Peace Heroes: Iraq’s Fatima Al-Bahadly

Fatima left her home for 20 days, walking into the enemy’s battlefield in search of her recruited son. Able to retrieve him, the mother of two boys did not stop at that, but was able to convince tens of other young men to disarm.

“My 15-year-old son, who was one of the best students in our province, decided to carry arms and go to battle without even informing me or his father,” Al-Bahadly told Ms. “It was a big shock for me. I thought that my son will go to battle and die. For around 20 days I searched for him.”

A partner of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and a member of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL), Fatima Al-Bahadly, director of Al-Firdaws Society, an NGO founded in 2003 in Basra, Iraq, works actively to demobilize and reintegrate young people and children who have been used by militias. She has overseen a number of projects in a range of areas, including issues of literacy, conflict resolution, women’s political participation and violence against women.

Interviewed by ICAN’s Aya Nader, Al-Bahadly shares her story with us.

What is the nature of your civil society activities?

I am the founder of the non-governmental organization, Al-Firdaws. For 12 years, we have been working on protecting women and girls affected by war and strengthening their role in peace building. We work in areas where women are marginalized the most, namely rural areas and the countryside, to educate and build on their skills, and to end violence towards women. Women, especially in the South, fall victim to early marriage, or are forced out of school. To address these issues, Al-Firdaws tries to raise awareness among community members about the impact of these issues on young women. We work with moderate clerics, tribal leaders and all peace-loving people and parties in our country. We call on religious clerics to use more equitable and respectful language when speaking about women. We have tried to impress them with the notion that women have an important role to play in our society. The woman is not supposed to be submissive because the Qur’an says also “we have created you as man and woman,” it didn’t say we only created men, so therefore women have to be the constant companions of men and their auxiliaries.

We also work with youth to combat the militarization of society that has been on the rise. We teach them that to be good men and good Muslims they should serve their community and society. We also work to change their perceptions about women, and be more respectful.

Many of our youth resort to extremism in the name of religion and we try to speak to them. We help them pause and reflect, to understand why they resort to extremism. They are being influenced by forces that use the language of Islam, like verses in the Qur’an to make them believe that extremism is deeply rooted in Islam and violence is condoned. They co-opt Islam in order to get young men to kill and perpetrate all kinds of violence.

We reject these interpretations. So fight fire with fire, so to speak. We have used the same religious language and sources to show that in the Qur’an there are many verses that command us to actually treat our sisters and brothers in a respectful way, to reject violence and to respect diversity. So we have used exactly the same Qur’an in order to fight their negative extreme perception with a different perception that acknowledges and upholds pluralism and peace.

Slowly we are able to encourage people–especially young men–to engage in constructive work in their communities. We have rehabilitated schools that were derelict. We have replanted trees in different places so that they can be a symbol of peace, and we have been able to convey a message of tolerance and peace and conviviality. In doing so, we encourage the youth to feel a sense of pride and purpose in themselves.

Can you describe the environment of civil work in Iraq?

Since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in 2003, Iraq has witnessed daily violence under different names, whether al-Qaida, al-Zarqawi or Daesh. We have a continuous state of violence, not only on the political level through foreign interference, but also at the local level. In 2006 and 2007, we experienced many cases of violence by so-called “religious clerics.” They killed youth for having long hair or tattoos. They killed women because they were unveiled. This period was the worst, especially in the South.

Civil society activists were under threat at the time and we were unable to accomplish anything. We could not even participate in forums because we were monitored. We worked cautiously and secretly. We were accused of working for the West and opposing Islam and the Sharia Law. Many young men and women who work for foreign organizations were killed in the name of religion.

Work is progressing very slowly because of the barriers in the environment, mainly from the government. I have been asked to visit the intelligence office three times for investigation while participating in demonstrations and youth initiatives.

In one instance, I had organized a big festival for the International Friendship Day and invited 150 youth (teenagers) who had become involved in the new “people’s army.” These were units that were formed by leading militias and Parliament members after religious leaders called on the public to form militias to push back against Daesh. These militias are separate from the Iraqi army. More than 1000 people attended our festival. Its purpose was to promote peaceful tolerance and love and to live in peace. In the middle of the festival, the intelligence services arrested me and two youth volunteers in my organization. The two young men were tortured. I was asked how I could collect this many youth, and was accused of receiving external funding to lead youth against the government to overthrow it.

