Baghdad, Iraq – For the past two months, Noor al-Araji’s days have revolved around battling the sting of tear gas in her eyes and sometimes dodging live bullets.
She stands guard behind concrete barriers erected by Iraqi security forces to repel protesters from advancing along key streets and bridges in the capital.
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Since early October, thousands of Iraqis – men and women, old and young, rich and poor – have been gathering at Tahrir Square, the hub of mass anti-government protests, and its surrounding parks and buildings in the heart of Baghdad.
But a smaller group of mainly young male protesters station themselves at the frontline of the battle zone on Rasheed Street and three main bridges, where dozens of demonstrators have been killed or wounded since the uprising began.
Thirty-year-old Araji, an Iraqi journalist and blogger, is one of them.
“The frontline is where I feel happiest. It’s where I belong,” she told Al Jazeera, as she tightened a black-and-green chequered kufi around her mouth and nose to avoid potential tear gas from flooding her airways.
“If I die here, I’ll have sacrificed my life for a cause, for my country,” she said before disappearing behind a cement block near Ahrar Bridge where daily clashes between protesters and security forces have been taking place.
Changing gender roles
Since the second wave of protests gripped the country in late October, Araji’s days begin with an hour-long journey from her family home in Ghazalia, a neighbourhood on the western outskirts of Baghdad, to the roundabout.
At Tahrir Square, she joins a group of protesters for a quick breakfast of bread, cheese and sweet tea at one of the demonstrators’ tents in the nearby park. Then the group moves to the frontlines, where Araji does everything her fellow male protesters do.
From taking part in rotating shifts to guard the concrete barriers against a charge by security forces, to ensuring a constant supply of food, water and warm clothes for others, Araji is always busy.
“There’s no difference between a man and woman on the frontline. We’re both there to support, motivate and protect each other from the advance of the security forces,” Araji told Al Jazeera.
She is usually based at Rashid Street, a key boulevard that stretches along the Tigris, which demonstrators see as key to protecting the epicentre of the protest movement in Tahrir Square.
Other times she stands a few metres away on Ahrar Bridge, one of four strategic bridges that connect Baghdad’s commercial centre to the Green Zone where government buildings and foreign embassies are based.
“This area connects the heart of Baghdad to government headquarters. Occupying it pressures the authorities to respond to our demands,” she told Al Jazeera, adding a group of male protesters even spend the night at the barriers.
Near-daily street violence has been on the rise since thousands of protesters occupied key central squares in Baghdad and Iraq’s mainly Shia south to denounce corruption, the lack of basic services and high unemployment rates.
At least 430 protesters have been killed and thousands injured in the crackdown since the start of the unrest.
While Araji said her presence at the frontline symbolises a growing sense of equality between young Iraqi men and women and a change in traditional gender roles, she believes women have been crucial, compared to men, when it comes to certain aspects of the protests.
“When a woman speaks, her words are heard,” said Araji, explaining women have taken on a leading role in maintaining the peacefulness of the protest movement, reminding others not to respond to security forces’ use of lethal methods with violence.
“I tell them not to even carry a rock. We’re a peaceful protest, and we have to keep it that way,” said Araji.
In addition to her various roles as a journalist and protester, Araji also helps treat simple wounds using first aid skills she picked up as a war correspondent covering Iraq’s military operation against the ISIL (ISIS) armed group in Mosul in 2017.
One of the people she helped treat near the concrete barriers was Mohamed Jalal, a 30-year-old former civil servant and protester. He soon became her fiancé and another reason that keeps Araji facing off against security forces.
“Since we met at the blast walls, I’ve not left him there alone for a single day,” said Araji.
“It’s crazy how it happened. He was hurt and we started chatting. Next thing his family had met my parents and, just like that, we were engaged.”
For Jalal, Araji’s best quality is “her bravery”.
“She’s a real woman but as strong as 100 men,” he told Al Jazeera, reminiscing about the first time they met.
“Since I met her at the barriers, we’ve been together and we’ll stay together,” he said.
While Araji said she was one of the first women to go to the frontlines in Baghdad, others such as 23-year-old Hawraa Aziz soon joined in.
“At first the guys wanted us to stay behind because they were worried about us. But now several women like Noor and I are at the frontline,” said Aziz, adding most of them are medics or students in other healthcare professions.
“Our role is to help rescue anyone who gets wounded and to make sure that those guarding the frontline have everything they need,” said Aziz
“The men realise how much we do there now,” she added.
Fatima, a final-year nursing student at Baghdad University agreed. “It’s our duty as medics to help those who get hurt,” the 22 year old told Al Jazeera.
“The frontline is simply where we’re needed.”