Saturday, March 30, 2019

Not a Room, but a Public Sphere of Her Own: The Political Marginalization of Iraqi Women - a Review of Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation

Dr. Zahra Ali
Iraq has faced many challenges since Saddam Husayn’s authoritarian regime was toppled in 2003.  One challenge which has yet to be confronted is the role of Iraqi women in post Bacthist Iraq.  Because women obviously constitute a large percentage of the population, their inability to occupy positions of decision-making and power throughout the country undermines Iraq’s ability to develop a truly equitable society.  Their marginalization also threatens the country’s ability to achieve its full economic and social potential as a society. Why then are women marginalized in Iraq and what are the causes of their exclusion from the public sphere?

To find answers to these questions, we can turn to an excellent new study by Zahra Ali, Women and Gender in Iraq:  Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation, published by Cambridge University Press (2018).  Zahra Ali’s study is the most comprehensive study of women in Iraq to date and is the result of extensive ethnographic research.  Ali’s research took her to all areas of Iraq from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the north, to the urban quarters of Baghdad and to the cities of southern Iraq. 

In the course of her research, which began in the Iraqi populated districts of Damascus in 2009, was followed by 2 years of intensive research in Baghdad from 2010-2012, and then involved shorter research trips to Iraq in 2013, 2016 and 2017, Ali interviewed hundreds of women activists in Iraq.  These women represent all sectors of Iraqi society, representing different generations, ideological perspectives and the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups.  

Dr. Husnaa Azhar Qadir - Sa'irun List
2018 parliamentary elections 
Often facing dangerous conditions, Ali nevertheless was successful in documenting  the numerous initiatives enacted by Iraqi women in a wide variety of  organizations established since 2003 and the problems they face in a male-dominated political system which has refused to offer them a place at the post-Bacthist political table.  According to Iraq's Constitution, the Chamber of Deputies is required to have 25% of its seat filled by women.  As of yet, the ability of women parliamentarians to influence public policy has been minimal.

What we encounter in this study is a rich tableau of Iraqi women who can’t be reduced as a demographic to a set of stereotypical categories.  According deep respect to her subjects, Ali allows Iraqi women to speak for themselves. We are invited to share the personal narratives of the many activists she interviewed to grasp the predicament women face in contemporary Iraqi society. Ali’s subjects offer lengthy narratives in their own words, pointing to the meticulous notes the author kept throughout her research.  Clearly this book is a labor of love, filled with empathy for its subjects, but always characterized by analytic integrity.

Zahra Ali's study is characterized by great honesty.  This is particularly apparent in her research in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the 3 semi-autonomous Kurdish-majority provinces in the northeast of Iraq.  In the KRG, Ali encounters great suspicion and even hostility, reflecting the anger many Kurds still feel for the abuses they suffered under Saddam Husayn's rule, including chemical weapons attacks by the Iraqi air force on the town of Halabja in March 1988.

Rather than relegate her personal experiences to a footnote, Ali offers extensive details about the difficulties she encountered during her research in the KRG, which demonstrate the deep divide between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq.  Nevertheless, Ali pressed on with her research, ultimately being able to conduct her interviews when the Kurds she met realized that she is from an "opposition family," which suffered under Saddam as they did.  What is refreshing is Ali's insistence on including women from all sectors of Iraqi society, including the Kurds.  All too often, studies of Iraqi politics and society are limited to Arab society and don't include Iraq's Kurdish citizens.
Kurdish policewomen vote in national elections
Although Women and Gender in Iraq isn't a narrative of victimization, it nevertheless underscores the enormous impediments Iraqi women face in trying to achieve their political, economic, social and cultural rights.  Ali’s study is both inspirational, as is clear from the wide range of normative goals, political and social activities and organizational efforts in which Iraqi women are involved, but highly disturbing as the challenges they confront continue to add up as we turn each page.

Ali notes that, “The current Iraqi context is characterized by conflicting gendered national imaginaries in which social, political and religious conservatism are articulated in complex ways.” (290).  While the term fragmentation aptly characterizes post-2003 Iraqi society, this is not true of what Ali refers to as “Islamist patriarchy.” 
Female members of the Iranian backed militia- Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq

Almost all the women interviewed in Ali's study pursue their goals of greater equality by navigating the many constraints on their behavior, ranging from how they need to dress in public to maintaining their “moral virtue” in society's eyes, to the shame and disparagement they endure if they aren’t married with a family, and the suspicion and even hostility they engender if they become accomplished, independent professionals.  Indeed, as Ali shows elsewhere, Iraqi women have even been assassinated for demonstrating their independence.

