Women in Iraq

Iraq’s Women Under Pressure
Posted GMT 5-18-2007

The lives of many Iraqi women have become appreciably harsher following international sanctions and the US-led invasion. Although pleased to see Saddam toppled, some look back on the prosperity and social liberation of the Ba’athist years with nostalgia, says Nadje Sadig Al-Ali. Iraqi women sometimes remember that they have lived in a multi-ethnic, multicultural national entity with a prospering economy and rapid modernisation; at other times they recall repression, discrimination, declining living conditions and sectarian tensions.

I have tried to document the diversity of experiences during the monarchy, the years after the revolution of 1958, the economic boom (and the expansion of the middle class) in the 1970s, the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-88, the first Gulf war of 1991 and the economic sanctions of 1990-2003.

Since the United States invasion many under-represented sections of society fail to acknowledge these experiences as different. I feel uneasy when people say “Iraqi women think…” or “Iraqi women want…” because how can that represent such a wide variety of views? The difference in perspectives is historically based and cannot simply be reduced to ethnicity and religion.

The period after the first Ba’athist coup of 1963 is associated with increased political violence, greater sectarianism and a reversal of progressive laws and reforms. Yet many women remember relative social freedom and cultural vibrancy during the rule of the Arif brothers, 1963-68, and the early Ba’ath period, 1968-78.

Many secular, apolitical middle-class Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian women appreciated the achievements of the early Ba’ath period in education, modernisation of infrastructures and welfare provisions. While those who actively opposed the regime remember political repression, mass arrests, torture and executions, even some who had first hand experiences of the regime’s repressive practices retrospectively appreciated its developmental policies.

Cosmopolitan Baghdad

Women’s memories show that an urban middle-class identity, especially the cosmopolitan Baghdadi identity, subsumed ethnic and religious differences even throughout sanctions. A middle-class Shia family in Baghdad had more in common with its Sunni Arab and Kurdish middle-class neighbours in mixed neighbourhoods than they did with the impoverished Shia living in Madina al-Thawra (renamed Saddam city, now Sadr city) or with Shia in the south. Baghdadi families were often multi-religious and multi-ethnic, and mixed marriages were common among the urban Baghdadi middle classes.

Zeynab, a sympathiser of the Islamist Shia Da’wa party who now lives in Dearborn in the United States, said: “We were all friends. We celebrated holidays together. When we had the [Shia] celebration in commemoration of Imam Hussein, even Jews and Christians joined us. We never thought about race or religion. Schools were open to everybody. In schools, we had Jewish, Christian, Sunni and Kurdish classmates. There were no bad feelings towards anyone.”

From the late 1970s differences between secular and Islamist political positions started to matter more, influencing experiences of the regime. Members or sympathisers of the Da’wa party were targeted not so much for their religious affiliation but because of their opposition to the regime and their aim to establish an Islamic state. No one wants to diminish the suffering that members of the Shia Islamist opposition parties endured, but they were not the only targets of state repression; Kurds and others, including Sunni Arabs who actively resisted the regime, all suffered.

The Shia Islamists’ claim to having been singled out because of religious affiliation rather than political conviction contributes to the current atmosphere in which rights, privileges and power are linked to sectarian divisions and arguments over who suffered most. Of course, specific atrocities committed by the previous regime should not be swept under the carpet for the sake of national unity. The trial of Saddam Hussein was a missed opportunity to initiate a credible truth and reconciliation process.

Many Iraqi women gained socially and economically during the 1970s despite political repression. Living conditions improved for most of the population as the state relied not only on force and its power to control, but also devised generous welfare programmes and opened opportunities for investment and capital accumulation that helped many in the expanding middle classes.

Yet, from the 1980s on, political repression, the Iran-Iraq war, then the first Gulf war and the militarisation of society began to affect women, through the loss of family and economic decline. Under sanctions there was a radical shift; women had less work or access to education, and health care and social services declined. As unemployment worsened and infrastructure collapsed, women were pushed back to their homes.

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