Professor Nadje Al-Ali is a professor of gender studies at SOAS, University of London. She has authored several books and articles on the history and present state of Iraqi women including Iraqi Women: Untold Stories From 1948 to the Present and What Kind of Liberation?: Women and the Occupation of Iraq, and was one of the editors of We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. The Iraq War has given rise to a number of contradictory stories about women in Iraq. One is that Iraqi women were liberated and on the rise under Saddam, and then all that was reversed after the 2003 invasion as religious parties gained control and attempted to impose their views upon society. An opposing view was that Iraq was a typical Arab Muslim country where women had a secondary role, but then the Americans freed them from these restrictions. To try to provide a clearer picture of what women have gone through both before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein is an interview with Prof. Al-Ali.
1. The Baath took power in Iraq in the 1968 coup. It had a modernizing vision for Iraq, which Saddam Hussein partially implemented when he assumed control of the country. Part of that was opening up opportunities for women. That accelerated during the 1980s when many men were drawn into the military for the Iran-Iraq War. What exactly was the Baathist vision for women and what kind of policies did Saddam carry out during the 1970s and 1980s?
|Iraqi women at university in Iraq in the 1970s|
The Baath regime came to power in 1968, and Saddam Hussein actually became president in 1979, so there was a decade when he was vice president. The Baath Party’s ideology initially was very secular, Arab socialist, and nationalist, and I think very similar to other post-colonial secular leaders in the region like Ataturk and also the Shah of Iran. In the 1950s and 60s and 70s in many countries in the region there was a push to modernize and an understanding that this process meant pushing women into education and the labor force. This process was sped up in the Iraqi context because of the economic conditions. In the early 70s there was an oil crisis, and then afterward oil prices shot up and so all the oil producing countries had their economies boom. While some of the other countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait dealt with this boom and expanding economy by trying to bring in foreign laborers the Iraqi government tried to mobilize its own human resources, 50% of which was women. In the 70s there was a very strong push for women’s education. Lots of schools were built, lots of universities were built, lots of scholarships were made available to women, also to study abroad to get M.A.’s and PhD’s. There were systems in place that allowed women to have families and children and work. For example childcare was free, and transportation to work and school was free. Those were the kinds of systems put in place that allowed women to have active working lives. And when I say women I mean mainly the urban women, although in the countryside there were also literacy campaigns. There was also something called the General Federation of Iraqi Women that was like the female branch of the Baath Party, and it was responsible for implementing some of the state’s modernizing policies. For instance, it had a big campaign to raise awareness about health and hygiene, how to feed children, and it also had a very successful literacy campaign. At the end of the 70s Iraq actually received a prize from UNESCO for being the country that managed to raise its female literacy the quickest.
|Saddam posing with Iraqi school girls in the 1970s|
You can speak about the ideology of the Baath, which was secular and socialist in outlook with a centralized state and wanting to modernize. In other ways it was just being pragmatic. It was responding to the situation on the ground and decided that it had human resources and it should take advantage of them. Lots of Iraqi women, even those who were in opposition to the regime and who might have suffered under the regime, who I have talked to think with nostalgia about the 70s when there was an expanding economy, social-economic rights, and the state was quite generous. In my mind, it is not true that Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party lasted so long just because they brutally repressed the population. I think they also bought off the expanding middle class. In terms of social-economic rights, in terms of access to education, health care, having a house, a freezer, a car, people could do quite well if they didn’t open up their mouths. This was all in the 1970s
Than in the 1980s there was the Iran-Iraq War. During that period things changed drastically. Lots of the state funding, instead of channeling it into education, health care, and child care, it got channeled into the military, and that’s when things started to shift. But because it was such a long war where thousands and thousands of men fought and died that also meant that over a long period of time women started taking over many of the roles that men initially played not only in terms of different jobs in the labor force, but also in the state bureaucracy and administration. So women became very visible in the 80s.
There was also a shift in state ideology. It wasn’t about the good Iraqi woman being the educated, working woman like in the 70s, but in the 80s the good Iraqi woman became the mother of future soldiers. At some point, Saddam Hussein said that every good Iraqi woman should have five children. The government made abortion illegal, contraception illegal, and it gave very generous subsidies to baby foods, and things like that.
