At the beginning, things were simpler. Act Together came into existence because several Iraqi women, long-term residents of the UK, were disturbed by the destructive effect sanctions were having on Iraqi society, and wanted to campaign both against them and against Saddam. They felt uncomfortable with some of the British-based anti-sanctions organisations which were either naïve or apologetic about the regime of Saddam Hussein, and they were also uncomfortable with the prevailing political culture promoted by Iraqi opposition parties, which was largely authoritarian, hierarchical and male-dominated. They wanted to bridge British and Iraqi political activism and create links independent of political party affiliations. Without wanting to essentialise women, the feeling was that women might be able to bridge these differences more easily than men, and so the idea of an Iraqi-British women’s organisation was born.
The founding women — who are still at the heart of Act Together — called an open meeting for women, Iraqi and non-Iraqi, in one of the side-rooms of Conway Hall, in the summer of 2000. It’s fair to say that most of the Iraqi women who attended were or had been associated with Iraqi opposition parties in exile. A proportion of the British women who attended came from anti-militarist, anti-war or pacifist groups, one of the most important of which is Women In Black, which holds silent vigils every week in central London. Over the past few years, Women in Black has focused mainly on Iraq and Palestine, but its more general protest relates to war and violence, especially with respect to their effects on women. There were also members of Voices in the Wilderness, which was then engaged in demonstrative sanctions-busting, publicly taking medicines, pencils and books to Iraq.
Most of the women who came, Iraqi and non-Iraqi, were in one way or another professional women — teachers, journalists, librarians, architects, academics From the beginning we rejected polarised thinking that meant if you were against sanctions you were for Saddam – in fact, we always opposed both.
The modus operandi of the organisers at that first meeting was to go around the room and ask everyone to say why they were there, and what they hoped such a group could achieve. There was unanimity on wanting to campaign both against sanctions and against the bombings Britain and the US were then conducting in Iraq. But what happened at the meeting was that British women heard, many for the first time, from Iraqi women what life was like on the ground in Iraq. Iraqi women told stories about the letters their families were writing, giving palpable, concrete details of life under sanctions. It was this feeling of real, direct contact that excited people. We felt that if we could create more opportunities for wider circles of women to hear the living reality of women in Iraq, we could help create a climate hostile to the continuation of sanctions.
As a result of this, one major focus of Act Together has been to raise consciousness among a wider public within Britain, as well as amongst the political establishment, about the every day effects of economic sanctions, war and occupation on Iraqi women’s lives. The pattern of recent history is seen in our name, which has always been Act Together – but the bi-line was initially Women Against Sanctions on Iraq, and then became Women against sanctions and war on Iraq, and after April 2003 it became Women’s Action for Iraq.
This raising of consciousness was what we built on at subsequent meetings, which continued to be open to all. However, as is the case with many small organisations, only a small core of women who attended the initial meeting ended up joining the group’s meetings on a regular basis. It became clear that some women were bound by partisan politics, while others were generally disenchanted with politics or simply felt too depressed and hopeless to act at all. While the regular core has consisted of about 6-8 Iraqi and British women, many more women have got involved in specific activities The democratic and inclusive approach that has characterised Act Together’s way of working has produced several very effective projects that would probably never have seen the light of day in a more ideologically-driven organisation of the left.
From the beginning we have tried to use the varied talents of different members of the group (and their families): speaking, letter-writing, design, website design and management, writing of articles and leaflets, organising and admin, music and a consistent feature of our meetings – cooking and entertaining. This has meant that for some events and actions a much larger number of supporters and friends have become involved.
All our actions and letters have been characterised by an attempt to reach out on a personal level – to educate and involve. We have encouraged individual and group action, not just protest. An early action was the Book Project which encouraged people to break the sanctions by sending books to Iraq. We provided a list of libraries and schools which needed books, and assisted by Zed Books and the London Review of Books sent letters and information to over 300 UK authors. John Mortimer and Morris Farhi were among those who sent books, and they got through (at least) to Baghdad University Library and Nineveh – while others were returned. This action educated people in the UK about the effects and stupidities of sanctions while at the same time making people to people connections in a small, but very practical and positive way.
In June 2001 we invited over 200 prominent women: writers, MPs, Doctors, Journalists, lawyers, leaders of women’s organisations etc, to an evening at St James Piccadilly. They saw photos and exhibits about women in Iraq, they heard Iraqis talk about their own experiences and knowledge, they heard letters and poems from Iraqi women in Iraq, and they ate excellent Iraqi food. We had our first leaflets ready which pointed to many ways in which individuals could take action themselves.
The actions of Act Together have not all been colourful, somewhat artistic events. We felt that it was important to open and maintain a dialogue with government and MPs. From early 2001 to October 2004 we made 11 separate major attempts to ‘talk to government’. We must have mailed nearly 2000 letters. We sent to all women MPs, we sent to all MPs, we sent to major Ministers and many times to the Prime Minister. A group of us symbolically dressed in black, hand delivered a letter to Number 10 in April 2003. Some of us met with MPs, and some went to meetings with the Minister for Women. We have always pointed to the effects on women, we have used stories and news about women, we tried again and again to get information about the women killed at the cross roads in Kerbala from the US Govt – we have tried in our letters to make the reader understand the effects of large political decisions and actions on ordinary people, especially women. We believed that such letters can and sometimes do make a difference. It is interesting to note that our last attempt to ‘talk to government’ was 10 months ago.
