Yanar Mohammed (born 1960) is a prominent Iraqi feminist who was born in Baghdad. She is a co-founder and the director of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, and serves as the editor of the newspaper Al-Mousawat (Equality). She is one of the most prominent women's rights campaigners in Iraq, and received the Gruber Prize for Women's Rights in 2008, as well as Norway's Rafto Prize in 2016.
Yanar Mohammed was born in Baghdad, Iraq. She was raised and lived in the city within a strongly Muslim family, and it is within this family that Yanar was first exposed to the Islamic customs that she would campaign against in later life. Yunar notes that her grandfather was a respectable man in the community, who ‘prayed five times a day, gave money to the poor, was a good judge among his community to solve disputes, and definitely deserved the honorary title of Mullah because of all his pious and devout work and also because of his extensive religious knowledge.' Despite all this, Yanar explains, her grandfather married his ex-wife's fourteen-year-old younger sister and in the process was content to ‘rape, horrify and torture the innocence of a girl, a kid in her early teenage life’ Yunar claims that it was these discussions with her grandmother on this ‘forced union’ that first spurred her to take up the cause of women's rights.
Yanar attended Baghdad University from the age of 21, graduating in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in Architecture. Little is known of her life between this period and her leaving Iraq, but references have been made to her career as being an ‘architect’ prior to her work on women's rights. This would indicate that she not only trained but practised as an architect. Yunar went on to graduate from Baghdad University in 1993 with a Masters in Architecture.
Little is known of her political activities between her undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Yanar was, however, active in the Iraqi Communist Party during this period. This is not incompatible with her later political beliefs as the Iraqi Communist Party is both secular and pro-women's rights in outlook.
It was in 1993 that her family decided to leave Iraq and move to Canada. Yunar herself refers to this as her family 'going in to exile.'. However, the reason for this exile is not clear. What is clear is that events in Iraq has been persistently negative for some time, with the Iran-Iraq war, first Gulf War, and ongoing UN sanctions and bombings in Iraq over no-fly zone breaches. It is not possible to say with any certainty if these events contributed to her family's decision to leave Iraq.
It would not be until the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that Yanar would return to Baghdad, to campaign directly for women's rights in the country. On her reasons for returning to Iraq, Yanar says ’I see Iraq going back to the times of my grandmother. I see all women in the streets wrapped up in the veil and ugly, long and shapeless dresses’.
This return to Iraq was funded by other feminist and women's rights groups in the US and UK, notably the New York women's rights group, ‘Working Committee in support of Iraq’s women’.
Activities in Iraq since 2003
Upon her return to Iraq, Yanar Mohammed founded several groups to promote the rights of women in post-Saddam Iraq. In particular, Yanar established the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and the Committee for the Defence of Iraqi Women’s Rights (DIWR).
She also edits the feminist newsletter ‘Al-Mousawat’, which has ‘ a platform of fearless feminism against Islamic fundamentalism and tribal patriarchal tendencies, and highlights among other violations atrocities against women resulting from the war’.
As the most recent Human Rights Watch report on Iraq states, violence against women and girls in Iraq continues to be a serious problem. The report states that ‘ insurgent groups and militias, soldiers, and police among the perpetrators’, and that ‘"Honor" killing by family members also remains a prevalent physical threat to Iraqi women and girls. While dozens of cases were reported in 2008, few resulted in convictions.’ It is against these sorts of crimes that Yanar Mohammed has dedicated her campaigning to preventing.
Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq
The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq was established by Yanar Mohammed in 2003. As of 2009 she remains co-director of the organization. This group has been active in supporting women’s rights in the post US-led invasion since 2003, and it is as a direct result of her work on the group that Yanar was awarded the Gruber Foundation Women’s Rights Prize in 2008 as well as Norway's Rafto Prize in 2016.
Yanar has given several insights to her reasons for establishing the organization. These are often critical of the US and its involvement in Iraq, as will be discussed below. These tend to focus on the conditions of insecurity, lack of personal freedom and violence that Yanar argues women face in Iraq. To remedy this, the organization and Yanar herself have been credited with the following activities:
• Setting up women’s shelters and safe houses to protect women threatened by domestic abuse and what are referred to as honor killings.
• Ongoing activities against trafficking of young women are an effort to save them from sexual slavery or prostitution
• Running classes to teach women activists how to confront intolerance
• Regularly advocating equality for women on Iraqi radio and television
• Mohammed has also interviewed about 200 women held in prison and brought their horrible conditions to the government’s attention. Their efforts results led to saving one person from a death sentence.
Yanar herself says that the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq has been able to prevent the honor killing of more than 30 women and has helped usher women out of Iraq when their lives have been threatened. The work of the organization is for Yanar an ongoing struggle, and she links the violence closely to the presence of US forces that allow the conditions of sectarian violence to flourish. Speaking in 2007, Yanar says, ‘We see over the television hundreds of officials who say that they have given freedoms to women," Mohammed said. "But you look at the streets -- every single woman is veiled, she is veiled in white, in black, in colors; she cannot move freely she cannot go to her education, cannot go to work."