2. In 1989 the Iran-Iraq War ended and there was a demobilization of the military, and then shortly afterwards Iraq invaded Kuwait and faced international sanctions. How did those changes affect the status of women?
What really had a devastating affect upon Iraqi women was not the Gulf War in 1991, but the 13 years of economic sanctions. To my mind I feel that part of history should not be forgotten. You can’t actually understand contemporary Iraq without understanding the impact that the sanctions had on society. Lots has been written and talked about the humanitarian crisis that occurred during that period in terms of health care and education. When it came to women it really triggered a shift to greater social conservatism. That had different causes. One was that when people are fighting and struggling over resources and over jobs there is often a call for women to go back home and look after the children. That happened in Iraq where in some parts you had up to 70% unemployment. The state couldn’t afford all these generous welfare policies anymore or pay salaries. A large percentage of Iraqi women who had been in the public sector were suddenly told the state couldn’t afford them to work anymore, because they couldn’t pay for child care, transportation, and salaries. The other thing was that by the 1990s there was a huge demographic imbalance between men and women because more men had been killed in the Iran-Iraq War and Saddam’s political persecution had driven more men to flee the country. By the 90s there was 55-60% women, with many female-headed households and many widows. Before there was an extended family network that would support people, but by the 90s each nuclear family was just busy surviving.
One of the things that happened was that there was an increase in prostitution. That was also partly pushed by the regime and a class of nouveau rich and war profiteers who made lots of money from smuggling. The big impact wasn’t that suddenly there was so much more prostitution, but that there was an awareness that there was more prostitution. Eventually the regime crackdown on prostitution, because although it was initially behind creating the market for it the regime got very embarrassed when the Jordanian government complained about the number of Iraqi women who came to Jordan to work as prostitutes. Afterwards it was a matter of protecting the honor of the nation, so Saddam’s son Uday brutally cracked down on a number of prostitutes and pimps and publicly beheaded them. In the aftermath there was a panic and lots of families became very protective of their daughters, sisters, and wives. Lots of Iraqi women told me that in previous decades, female students had been able to go after school or university for coffee or ice cream with their friends, but during the 90s, they weren’t able to do that anymore. They had to dress much more conservatively. Mobility became more difficult. The dress code became much more constrained. Even more seriously polygamy increased during the sanctions period. As families were struggling to survive some families agreed to have their daughters get married to older men who had more money as a kind of survival strategy.
This shift towards greater social conservatism in the 90s is an important background in order to understand what happened after 2003. Also, lots of people had left by 2003 including many secular, educated, and middle class people, and this has had an impact on what’s going on today.
3. After the 2003 invasion the Coalition Provisional Authority said that it attempted to make some changes to the country that would empower women as part of transforming the society. They set up a quota system for example that reserved 25% of the seats in parliament for women. Do you think the Americans were able to make any progress for women?
First we need to challenge the idea that the United States installed the quota system. The quota system was enshrined in the constitution and previously in the Transitional Administrative Law despite objections from the CPA, particularly Paul Bremer. In the spring of 2004 a delegation of Iraqi women’s rights activists went to see Paul Bremer, and asked for 40% representation in the parliament saying that women actually make up the majority of the Iraqi population. They told him that Iraqi women had played an important role in keeping the country together during the dictatorship and the Iran-Iraq War, and now women wanted a piece of the new Iraq. Bremer looked at them and said “We don’t do quotas.” It was only due to intense lobbying on behalf of Iraqi women’s rights activists and transnational women’s solidarity by international organizations and media coverage of this lobbying that the Transitional Administrative Law and later the constitution included a compromise 25% of seats quota for women in parliament. This was due to pressure from Iraqis and international groups, not because the Americans put it together.
Secondly, I personally think that a quota can be a positive thing, but not in and of itself. If a quota is the only thing there is then it is not doing that much to represent women. What has happened in Iraq is that the 25% of parliament who are women are to a large extent the wives, sisters, and daughters of male politicians. They are also often very conservative male politicians. One should say that it has allowed some outspoken women into the parliament, but that is just a small number. It’s also complicated because over a period of time women who initially looked towards how the men were voting before they put up their own hand started to develop their own views and voices and sometimes work across religious and ethnic lines with other women on some issues that are less controversial like access to health care for example or education.
