Women and Gender in Iraq, by Zahra Ali

Women and Gender in Iraq, by Zahra Ali

I began my journey into the world of women and gender in Iraq as a sociologist and a feminist that noticed how most literature on Iraq was written through a White Male Political Scientist’s lens that failed to look at Iraq and Iraqis beyond the violence of political regimes committed against them.

In fact, most research about Iraq made it seem like everything in the country started, or ended, in 2003, the year of America’s occupation. It was as if Iraq didn’t exist before then. Even when it came to literature written by Iraqis, most of whom were in the Diaspora, books and articles were usually authored by older generations that were disconnected from the socio-political realities of the country.

To most observers, wherever they were based, the country merely existed as the sum of abstract interpretations, either made from a geographical distance or derived from a set of rigid and outdated social beliefs. Specifically, social research being published inside the country was a reflection Iraq’s broken educational system, largely decimated by the UN/US Sanctions of the Nineties. There was very little content that reflected the tremendous role played by women to shape the history of the country, and most of what was written lacked critical approaches and intersectionality with issues like gender.

As part of her research, Zahra attended International Women's Day in Baghdad’s Ferdaws Square in 2012.

As part of her research, Zahra attended International As part of her research, Zahra attended International Women’s Day in Baghdad’s Ferdaws Square in 2012.

That is what inspired me to write a book that was as much about women, gender, and feminisms in Iraq as it was a feminist book about Iraq. For me, the personal is political. As an Iraqi woman myself, I wanted to see what economic and political dynamics drove the discourse and activism of other Iraqi women. That’s why you will see in the book that there are so many moments where describing the place, space and environment where an interview takes place is as important as the interview itself.

Mentioning how electrical power cuts off in the middle of a discussion, or referring to all the checkpoints and walls that we had to cross to reach a demonstration, or talking about the attack on the Al Najjat Church took place during my visit, were all critical in describing the context in which women lived and organized in Iraq.

I also wanted to write a book that covered in detail the history of women’s political experiences in different ethnographic settings from the very formation of the Iraqi modern state in the Thirties till now. I spent a lot of time throughout a period of two years inside the women’s movement, observing and participating in women’s groups, initiatives and campaigns from Iraqi Kurdistan to Baghdad to the country’s south.

This book is for everyone that wants to better understand the intersections between gender and society in the so-called Middle East.

I wanted to interview women activists from all social, ethnic, religious and political backgrounds. I spoke to women between the age of twenty one and seventy four and always started with the question: Shinu illi khalach itkuneen nashita neswiyya? (What made you become a women’s rights or feminist activist?)

This single question created hours of conversation from which I gathered a transgenerational oral history of women’s social, economic, intellectual, and political lives since the 1950s. Our discussions dissected the most pressing issues facing women and civil society in Iraq, such as the country’s Personal Status Code, ethno-sectarian violence, and the militarization of Iraqi society, while looking at universal concepts like social justice, gender equality, emancipation, and liberation.

I wanted my conversations with these women to present a multilayered understanding of Iraqi society, with a focus on the connections between gender, nationhood, the state and religion. In the book, I looked at the ways in which gender norms and practices, Iraqi feminist discourses and activisms are shaped and developed through state politics, competing nationalisms, and religious, tribal, and sectarian dynamics, as well as the violence brought on by war, occupation and sanctions.

Among the many things that I challenge in the book are manufactured dichotomies such as, “religious versus secular.” I argue that when we contextualize and historicize women’s social political activism in the country, we see that that notions of justice, dignity and equality are very intertwined and cannot fall into neat categories, whatever they may be. You can see these intersections in the below excerpt.

Now that the book is out, I want the Iraqi women with whom I spent time and from whom I learned so much throughout this research process to read it. This book is for them and for all progressive people that make up Iraqi civil, intellectual and political society first and foremost. I’m happy to say that an Arabic version of the book is on its way.

Beyond Iraq, I want people around the world to read it.

Seeing that I live in the States at the moment, I hope many Americans read it, because Iraq, just like Vietnam, is present in the everyday life of this country, in its prison industrial complex, in its normalization of the military industry, in police violence, in anti-black and anti-immigration racism and its neocolonial white feminism and so many other aspects of its social, economic and political life. This applies to all societies that have a history of war and colonialism.

In a sense, this book is for everyone that wants to better understand the intersections between gender and society in the so-called Middle East.

The following is an excerpt from Zahra Ali’s Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. You can order the book from Barnes and Noble in the United States and directly from the publisher in the UK and Europe.

As for women’s rights activists elsewhere, International Women’s Day in Iraq is an occasion for women’s rights activists to organize meetings, hold events, and raise awareness around sexism and gender-based violence. It is an opportunity for every organization and group to express their vision of and agenda for women’s issues and rights. In March 2012, a meeting of representatives of women’s rights organizations was held at the Iraqi Parliament. Hanaa Edwar – a leading figure of the Iraqi Women Network – delivered a speech to MPs, political leaders, and journalists on the difficult realities faced by women in postinvasion Iraq. I decided not to attend this meeting. At the time, after a year and a half of fieldwork in Baghdad, I no longer had the energy to wait for hours in the sun just to enter the Green Zone. Instead, I attended an Iraqi Women’s League (al-Rabita) gathering in Ferdaws Square. Al-Rabita, or the Iraqi Women’s League, is one of the oldest women’s rights organizations in Iraq that historically has been affiliated with the Iraqi Communist Party.

