Iraq: Art Action for Peace

The Problem

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq has spawned © Daniel Smithmultiple catastrophes, including civil war, “sectarian cleansing,” a massive refugee crisis, and a sharp rise in violence against women. Today, many residents of Baghdad, once a prosperous, cosmopolitan city and an international center of art and culture, barely recognize their hometown. The city is plagued by armed violence, mounting poverty, and social disintegration. Islamist militias have unleashed a campaign of intimidation and assassination against artists, musicians, women professionals, gays and lesbians, and anyone else who the Islamists see as a threat to their social vision. Boosted to power by the US occupation, these same militias have fanned the flames of sectarian hatred in Iraq’s once multi-cultural capital.

The Solution

MADRE works with the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) to support a brave group of Sunni and Shiite youth who are coming together to demand peace. According to the logic of civil war, these young people should be enemies. But they refuse to succumb to sectarian hatred. Instead, they are joining together, using music and a traditional Arabic form of spoken-word poetry to call for an end to the civil war and promote human rights—including women’s rights and freedom from occupation and religious coercion.

OWFI hosts FreedomSpace gatherings—public performances where people share their poetry and music. These gatherings have been banned by Islamists. Several participants have been attacked, but Iraqis who want peace are flocking to these gatherings despite the danger. FreedomSpace gatherings have grown exponentially—from an initial 30 participants to over 200 at a recent event. FreedomSpace events are the only gatherings of their kind in Iraq today, where young people can constructively and creatively express their rage, their fears, and most importantly, their hopes for a peaceful future.

The Results

  • Sunni and Shiite youth in war-torn Baghdad are coming together to create art and bridge the divide between their communities.
  • Young people have a safe, demilitarized space to socialize peacefully, and create alternatives to violence.
  • Young men and women are learning about women’s rights, human rights, and the centrality of women’s rights to a truly democratic society.
  • Sectarian violence is averted as hundreds of unemployed young men—who are the primary recruits of the Islamist militias—are putting their energy into ArtAction and the progressive alternative that it represents.
  • Young women are given leadership opportunities as coordinators and hosts of FreedomSpace gatherings and are receiving weekly training in youth movement building, grassroots organizing, and outreach methods. These gatherings are now one of the only public spaces in Baghdad where women are visible, powerful leaders.
  • Young poets are benefiting from bi-weekly seminars to support their writing skills.


There is a huge emancipatory and secular force in this society that aims at achieving freedom and a better life for women. - OWFI founding statement