Although not mentioned, Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony jumps off the page throughout the book.  Islamist patriarchy is especially pernicious because women suffer if they deviate from what is deemed “natural” thought and behavior and their “proper place” in society.  Thus, men need to do very little to control women’s activities in the public sphere (or in the private sphere as well).  The extent to which those women Ali has interviewed feel the need to justify their efforts to promote the status of women in Iraqi society is a powerful testament of the ubiquitous dominance and repressive nature of patriarchy.

Years ago, I remember an Iraqi female activist telling me that, “Iraqi male politicians can hardly agree on anything, but what they all agree upon is repressing women.” She went on to describe how women’s rights have become a political issue since 2003.  One manner of gaining votes in elections, she argued, is to assure male voters, particularly those who are less educated, that their control over the women in their lives will not be diminished.

If the majority of male politicians – whether members of political elites or sub-elites – are united in their unwillingness to support gender equality in Iraq, Iraqi women’s groups are divided by ideology, sect and ethnicity.  Ali does an excellent job of detailing these differences without being judgmental.  While all women’s groups have the goal of greater equality, their vision of what exactly that equality would look like and how to reach it vary dramatically.

Secular women in the Iraqi Women’s Network and al-Rabita (closely aligned historically with the Iraqi Communist Party) chafe at having to dress to appease males and conservative religious clerics.   However, it is clear from rallies which Ali attends that secularists attract far fewer women supporters than do those organized along lines of what she calls Islamist feminism.  In the latter instance, Islamist women activists often benefit from the support of Islamist political parties, such as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, headed by Ammar al-Hakim.

Adding to the problems Iraqi women have faced since 2003 is the rise of the Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs (al-hashad al-shacbi) since the Islamic State’s seizure of Mosul and much of north central Iraq in June 2014.  As Ali notes, “There is total impunity for the armed groups who have committed crimes such as the killing or kidnapping of activists or journalists who criticized the military campaign in Mosul or offered any other critique of the army or al-Hashd al-Sha’bi."  The militarization of Iraqi society has strengthened patriarchal control.
Yazidi Sinjar Resistance Forces fighter

In this context, it would have been helpful to have a more detailed account of the role former Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki played in the events which allowed a small, lightly armed force of Da'ish terrorists to seize Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014, with little or no resistance by what was, on paper, a force of 30,000 Iraqi troops.  If it hadn’t been for Maliki’s oppressive sectarian policies in Mosul, the Da’ish never would have received the cooperation of large sectors of the city’s residents which allowed it to quickly defeat the Iraqi army and then begin its march south towards Baghdad. 

It was only at this point, when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a call for Iraqis to defend the nation, that the PMUs were created.  Subsequently, 3 of the largest Hashad units fell under Iranian influence and control and became strong enough to challenge the Iraqi army and federal police as the most powerful armed forces in the country.  

If Maliki had tried to promote reconciliation between the Arab Sunnis in the west and north central Iraq, rather than subjecting them to harsh sectarian treatment, the Dai’sh wouldn't have found fertile soil for support in Mosul.  The Popular Mobilization Units, whose rise to power and influence, would never have been formed and thus not made the struggle for gender equality all the more difficult. Lest we forget, it was President George W. Bush who appointed Maliki prime minister, over the objections of his advisors, in 2006, and President Barack Obama who allowed Maliki to remain in office in 2010, even though his State of Law Coalition lost national parliamentary elections to al-cIraqiya, a cross-ethnic and cross-sect alliance, led by Ayad Allawi.

Despite the fact that Ali argues, “The fragmentation of Iraq along communal lines  - Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the West and Shi’as in the south – appears irreversible (141)," elsewhere she describes the cross-ethnic and cross-social class movement which forced the resignation of the Iraqi government in March 2016 (188).  Here we see a “massive popular movement – supported by the prominent religious figure Ayatollah Sistani – vilifying Iraq’s post invasion regime and demanding radical reforms.”  