The exhibition which Act Together organised in London in 2003, Our Life in Pieces, was really a kind of high summer of the Act Together approach. For this exhibition, Iraqis living in exile were asked to lend objects they’d brought with them into exile, or subsequently acquired, that reflected aspects of their lives in Iraq and were important to them. They were also asked to write something about the article they were lending. The exhibition electrified everyone who visited it. A long, narrow room with a skylight in central London had been painted white by Act Together members, who then suspended from the ceiling and hung on the walls and displayed in cabinets and on tables, an extraordinary collection of objects — a bus map of Baghdad circa 1953; someone’s first evening bag; snapshots of a graduation; a photograph of a much-loved Siamese cat, left behind in Baghdad. (For those who missed it, the exhibition is on-line at www.acttogether.org)
Who could not be moved, engrossed, surprised, amazed? Who could come away without a vastly greater understanding of Iraq and Iraqis, and greatly increased pain about the destruction wrought by Saddam and sanctions? Hundreds of visitors poured through the doors, especially after positive reviews in The Guardian and Time Out.
But what also brought people was the fact that one week after the opening of the exhibition, the invasion of Iraq began. For Iraqi women in Act Together, the exhibition became a form of occupational therapy, a place to go and be busy amongst sympathetic people after sleepless nights watching the news and trying to reach family and friends. For non-Iraqi women in Act Together, and most visitors, being at the exhibition was a way to show solidarity with the Iraqi population, who we knew were enduring the onslaught so many Brits had lobbied and demonstrated to prevent happening. ‘Not in Our Name’ — but there it was, ‘shock and awe’ unleashed across Iraq, and nobody knew how it would end.
The long and brutal occupation has produced some tensions within Act Together (not necessarily obvious ones) which couldn’t be resolved by reference to an agreed programme of action, or the imposition of a line by the executive committee. Act Together doesn’t have an executive committee, nor really a line, apart from being anti-occupation. For instance, from shortly after the start of the occupation, several members advocated strongly that raising funds to meet humanitarian needs was what the group should be doing. After all, here we were, a group of capable, reasonably well-connected women without party political axes to grind, and the situation on the ground in Iraq was manifestly awful. Why weren’t we devoting our energies to raising funds for medicines, sewing-machines, computer courses, water-pumps, and so on? We haven’t done so, and we’ve lost some members because of this.
Immediately post invasion and the early months of the war we were partly paralysed by state of horror – but we took part in public dramatic stagings about the war, where we focused on a particular incident in Kerbala where many unnamed women were killed. We wanted their names – to have their identities recognized. We wrote many letters.
In the early months of occupation we felt that it was important for any contribution from outside Iraq should be according to identified needs and wishes of women in Iraq. We saw that the UK Government was promoting its own agenda as regards ‘women’s work’ and we believed that a more independent (albeit small), fact-finding mission would be useful. We agreed that we would send what we grandly called a ‘Women’s Commission’ of 3 or 4 Act Together women to visit Iraq for some weeks and make informal grassroots contacts to find out what women wanted. A great deal of time and energy was put into writing and costing the project and applying for funding. Anyone who has put together such project applications knows just how much work is involved, especially in such a non-hierarchical group as Act Together is. However, this was a project that never happened – at least not yet. We were not successful with initial applications, and then the security situation on the ground deteriorated still further, and we saw no real prospect of the visits taking place, and so we stopped applying for finding. In that post invasion period we did not do nothing, but it is true to say that many of the things we tried to do did not materialize. This has also led to disenchantment.
Currently, other tensions revolve around our respective attitudes towards ‘the resistance’. Some members come from a pacifist background, and oppose the violence and ideology of most armed resistance groups, while others endorse the right for armed resistance, and have been saying so publicly. There are also the classic debates about feminist and nationalist/anti-imperialist politics, which have most recently found expression in different attitudes towards the draft constitution and the notion of women’s rights enshrined in it.
As an organisation we’ve continued to try and highlight the situation on the ground, particularly for women — but the situation has got so much worse, day by day; is so spectacularly alarming and appalling; that we’ve been, as an organisation, hard pressed to reflect it accurately. In their personal capacity, members of Act Together write articles, write books, make films, teach courses, establish film schools — all bearing on the present and future of Iraq. Act Together itself is raising funds to publish Iraq Verbatim, a collection of first-hand accounts by Iraqi women of life since the invasion.
Through one of our members, we’ve been given part of the reference library of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, an invaluable feminist resource that we will ship to Iraq once security has been re-established. We hope it will form the kernel and catalyst for a larger collection – and a Canadian University has already donated a further collection of its own. In the past few months, we’ve researched and published a list of names and addresses of grassroots organisations in Iraq that people in Britain can make contact with and support.
We continue to do all those mundane and so necessary tasks that hold any small organisation together. We plan and scheme for more projects than we have time, energy or resources to carry out. We continue to reach out to women in Britain, through Womad and other huge public events. We lobby for the British government to withdraw its troops from Iraq. We try not to be overwhelmed by pessimism.
Act Together, Sept 2nd 2005
Presented at the International Association of Contemporary Iraqi Studies
University of East London
1-2 September 2005