Reaching Ferdaws Square, in the city center, was not too difficult that day. I left my house in al-Kazimiya, took the first taxi I saw, and reached the square in about forty-five minutes. Although I had to pass multiple checkpoints on my way into town, traffic was not bad for a Saturday afternoon. The gathering in Ferdaws Square was not large: 100 people at the most. The square was surrounded by heavily armed Iraqi soldiers, police officers, and an army tank posted at the entrance. Soldiers were managing the circulation of the cars and stopping and checking the belongings of everyone entering the square.

I walked toward the al-Rabita activists; they were handing out flyers – entitled “Social Justice” – and offering small bottles of water and sweets. The speakers stood on a small podium next to the empty pillar where Saddam’s statue used to stand, and white plastic chairs had been set up in front for the audience. The beautiful Arba‘ta‘ech Ramadhan (The Fourteenth of Ramadan) mosque, with its blue mosaic dome, was to the left of the gathering. In the middle of the event, which included women’s rights activists, unionists, parliamentarians, and poets, the afternoon call to prayer imposed a moment of silence on the group. Between each speech, middle-aged ladies danced wearing the traditional black ‘abaya. They stood and sang slogans such as “Let her practice her rights” and “Where is our portion of the oil, listen oh Hajji?”. We all laughed and sang with the performers and were moved by the recitation of poetry about the glory of Baghdad and the unity of the Iraqi people.

Seated next to me was a well-dressed woman in her late thirties; she wore a beige cotton hijab and brown jacket and trousers. While waiting for the next speaker, we began talking. She spoke about how al-Rabita had helped after the death of her husband in the sectarian violence of 2006. She had been unemployed, so the state allocation for widows – about 150,000 Iraqi dinars (less than US$100) – had been her only income; she and her three children were nearly starving. She said: “Really, the government is doing nothing for women like me, for millions of Iraqi women like me. But today, we came to celebrate Iraqi women, all Iraqi women.” Iraqi soldiers stood near the podium brandishing their weapons, acting as the speakers’ bodyguards. The presence of armed men was completely normalized, as if they decorated the square with their green, black, and brown uniforms. They were a necessary part of the setting and a reminder that this moment of hope, emotion, and joy was fragile and temporary. Despite our attempt to fully enjoy that moment, violence still surrounded us.

Two months later, I attended a gathering for Iraqi Women’s Day, which falls on the birthday of Fatima al-Zahra’, who was the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed, wife of al-Imam Ali, and mother of the two holy Imams al-Hassan and al-Hussein. The gathering took place at the headquarters of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the main Shi`a Islamist parties brought to power by US-led coalition forces in 2003. The meeting was huge; there were about a thousand women waiting outside one of the barricaded entrances to the Green Zone. When I entered the venue, it was filled with women of all stripes: young, middle aged, and old; party activists from women’s branches in Baghdad and the southern regions; and supporters and women who benefited from the party’s charity and welfare support. Most of these women wore either a black ‘abaya or long unicolor overcoat. After being closely checked by a team of women security guards at the entrance, they entered the venue happily. In the front row, on red velvet VIP seats, sat activists from every Iraqi women’s rights organization – Islamists, leftists, Kurds, and Christian nuns – and representatives of different religious communities.

In the back, away from the fancy VIP seats, sat women whose travel to the event had been sponsored by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq; most came from the impoverished southern areas of the country. The atmosphere was festive, with juice, water, and sweets being distributed to everyone. Ibtihal al-Zaidy, a member of the Da‘wa Party and Minister in Charge of Women’s Affairs at the time, gave a speech about “the Iraqi woman” since 2003. She advised all Iraqi women to follow the paths of Fatima al-Zahra’ and Bint al-Huda, the sister of the tortured and executed Shahid al-Sadr. Al-Zaidy emphasized the importance of women’s political involvement in the “new Iraq.” Ammar al-Hakim, the head of the party, gave a long and romantic lecture about the “glorious status of woman in Islam,” as represented by al-Zahra’. He distributed prizes to those whom he described as the “honor of Iraq, the courageous and strong Iraqi women.” Most of these prizes were given to women’s rights activists from both secular and religious women’s organizations, as well as widows in charge of their households.

After singing songs glorifying Iraq and highlighting the unity of the Iraqi people, a youth group performed a short play about the life of orphans and widows forced to beg in the streets for their survival. A wave of emotion filled the immense venue; weeping could be heard throughout the audience, and tears were even visible in the eyes of prominent political leaders. A renowned female Iraqi poet recited poems mocking sectarian divisions and politics in the name of Iraq’s diversity. Between religious preaching, political speeches, and moments of great emotion, reminders of the “unity of the Iraqi people” and the glory of “Iraqi women” were always present. The continuous emphasis on al-Zahra’, as both a political leader and a pious saint, also hinted at the gathering’s additional meaning: affirming Iraq’s Shi‘a identity.

This brief fieldwork description paints a picture of the ways women and gender issues are raided in the postinvasion context. Furthermore, this account reveals the concrete environment in which Iraqi women activists live and undertake their activities: general impoverishment, widespread sectarian violence, militarized urban spaces, and a capital always supervised by armed men at every corner. In addition, this anecdote also shows how different groups use women and gender issues for their respective ideologies and agendas. Such begs the question: what terms do women activists use to advocate for women’s legal rights in such a context?

Zahra Ali

Zahra is an Assistant Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. As a sociologist, her research explores dynamics of women and gender, social and political movements in relation to Islam(s), the Middle East and contexts of war and conflict with a focus on contemporary Iraq. Zahra is also interested in (post)coloniality, decolonial feminisms and epistemologies and can be reached via email at z.ali@rutgers.edu.