On the other hand without the quota there probably would be hardly any women in the parliament. If you have conservative Islamist members of parliament you might as well have some of them be women. But that doesn’t mean they protect women’s rights, and we need to be clear about that.
Another thing to be said about the quota is that it is not applied consistently. It is applied in parliament, but not in the ministries or within any of the important committees that decide things, so it is quite inconsistently applied. A quota only really works if it is linked to other measures and policies, so if it is just a quota and everything else is gender blind then it is really only cosmetic.
4. There are many religious parties that run the country such as the Dawa, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadrists, the Iraqi Islamic Party, etc. What kind of impact have those parties had?
I think we need to distinguish between an Islamic view, which many Iraqis were ready for because after all they had experienced a brutal dictatorship for several decades, which was secular. So as a reaction to that many people thought that a more Islamic government would be the solution. I think that the Islamist parties that have come to power post-2003 are not just Islamists but sectarian. I hold the politicians who lived outside of Iraq for a long time and were in the opposition partly responsible for the increase in sectarianism. I don’t think it’s right to say that sectarianism didn’t exist before 2003, and certainly Saddam Hussein played on sectarianism and he did stir up sectarian sentiments, but these new political parties helped by the CPA, which based the Iraqi Governing Council on ethnic and sectarian divisions, and then the first elections institutionalized sectarian politics. So it’s not only Islamism, which is already problematic, but its Islamist-sectarianism imposed from above. I think right now on one hand many people are really fed up with the Islamist-sectarian politicians, and on the other hand I think sectarianism is really deep and engrained, much more so than it was during the height of sectarian tensions in 2007.
Speaking more specifically about women clearly they are getting it from both sides. On the one hand they have now been exposed to a government that’s largely been based upon Islamist politics, which is either ignoring issues related to women or the laws around like the Personal Status Code, which is a set of laws that governs divorce, marriage, and inheritance. There is a strong push to create one that is a more conservative interpretation of Sharia law as opposed to the one before that has been in place since 1959. That one was also based upon Sharia law, but it was a progressive reading. I think women are now being used by the Islamist government to show that they are different from the previous regime, which was secular. At the same time, women are being used by insurgents and various militia groups to show resistance to western imperialism. So women are being crushed by both sides by these conservative Islamist forces.
|Children heading to school in Baghdad (NY Times)|
5. You talked about how woman had a lot more opportunities in the 1970s and 80s, and how that changed during the sanctions period. How about today because most U.N. reports that talk about women in terms of schooling and work force participation show very low numbers?
One big issue is security. Sending your children to school in general is scary for many parents. For girls, parents worry even more, especially in neighborhoods that are not safe. There are threats in terms of kidnapping, forced prostitution, and trafficking. Lots of young women are being trafficked out of Iraq. Those kinds of risks and threats and lack of security negatively impact young women’s education as well as labor force participation, because parents worry about sending their daughters out. Women do work, but there is a lot of unemployment in Iraq generally so there is competition for jobs. I have a lot of contacts in universities, and women work there, but their opportunities are very limited.
6. Looking into the future Iraq is a country that has a lot of potential. Do you see opportunities for women opening up for them in the coming years?
Defintely. Iraqi women have been extremely resourceful, creative and courageous over these past decades, and they will continue to be so in the future. There is a very active women’s movement across central and southern Iraq as well as in Iraqi Kurdistan. Women are not only lobbing for more equality and women’s rights, but they are also at the forefront of the opposition against authoritarianism, sectarianism, and corruption. I have been very impressed by some young women who are determined to educate themselves and make a difference in Iraq. However, I think that short-term, or even the next decade, will be extremely tough for women as they are squeezed between Islamists, corrupt politicians, a police and judiciary that is not very sympathetic to women’s plights, such as various forms of gender-based violence, mafia-type gangs and militia, as well as a revival of conservative tribal leaders and practices.