Inspiring Thursday: Riham Yacoub

“We are expecting that we might get killed as well, but this won’t stop us from asking for our rights and it won’t stop us from living.”

Riham Yacoub was born in 1991 in Iraq into a middle-class family. She was a doctor, nutritionist and ran a woman´s gym in the Iraqi city of Basra. Her name became public in 2018 surrounding a controversy of the US Consulate in Basra, in which the Iranian state news accused a group of people who participated in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, one of them also being Riham Yacoub, of being US agents who try to arrange violent protests in Basra. These accused people were not US agents and most of them were not even involved in protests.

Riham also was not involved very much in the beginning of the protests. She took part in some of the protests and encouraged a few women to join protests with her, but otherwise she never felt the need to become a public face of protests. However, she took a photo of herself with other female protesters, which was subsequently used by Iranian media who again tried to prove connection between the protests to Riham and Riham to the other participants in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. Her pictures spread quite quickly everywhere, and she was placed on a monitoring list held by security forces in Basra. Her family, which is part of Basra’s powerful Imara tribe intervened and helped to remove her name from the list. Nevertheless, it did not solve anything. Riham immediately started to receive serious death threats. But this did not stop her effort. She claimed that her life is in danger, but it would not stop her from asking for her rights. Riham had become heavily involved in the anti-government protests and helped organise women’s marches in the city of Basra.

On 19 August 2020, she was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle while travelling in a car in Basra. Three others were said to have been injured. There are a lot of questions about why she became a target. One of them was without a doubt her anti-government activism. Moreover, she was a strong young feminist who was determined to reject the violence in her country and fight for women’s rights and freedom. Her killing was supposed to send an impactful message to other activists like her. At the end, it became counterproductive. After her murder, she was designated as a martyr and new waves of protests in Basra were staged by protesters. Violence in Iraq became again more internationally discussed. For example, the UN Mission in Iraq started to put pressure on solving the murder of Riham and security and stability in the region.

It requires greater courage to fight for freedom, women´s rights and progress in an environment where fear and violence are commonplace. Therefore, Riham Yacoub is our (s)hero.

Written by Mária Trubanová, WAVE Intern