The chants of the protestors: "In the name of religion, we have been robbed by looters” (bi-ism il-din baguna al-haramiya), and “Bread, Freedom, a Civil State” (khubz, hurriya, dawla madiniya), point to a political consciousness which knows no gender, ideological or ethno-confessional boundaries.  Indeed, the support of the police and the Baghdad military forces in allowing the demonstrators to penetrate the Green Zone in March 2016 made clear the disgust among the populace at large at the way in which Iraq has been governed by the current political elite.

While beyond the scope of this study, Ali's research calls out for policies to address the unacceptable conditions women face in Iraqi society.  Education and social media platforms are critical for creating a different environment among youth, both male and female, who constitute 70% of Iraq's population under the age of 30.  Young males need to be taught that there is no "honor" in honor crimes when male members murder female members of their family because they have purportedly brought shame upon it.  Murder is a heinous crime and must be punished accordingly.

Women, like youth, have largely relied on NGOs to promote their respective agendas. Politcal parties are seen as corrupt and unwilling to assist women gain their rights, or assist youth in finding employment and becoming established in society.  Thus, the general feeling of both demographics is that political parties should be avoided.

However, there was a period when women were beginning to make progress in Iraqi society.  This process began after WWII when women began to become active in political and social affairs, especially under the auspices of the Iraqi Communist Party.  This trend accelerated in the early years of the rule of cAbd al-Karim Qasim who came to power after a military coup overthrew the Hashimite monarchy in 1958.

Iraqi women protest efforts to rescind Iraq's 1959 Personal Status Law
In 1959, Iraq passed one of the most progressive Personal Status Laws in the Arab world in terms of women's rights.  The same year, Dr. Naziha al-Dulaymi was appointed the first Arab woman to receive a cabinet level appointment.  Women began to enter the university system in greater numbers, due  to Qasim's expansion of the higher education system.

Despite the fact that women began to make progress during the 1950s and early 1960s, the Iraqi Communist Party and the Qasim regime remained under male control. For example, Naziha al-Dulaymi published an article in al-Thaqafa al-Jadida (New Culture) in the 1990s indicating that Qasim allowed her little decision-making as Minister of Municipalities.
The late Lamia Gailani Werr, an archaeologist specializing in
cuneiform seals, who helped the Iraq Museum recover from looting
Nevertheless, this period's model is one which should be pursued at present.  Creating a new political party which conjoins women activists, with the support of sympathetic men, and large numbers of educated youth, seems the only route to challenge the hegemony of patriarchal control in Iraq.  Civil society organizations, in the form of NGOs, and women's organizations which are tied to existing political parties which view them as appendages whose role is to assist in gaining more power, won't produce any fundamental change.

Having worked with Iraqi youth  from different parts of the country and from many ethnic and religious groups, I was struck by the degree to which young women and men, especially those in an educated setting who were members of NGOs, demonstrated a respect and empathy for one another.  Because youth comprise 70% of Iraq's populace under the age of 30, they constitute is a large demographic whose influence could be more effectively brought to bear during national and local elections.
Figen Yüksekdağ Şenoğlu
former HDP Co-Chair
Figen Yüksekdağ Şenoğlu and Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chairs of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), offer a prototype of new political party in Iraq. The HDP was a unique political initiative in Turkey, bringing together a female and a male co-chair who bridged the ethnic divide between Turks and Kurds.  Even though Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imprisoned Selahattin Demirtaş on trumped up treason changes, the party can still inspire similar party models throughout the MENA region 

If in Iraq, a party organized on cross-gender lines could be formed, in which power was meaningful shared between women and men , namely men who would treat women as equals and could be trusted to promote gender equality, that could lay the foundation for significant political change.  

Selahattin Demirtaş
former HDP Co-Chair
If the new Iraqi political party could rely upon enthusiastic support from youth who believed in its mission, one which emphasized gender equality together with social justice, this development could be the beginning of an organized effort to confront the troubling problem of patriarchal control of Iraqi politics and society. 

An Iraqi Democratic Party committed to gender equality, social justice, ethnic and religious tolerance, and devoted to fighting corruption and nepotism, would engender strong resistance.  However, it would elicit equally string support from the Iraqi populace which is disgusted with the form of governance which has characterized Iraq since the ousting of Saddam and the Bacth.  Perhaps most important of all, it could offer new hope and counter the ongoing decline of trust in democracy among Iraqis.  Without a truly democratic polity, one thing is certain - Iraqi women will not be able to achieve their rights.