Wednesday, 16 March 2011




This post has been cooking for a few days; reduced to the bare bones of simple description, then mixed with some latent venom and brought to boil, and finally left to rest with the crud on the surface solidifying in the cold.

To those who are genuinely interested in the lives of Iraqi women (and by that I probably mean women), in addition to the words of the well known Iraqi women bloggers from inside Iraq I would like you to consider reading three tenuously connected books.

I read the first many years ago, The Baghdad Diaries published in 1998, was a personal account of surviving the 1991 world versus Iraq war, from a rather narrow viewpoint of the ex-aristocracy living in suburban Baghdad, later updated to include the years of sanctions. I never read the updates.

The second I read more recently after a discussion on one of my previous posts, A Sky so Close by Betool Khudairy published in 1999, was a tour of Iraqi life in the seventies and eighties as experienced by the daughter of a mixed Iraqi-Scottish marriage living in Baghdad, this book broadened the scope of descriptions to include the lives of the many country women the author observed in her childhood days, the vivid accounts of the Iraq-Iran war as experienced in Baghdad were painfully real.

The third I have only just completed, Iraqi Women Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present by Nadje Sadig Al-Ali, published 2007, this is a piece of academic research written by a UK based senior lecturer in social anthropology, the daughter of an Iraqi, who although she never lived in Iraq visited her extended Iraqi family there several times over the years.

The tenuous connection is that the former two books are referred to in the latter (as is the mother of all female Iraqi bloggers Riverbend).

I want to spend more time talking through this last book.

The premise of the book is to chronicle the changes in the political, economic and social lives of Iraqi women over the years from the Wathba in 1948 to now.

It is based on interviews and meetings with about eighty Iraqi women, a cross section of women living inside and outside Iraq, ranging in age from teenagers to septuagenarians, varying from Peshmerga fighters, to ambassadors of the kingdom of Iraq, Dawa party members to at least one Ba’athi sympathizer (and now I know where she lives).

The book starts with a detailed account of the multiple waves of exodus of Iraqis from the nineteen forties until now, and describes how the occasionally very distinct and separate ex-Iraqi communities have developed in America, England, and Jordan.

The women’s stories are approached in a descriptive research manner, the words conveyed with brief explanation rather than analysis, and the gaps filled with historic detail from some one hundred and forty references, detailed in six sections: starting with Iraqis in the Diaspora, through living with the revolution, followed by living with the Ba’ath, living with wars on many front, living with the sanctions, and concludes with living with the occupation.

Baring in mind some recent interest in the subject of honor killings which are alluded to in several sections of the book, and the question of personal choice here are the thoughts of a 15-year old regarding the Hijab in the years of sanctions quoted in the book:
People have changed now because of the increasing economic and various other difficulties of life in Iraq. They have become very afraid of each other. I think because so many people have lost their jobs and businesses, they have a great deal of time to speak about other people’s lives, and they often interfere in each other’s affairs. I also think that because so many families are so poor now that they cannot afford buying more than the daily basic food, it becomes difficult for them to buy nice clothes and things, and therefore it is better to wear the hijab. Most people are somewhat pressured to change their lives in order to protect themselves from the gossip of other people-especially talk about family honour.

I strongly recommend Nadje Al-Ali’s Iraqi Women for depth, scope, and sheer detail and Betool Khudairy’s a Sky so close for those who prefer a taster with a little fantasy of a novel.

And now for my own views on the third book.

For me the fascinating parts were those relating to the times pre and post my lifetime in Iraq, the lives, relative freedoms and progress in terms of education, political involvement and choice of religious expression (or not) of women in the nineteen forties fifties and sixties, as compared to the hardships and loss of the most basic freedoms and rights during the later nineties and the chaos after 2003.

I was also intrigued by the details of the communities of ex-Iraqis living in America who were instrumental in bringing about the occupation of Iraq.

A group of women who arrived as refugees in the 1990s are described as:
It is evident that at least this group of recently arrived women had a very strong sense of their roots and identity, both as Iraqis and as Shi’is. Emphasis on the particular plight and suffering of Iraqi Shi’is involved a strong sense of entitlement in terms of rights and privileges in the new Iraq. It also entailed a very strong sectarianism that was directed not only at Sunni Iraqis but also at Iraqi Chaldean.

And elsewhere:
I was quite shocked by the extent of the sectarianism expressed by S and other sympathizers of Islamist Shi’I parties, like al-Dawa directed mainly at Sunnis but also at other religios and ethnic groups, such as Iraqi Chaldeans and Kurds.

The book gave me an insight into the complexity of what it is to be an “Iraqi woman” for so many different women, an enormous pride in the fortitude of women surviving through times of extreme difficulty, and a better understanding of the changes in society as a whole created by revolution, attempted emancipation of women, followed by a series of wars, sanctions and finally foreign occupation.

