Thursday, March 4, 2021

Review Iraqi Women, Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present

Al-Ali, Nadje Sadig, Iraqi Women, Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present, London & New York: Zed Books, 2007


As author Nadje Al-Ali wrote in her conclusion Iraqi Women, Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present was an attempt to create a people’s history of Iraq through the eyes of the country’s women. This was in contrast to traditional histories that focus upon the elite and politicians. She based her book upon interviews mostly with women in the diaspora living in several different countries such as America, Jordan and England along with some who were living in Iraq. She asked them to tell their stories about Iraq’s past and present from the monarchy to the U.S. occupation. She found that women’s social class, their political leanings, and whether they lived in the cities or in the country determined their experiences and how they remembered Iraq.


The book begins with the monarchy and the 1958 coup that overthrew it which provides a good look at how Iraqi women saw history in many different ways. The author talked to several women who joined the anti-government protests that started in 1948 over the Anglo-Iraq Treaty. One was a Kurdish woman who lived in Baghdad who joined the demonstrations with her siblings. One time the police opened fire and killed one of her friends. A woman who was a Communist said that the 1958 coup was the most important day of her life. Another Communist joined the Iraqi Women’s League and advocated for women’s rights. That compared to a female who was a Shiite Islamist who said that her father lamented the end of the monarchy and told his family they had just lost their freedom and democracy with the coup. A third woman who was a follower of the Dawa Party claimed that the Communists took power after 1958 and killed many people. There were even divisions within families as one said her parents were monarchists and lamented the death of the king while her and her older sister were Arab nationalists and welcomed the revolution. Ali commented that today Iraq is always seen through a sectarian lens. These interviews showed that politics was the dominant issue during this period with monarchists, Communists, Arab nationalists, and Islamists all competing for followers. Those ideologies also shaped how they saw the monarchy and the coup.


The chapter on the Baath period is also very interesting. Those who were politically active emphasized how repressive the Baath Party were when they took power in 1968. Women who weren’t into politics talked about how the government offered jobs and opportunities ushing in a golden age in the 1970s when the middle class and education were expanding. During this period the government emphasized women as an important part of modernizing the country and opened up all kinds of new avenues for them to advance. Those that lived out in the country however didn’t have the same chances. Many said President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr was like a father figure and noted how charming and well-dressed Saddam Hussein was during this period. One educator had to meet with Saddam twice. The first time was because she didn’t speak positive enough about a visit by Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat to Baghdad which led her to be demoted from a principal to a teacher. When she appealed her case she had to see Saddam again. The positives faded when the Iran-Iraq War started. Women were no longer an important part of the workforce and were encouraged to return to the home and be housewives to have children to replace all the war casualties. Here again Ali found a wide variety opinions. There wasn’t the widespread condemnation of the Baath during this time for instance. If people were Communists or Islamists they did talk about how bad the repression was. If they were not however they tended to talk about the schools and professions they could enter if they were in the cities and middle or upper class. That brought up another issue that the urban population were favored far more than those out in the countryside.


Ali definitely succeeded in starting a people’s history of Iraq with her book. It’s interesting to hear the different recollections and perceptions of the various times in Iraqi history. You get a sense of the different political leanings and those not involved. The class differences aren’t there as much because the women interviewed were almost all middle to upper class, but it’s still present. The author wanted to show how Iraq is made up of many stories and differences and that is what should be explored when researching Iraq. She definitely made a strong argument.


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