Iraqi Al-Firdaws Peace Building Society
Iraqi Al-Firdaws Peace Building Society
From Al-Basra.. This is Al-Firdaws*
Al-Basra City is closely linked to Al-Firdaws Peace Building Society, which aimed to address the marginalization and exclusion of the city. Al-Firdaws Society was founded in 2003 amidst political, economic and social conflicts. There exist numerous manifestations of the extent of the government’s neglect and failure to ensure the minimum basic rights. Education, health and social primary services are absent.
With faith, commitment, determination, responsibility and intensive efforts; Al-Firdaws worked to reshape a historical legacy of marginalization and turn it into a positive mission for the future. At the time of its inception, the founders of Al-Firdaws did not know much about human rights and the management of an NGO, but they understood the scale of human suffering in Al-Basra’s community and believed in change. The first programme they implemented was to address illiteracy.
For the first time ever, I was able to read the doctor’s name and the medical prescription
There, at the north of Al-Basra in Al-Ahwar region, life seems to have closed all doors to women who were already victims of the blockade that commenced back in 1990. Many women were denied access to education, married off at an early age, and suffered from abject poverty.
The first step Al-Firdaws Society took was to teach adults in the poorest villages, with a view to the attainment of a dignified life and freedom from illiteracy. Teaching war-affected women how to read and write was a challenging task, as it represented a departure from traditions and customs. Tribal elders were particularly strongly opposing the education programmes, probably because it might cause women to deviate from their fate which has been already determined by their parents, husbands and clan elders.
|“Should I chop onions while she is studying?”
“Would she learn and I stay at home?”
The founders of Al-Firdaws spoke to the tribal elders using their same religious rhetoric in order to have a relevant and persuasive dialogue about the importance of women’s education, such as demonstrating that a woman would then be able to read a prayer for example. The quest to promote literacy began, and many houses were open to teaching sessions. The program was offered three days a week, for three hours a day, and women studied for three consecutive years (2006 to 2009) non-stop. Eventually, 3,000 girls and women between the ages of 12 and 60 obtained primary school diplomas.
|Alia’s wish was to get an education. She passed primary, middle and secondary school. Today she is studying to become a nurse at a specialized institute.
Sahar is a girl with a physical disability which prevented her from leaving the house due to mobility limitations. She graduated from the literacy programme and became a teacher.
Najla’: “Never before was I able to read the signs in the streets, and read the doctor’s name and the medical prescription. This feels great!”
Women without Identification
There was a case whereby 480 married women had children but none of them had an ID. It was difficult for these women and their children to live in a society that did not recognize them and did not legalize their status. Al-Firdaws teamed up with a group of women lawyers who made a weekly trip in a mashoof (a long and narrow canoe) which enabled them to reach the most remote areas in the Mesopotamian Marshes. After lengthy procedures and daily follow ups, the Society finally managed to have 480 women registered in the civil status records. These women later joined the literacy promotion programme, and their children were able to enroll in schools.
2009 to 2010
During the implementation of the education programme, Al-Firdaws team found out that many women suffered from poor health conditions and that many die during childbirth because the family would not allow them to deliver at the hospital in order to avoid the women being examined by a male physician. Subsequently, Al-Firdaws launched a health programme which includes raising awareness about health and reproductive issues. The programme also provided access to the early detection of breast cancer, in addition to mobile clinics that provide vaccines to children living in remote areas where such services are not accessible.
In rural areas, women are forced into a form of marriage arrangement named “Ash-Shighar”, whereby two men would marry each other’s sister. This form of marriage has in some cases led victim women to commit suicide.
Another devastating form of marriage is called “Al-Fasliyah”, whereby a woman from the tribe that committed a crime would be offered in marriage to the clan that was wronged as a form of compensation in order to prevent wide-scale bloodshed resulting from mutual acts of vengeance, in accordance with the old traditions of Iraqi tribes. Al-Firdaws succeeded in getting a number of tribal elders to commit to putting an end to this abusive practice.
Al-Firdaws held more than 100 workshops, seminars and dialogue sessions targeting more than 2,000 women from different age groups, addressing gender-based violence issues, providing capacity-building, and offering moral, psychological and legal support to enable girls and women to face these challenges and reduce abuses.
|Testimony of a violence survivor who was freed from Al-Fasliyah marriage
Badriyya is a 17-year-old rural girl. She grew up under a strict structure of customs and traditions that normalizes the confiscation of girls’ rights and expects them to obediently serve the males in their families.
For Badriyya, she herself was used as an offering in a sacrificial ritual to save a male relative. Her brother committed a murder in which a person from another tribe was killed, and in order for the brother to be spared the punishment of being murdered in retaliation by the victim’s clan, it was agreed between the two tribes that a sum of money is to be paid, in addition to one of the aggressor’s tribe girls being offered for a Fasliyah marriage arrangement. Badriyya was chosen to this end, and it was decided that she marries a man 40 years her senior.
As soon as this became known to Al-Firdaws, the Society made efforts to rid the girl of this fate, and organized a gathering attended by representatives of both tribes, in addition to influential clerics and clan elders, in order to prevent this marriage and offer a sum of money instead. Indeed, Al-Firdaws succeeded in saving the girl from having to give up her own life as a result of a crime committed by her brother.