Civil society in general is watched carefully by government—federal and local—since Daesh’s invasion, using that as an excuse to restrict civil society, which they didn’t like from the beginning.

What happened after Daesh emerged in Iraq?

After Daesh emerged, the situation got worse. The local governments and the central government were unable to end the violence or bring about peace, because they were preoccupied with achieving their political and personal interests. The financial and administrative corruption spread widely in Iraq making the government turn a blind eye to many cases of violence.

The international community did not interfere to stop this occupation. The foreign media does not adequately cover Daesh crimes against minorities in the name of Islamic religion. Children are frequently exploited in Mosul city; about 400 children were killed because they refused to join Daesh, and more than 400 women were raped there.

Unfortunately, the Arab countries call them the “Islamic state,” while they have nothing to do with Islam. Islam was not ever based on the killing, rape and captivity of women, killing children, bombings and mass murder. Islam is based on tolerance. There is no compulsion in religion.

The fear that your children would be swept into the wave of violence that overtook parts of your community was a key factor in you taking up this work. Can you speak about how being a mother influences your work and relates to any additional factors driving your commitment to advancing peace and human rights?

With the collapse of security in Iraq, I was also concerned about everything in my household that could be used as a weapon, even the kitchen knives. In parallel, there was the environment that enabled and encouraged youth to leave school and be recruited to armed groups. The fatwa, the frustration of unemployment, salaries from militia, low levels of education, all this enabled them to feel like heroes in uniform. Of course I was concerned for my children, but also other children who might get killed in conflict because they don’t know anything about war. The main factor that led me to work with these groups was being a mother and the fear of losing a son, and the confidence the community put in me.

Yet you experienced what you feared with one of your sons. Could you tell us what happened?

My 15-year-old son, who was one of the best students in our province, decided to carry arms and go to battle without even informing me or his father. It was a big shock for me. I thought that my son will go to battle and die. At the time, I was participating in a conference in Baghdad, when my eldest son called me and said that Ahmed sold his new phone to buy a military suit and join the fighters.

For around 20 days I searched for him. I did not go to the camps to only find my son. I wanted to know about the situation of the other young people in the battlefield. I wanted to know whether they have the ability to fight, whether they have enough food and a proper place to live in. I approached those young people to know the reasons behind their joining the fighters.

To enter the camps, I brought some food and clothes for the Iraqi army and resistance militias, al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units).

Afterwards, I knew that my son had participated in a military attack and then he and others were taken to liberate Salah al-Din province. He participated in that attack too. I accompanied the Iraqi armed forces, going through areas which were held by Daesh, houses belonging to Daesh which were full of weapons and explosive devices made by the group. I was able to do so with the help of our friends in those areas.

You were able to convince your son to disarm. How did that happen?

After five days in Salah El-din, my son returned on leave and I talked with him. I explained how the community needs him. I tried to convince him to complete his study and become a doctor or an engineer, so he could be more useful for the community. I told him that if he is unwilling to complete his studies, he can do other things with his life that would benefit society. He could annually donate blood, for example. “When you grow up, you can play a great role in peace building,” I told him.

I convinced him to stay home, but I was not satisfied with convincing only my son. I thought about other mothers who cannot go to the battlefield to retrieve their children, or do not have persuasive abilities. I tried to convince more young men to return to school and to the community. I did not use the usual sayings; instead, I relied on texts from Qur’an which urge people to live. I told them that God created them not to die or kill, but to worship, work and serve their society and continue their lives.

Have you taught anyone to convince the children to leave the battlefield? How many children have you convinced to return? How?

I was the only mother. I relied on young people of the same age. Some of the fighters had never had any education.

We held discussions and festivals with university students. We took collective photos and tried to make use of global events such as World Youth Day and World Peace Day. We also focused on some occasions which have been seen as forbidden. For example, Valentine’s Day is always seen as a Western occasion. We tried to tell them that it is not as people think, that God wants to spread peace and love among people. We took a group of young people to visit a nursing home and presented roses and gifts for the elderly. We taught the children that this occasion calls for love between brothers, husband and wife, friends and neighbors. We also visited churches and synagogues to teach them that the difference in religion is acceptable.

