BAGHDAD (AP) — Hundreds of Iraqi women took to the streets of central Baghdad and southern Iraq on Thursday in defiance of a radical cleric’s calls for gender segregation at anti-government protest sites.

An anti-government protest movement began Oct. 1 to decry rampant corruption, poor services and unemployment in Baghdad and Iraq’s predominantly Shiite south. Over 500 have died since then under fire from security forces using live bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds. The protests have been unique because they have drawn both men and women who have camped out alongside each other in protest squares, a rare occurrence in Iraq, a conservative majority Muslim country.

On Thursday, women protesters waved Iraqi flags and banners in English and Arabic, chanting slogans condemning a recent security crackdown against demonstrators.

Influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Parliament’s Saeroon bloc, issued an 18-point code of conduct Sunday for protesters in which he cautioned against the mixing of men and women at sit-in areas.

In response on Thursday, women flooded the streets of Baghdad and the southern city of Nasiriyah.

“Whoever accuses women of being weak doesn’t understand Iraq,” said protester Baan Jaafar, 35. “We will continue to defend our rights through demonstrations and participate in the decision to build a new Iraq after the demonstrations.”

Advertising

Al-Sadr, whose political bloc won the most seats in Parliament in Iraq’s May 2018 election, initially threw his weight behind the anti-government uprising but recently re-positioned himself toward the political establishment after political elites selected former government minister Mohammed Allawi as prime minister-designate, a candidate he endorsed.

Since then, he has issued a dizzying array of calls to followers, asking them to return to the streets days after withdrawing support from protests. The contradictory orders have exacerbated tensions already present between anti-government demonstrators and his followers.

“We came out today against those who accuse Iraqi female demonstrators in Tahrir Square,” said Nada Hassan, 24. “We tell them that even if you kill or threaten us, we will continue to support the demonstrators.”

Before the march, al-Sadr warned that Iraq must not “turn into Chicago,” equating the U.S. city with “immorality.” The statement was immediately mocked on social media with Iraqis posting memes and and tweets comparing Iraq to the American cosmopolitan city.