Speaking on the longer term prospects for women's rights Yanar said ‘Iraqi women are devastated now, and it will take us decades of struggle to regain a peaceful and civilized life’.
Committee for the Defence of Iraqis Women's Rights
In 1998, Yanar Mohammed founded the Defense of Iraqi Women’s Rights (DIWR) organization, which in 2003 became the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), of which she is a co-founder. The OWFI advocates full equality for Iraqi women through active involvement in political debate and has worked to establish women's shelters throughout Iraq. .
Yanar Mohammed campaigns for women's rights, and by extension her political views favour secularism and democracy. However, this does not mean that she supports US involvement in Iraq as a democratizing force.
Criticism of US invasion of Iraq
Yanar has been strongly critical of the US invasion of Iraq, suggesting that the ‘US occupation turned the streets of Iraq into a ‘no-women zone’  Yanar has also talked of a false choice existing between occupation and political Islam, clearly preferring a third way between these two. The ‘choice’ in Iraq is between:
‘..the American occupation that is willing to do genocide, or..political Islam, that will make us live in a completely inhuman and unliberated way of life’.
Speaking in an interview in 2007, Yanar outlines her views in the US invasion and the effect it is having on Iraq:
‘..the suggestion is that the US troops should leave immediately, because we, the people of Iraq, do not agree that all the jihadists from around the world are coming to Iraq to fight this so-called US evil, and our cities are turning into an arena of fight, and all our lives are being devastated. The US troops need to leave immediately, with no conditions. And we do not accept the debate that there will be a bloodbath afterwards, because nothing is worse than the sectarian war that we are living right now, that is also a consequence of this war'.
Yanar then believes that the US occupation of Iraq is fuelling the insurgency and violence prevalent in post-2003 Iraq, which is having a detrimental effect on women's rights.
Yanar Mohammed, whilst not being anti-religion, is a strong believer in secular government. Indeed, Yanar claims that women's equality ‘can only be achieved through secular government because an Islamic government would hurt women’s rights’. For example, the 2008 Human Rights Watch Report states that women have been ‘attacked on the street for what they consider "immoral" or "un-Islamic" behavior including not wearing a headscarf’, and that ‘the threat of these attacks keeps many Iraqi women at home’.
It is this kind of behaviour that leads Yanar to draw the contrast between her grandmothers treatment half a century ago referred to in the ‘early life’ section above and the regressing of the everyday experience of women in Iraq to that point.
As a result of her work on women's rights that essentially attacks what could be called ‘hard line’ interpretations of Islam, Yanar has had to receive personal security, deemed necessary after Yanar received death threats. Jaish al Sahaba, part of the Iraqi Islamist group the Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation, sent two death threats to Yanar Mohammed in 2004. These were quoted as being directly related to Yanar’s efforts to achieve gender equality in Iraqi law. As a result, she has now been provided with armed protection.
- Letters home: Iraq
- 'The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire' (London, 2004), p.302
- Gruber Prize nomination
- 'The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire' (London, 2004), p.301
- 'The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire' (London, 2004), p.203
- Interview with Yanar Mohammed published in the Association for Women's Rights in Development (2006)
- Human Rights Watch Report on Iraq (2009)
- Gruber Prize nominations 2008
- "The 2016 Rafto Prize to Yanar Mohammed (Iraq)". The Rafto Foundation. Retrieved 2017-01-28.
- Interview with Yanar Mohammed with CNN, 2007
- Cynthia Cockburn, 'From Where We Stand: War, Women's Activism and Feminist Analysis', (London, 2007), p.66
- Ferguson and Marso (eds.),'W Stands for Women: How the George W. Bush Presidency Shaped a New Politics of Gender' (Cambridge, 2007) p.228
- Ferguson and Marso (eds.),'W Stands for Women: How the George W. Bush Presidency Shaped a New Politics of Gender' (Cambridge, 2007) p.233
- Interview with Yanar Mohammed published in Democracy Now (14th May 2007) 
- 'Baghdad Burning:Girlblog from Iraq', by Riverbend (New York, 2005)
- Human Rights Watch World Report 2009, Iraq
- Stephen Morewitz, 'Death Threats and Violence: New Research and Clinical Perspectives' (New York, 2008) p.133
- Interview with Yanar Mohammed from Fresh Air program, May 30, 2007
- Interview with Yanar Mohammed from Democracy Now! program, October 17, 2005
- Interview with Yanar Mohammed from Democracy Now! program, May 14, 2007
- Seven Years of War: Iraq Is No Different Under Obama than Bush - video report by Democracy Now!
- Interview with Yanar Mohammed (starts at 24:36) from Democracy Now! program, August 20, 2010