The Qur’an says: “We made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other.” (Hujuraat: 49\19). God did not say he made us into Muslims only.

There is also a verse in the Qur’an that says there is no compulsion in religion, so in bringing that out we were able to show them that violence is not a necessity, it is not a religious command. So jihad does not necessarily mean that you have to fight people with violence, there are other ways to conduct yourself in a civilized society and to relate to others.

Another verse from the Qur’an says that if you permit one soul to live it is as if you have enabled entire mankind to live. By using the same verses and language that they knew, we were able to convey a very different message.

We met about 3,500 youth, of which 150 young men disarmed and returned to school. We visited many camps, but those who returned were on leave, which is when we communicated with them.

How do you choose projects to work on? What key strategies have you used to see them flourish into the successful initiatives they are today? 

I decide on projects through a community assessment of the immediate needs and challenges of the specific community. Our strategy is to scale up through involving community and religious leaders, academics, NGOs and of course working with volunteers,, who are always active. The factors for designing projects for women are different than those for men or youth. For funding any project no matter how big or small, we are focused on gathering all stakeholders for consultation with community. Most of the projects and campaigns are funded through the community but they vary depending on the size of project. For example, last February two tribes in Basra fought each other, and men from each side were killed. When someone kills a man from another tribe in Iraq, he must do one of two things: give 10 women to the other side, or pay millions of dinars. The winning tribe this time asked for 51 women. I couldn’t wait to intervene, but I also couldn’t wait for a donor or funding. I talked to religious leaders, VIPs, to get access to the area so that I could moderate a dialogue between both sides. I was not able to, but by drawing attention, others intervened and solved the issue. The amount owed was reduced and then paid in money, not by sending women.

How do you see the role of women in peace building?

Women constitute a higher percentage of our societies than men. When women are weak, the family and society will be weak as well. If the women did not play their role within the family and the local community, the whole society suffers from instability. Peace building requires a strong woman who can claim her rights within the family, and in turn she can turn violence into tolerance and peace.

When we provide political, economic and social support for women, they will be able to spread peace. I hope Iraqi women can have a role at negotiation tables in Iraq and at the UN Security Council.

Do you define yourself as a “peacebuilder,” a “human rights advocate,” a “women’s rights activist”? And what would constitute success to you?

More a peacebuilder, because I think if peace is achieved, then women’s rights and human rights will be easy to work on. My main goal is to achieve the most peaceful community as possible and spread tolerance and peaceful living.

What is the role of ICAN in Iraq?

I have been working with ICAN for four years.

In the beginning, I did not have the courage to speak to the media and meet with other people. I was apprehensive when I attended international conferences, so my participation was weak. I was also confused by a lot of concepts.

When I attended the first ICAN forum, it was my first time to tell my story. When I knew that there were Afghani and Iranian women in the conference, I feared taking photos with them. I thought they may be linked to al-Qaeda or one of those who interfere in Saudi Arabia. The first women to speak with me were Afghani women and I found that we share the same goal and message. We are now friends.

Then I received support from ICAN.

The organization’s support through sharing plans and communicating with us the challenges facing our countries, gave us the hope that there are other people who care about us. Every time I attend an ICAN conference, I gain more confidence and courage. Women exchange experiences and knowledge, and give each other support.

Through ICAN, our work was able to reach international platforms for the first time, including the United Nations.

We aspire to have more presence in international forums, more voice in media, and a role at negotiation tables and in conflict resolution. We are unable to do it on our own, we hope to achieve peace with the help of ICAN. We are women who are devoted to this cause, and we will make it.

International Civil Society Action Network is a U.S.-based nonprofit whose mission is to support civil society activism in promoting women’s rights, peace, and human security in countries affected by conflict, transition, and closed political space. ICAN aims to support women’s efforts through bridging the divisions between activists and the policy community, elevating the voices and experiences of women activists, building skills, and ensuring the exchange of knowledge and resources.

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