Look at Saudi Arabia. Look at other countries that are extremely Islamist, where human rights violations are widespread. They are best friends with the American government. So the war is not really about bringing democracy and liberation to people in the region. It’s about the American government’s political and economic interests.