Economic empowerment programmes for widowed women who had been dependent on their husbands as the sole breadwinners
Al-Firdaws entered into cooperation agreements with many donors to secure cash grants to these women, which would enable them to set up small enterprises. Over 10-years, between 2006 and 2016, the Society targeted more than 1,300 women by providing grants and support in running small income-generating projects. The Society sought to foster community cohesion between the host community and displaced persons throughout the sectarian war in 2006 and 2007, and under ISIS’s occupation of the central provinces of Iraq. This cohesion manifested itself through joint art and sports activities, in addition to economic empowerment programmes.
Al-Firdaws never considered the lack of formal education a barrier to women’s abilities. Instead, it focused on linking talent with creativity, and steered many women from begging on the streets to committing to awareness seminars, at which they would learn how to preserve their human dignity, and enhance their ability to create small employment opportunities through food preparation, such as kibbeh*, home food essentials, sweets and pickles. Al-Firdaws set up a weekly charity market to support displaced women who would sell their products and make a living from this small activity.
They also organized numerous lobbying campaigns urging the government to construct adequate drinking water networks, because the lack of clean water and sanitation services had led to a humanitarian tragedy. Each day, many women walked a long distance on muddy roads, in winter and in summer, to fetch water for their households using pots which they would place on their heads and walk all the way back. Al-Firdaws campaigned to construct a network that would make water accessible to everyone, so that nobody is denied access to clean drinking water because they cannot afford to pay for it.
|Fakhriya used to wait for some benefactor to knock on her door and hand her a loaf of bread to feed her hungry children.
After receiving training with Al-Firdaws, I opened a small booth at my house to sell cigarettes and pre-paid phone cards. People came and bought from me. At first, I lost some money because I didn’t know how to count, but I ended up learning that, then I enrolled my children in school and moved to a new house.
Al-Firdaws created a new life for me.
“I was not fortunate to have my finger covered with blue ink.”
In 2009, and as the elections were approaching, many women did not know what it means to vote because they lived in an environment where women had no role in public life. Al-Firdaws sought to change that through creating a supportive environment for women. “We worked as a team to convince the men in these tribes to allow the use of their homes as election awareness centers that would enable women to exercise their right to make a choice.” Al-Firdaws implemented many political empowerment programmes, and made buses available to ensure that transportation difficulties did not prevent women from voting. This initiative enabled transporting 1,350 women to vote for the first time in their lives.
|Shadia says: “Blue ink covering my finger was the most beautiful thing. It proved that I participated in the elections, and that I chose to give my vote without coercion. I felt that my opinion mattered, and that I was practicing my nationalistic responsibility.|
Rihab Al-Abbouda was an engineer, who had taken part in numerous political empowerment programmes, and was later elected as a member of the Parliament.
Evan Faeq Yacub hails from Al-Mosul governorate and worked as a volunteer with the team of Al-Firdaws. She also underwent many training sessions, psychological support programmes and courses on political participation. She is today a minister in government.
From battlefields to voluntary work
Youth in Al-Basra did not have an opportunity to apply their great energy through positive outlets. Young people, especially those aged 12 to 16, suffered from the absence of safe spaces and the lack of facilities aimed at developing their skills. Moreover, many dropped out of school. They were neglected and suffered various forms of abuse and ill-treatment, which made them easy targets for terrorist organizations, and caused them to be illegally taken advantage of by armed groups and militias.
The Society’s President, Fatima Al-Bahadli, realized that recruitment of child soldiers and their engagement in armed conflicts have negative impacts that robbed them of their right to life, violated their health and right to education, and affected all aspects of their lives. She went on field visits to the training facilities that targeted young people, spoke to them and looked into the reasons that caused them to join extremist groups.
|Nader: I dropped out of school because my father is dead and I have to support two families. In the battlefield, I am guaranteed a monthly salary which enables me to provide the medicine my mother needs.
Ali: I suffer from kidney disease. I took this path to have a more sudden death. This way, I die in the battlefield, and my parents would receive some compensation.
Fatima Al-Bahadli worked to restore young people’s desire to live.
She cited Qur’anic verses and prophetic hadiths that changed their outlook. She took them along in their military uniform to visit the Cancer Hospital and see firsthand patients who need donated blood in order to remain alive. “This is our role and the greatest battle that one could ever fight.” Ms. Al-Bahadli accompanied them to old schools which needed restoration. The youth organized themselves into volunteers’ teams, and painted the walls using bright colors, and wrote hopeful phrases. They also volunteered to clean up health centers, and replaced waste and landfills with small gardens. The head of the Society reached out to school principals, some of whom were receptive, while others were fearful, but she succeeded in involving some of them in committees aimed at pulling the youth back from battlefields.
150 young men abandoned battlefields and returned to their normal place within the family and at school.
The Society was recognized as the best organization in the South by UN representative Martin Kobler in 2001. The Society’s Executive Director received the Front-Line Defenders Award for 2020, and was also honored by the Gulf Center for Human Rights.
From Al-Basra, this is the dream of Al-Firdaws, for a city of peace and human rights.