The author explains one of the goals of her work as:
I try to show how different women have experiences specific historical periods. And difference as is one of my central arguments in this book, is not necessarily defined in ethnic and religious terms-that is whether a woman is Shi’i, Sunni, Kurd or Christian, for example. It is important to emphasise that these are relatively new paradigms for classifying Iraqis. For until very recently, difference has been experienced largely in relation to social class, place of residence, urban or rural identity, professional background, political orientation and generation.

So far so good

However the book proceeds in my opinion to grant an academic stamp of support for the notion of “blame” for sufferings endured by the Shi’a and Kurds from the historical starting point of the book to date on the shoulders of the Sunni Arabs, and indirectly gives justification for all that has happened since 2003.

The author acknowledges very early in the book how it is possible to have several versions of one event that are all held to be true by those expressing them, recounting the three explanations for her aunt’s loss of sight at the age of eight, however throughout the book she quotes “facts” including an unreferenced fact that Sunni Arabs have accounted for 17% of the population of Iraq since 1932, without acknowledgment that these “facts” are contested by others.

There is an inability to detach opinion on the Ba’ath from opinion on events or achievement during its reign, so that for example the adult literacy campaign of 1978 is describes as:

It is obvious, however that the literacy campaign of the Ba’ath was not merely aimed at encouraging women’s labour-force participation; education was also perceived as a vehicle for indoctrination. The creation of the “new Iraqi woman” and “new Iraqi man” required re-socialization, which mainly took place in school, at university, in the media and in various workplaces. Adult education was one way to reach those men and women who moved outside state institutions and the main channels of indoctrination. Clearly it was much easier to reach out to and recruit women when they were part of the so-called public sphere and visible outside the confines of their homes.

I find it difficult to reconcile this negative, almost paranoid and very male sounding fear of women being educated outside the home with any concept of defending women’s rights.

And when a Kurdish woman’s description of returning to Erbil in 1975:
There were always Saddam’s soldiers and security people threatening everyone and making us feel insecure. The only positive thing during that period was that we were less poor. The government built better roads, schools and hospitals and there were more jobs. More girls started to go to school and even to university.

The author comments that:
The heavy investment in Kurdish infrastructure and economy was part of the regime’s overall strategy to develop and modernize the country and “buy” people’s loyalty.

The term “the most comprehensive sanctions in contemporary history” is repeated several times in the book with very detailed descriptions of the lives of those trying to survive them, and the devastating effects on social cohesion, but the ultimate blame for the absolute loss of all human rights even those previously gained by Iraqi women prior to and during the Ba’ath years is placed squarely at the feet of the Ba’ath itself.

The final conclusion is that the American lead occupation in its calls for liberation of Iraqi women has in fact been instrumental in the backlash against Iraqi women; no reference is made to the effects of the religious political parties that returned to power in Iraq alongside the soldiers of occupation.

I was left feeling that in the context of relatively isolated contact with one Iraqi family that felt itself singled out for ill treatment, and whilst living and working in a country still justifying its role in the ongoing destruction of your country this may be the only way such a book could be written, on the other hand with my rather different perspective, this was the only way I could read this book.

Little Penguin said...
It's refreshing to see this wave of work produced by Iraqi women, both home and elsewhere.. novels, blog-compilations, etc..

Im eager to read all three books you referred to and I most certainly will once i'm done with my exams..

With regards to the roles and positions of women in Iraq, it's obvious that women played a huge role in post-2003 Iraq, an even bigger role than they did before.. women constitute one third of the parliament, endless conferences and marginal events are held to highlight their plight and the means of improving the lives of Iraqi women.. that aspect is encouraging..

the 15 year old girl's account struck a chord with me.. back then they resorted to covering their bodies and abstained from wearing fancy clothes because they simply couldn't afford them.. today, they have to wear hijab because a thirty-something year old cleric made a decision on their behalf, and a considerable number of like-minded sheep just nodded in approval because of one reason or another.. It's criminal what's happening now..

13 June 2007 22:45

3eeraqimedic said...
Little Penguin
I think you do need to read the final one if you think women are playing a bigger role now than before, I must admit I was not as aware of their role before, and let me quote one of the women interviewed from the book about the realities of women's roles post 2003
“…..but the Americans, especially sent people to Iraq whose attitude was: "We don’t do women", Bremer was one of them. Iraqi women managed to get a women’s quota despite the Americans, who apposed it. Their interpretation of women’s issues was to organise big meetings and conferences and to build modern women’s centres. What we need are more women in all aspects of governance. But the problem is that some of the women that are appointed are actually very conservative and are against women’s rights.”
And the authors' observations:
There has been a debate over the benefits and problems of stipulating a women’s quota, especially in light of the fact that many of the conservative Islamist political parties have obviously appointed conservative Islamist women who might not necessarily be interested in the promotion of women’ rights

Sorry to distract you from your exams! Good luck.
16 June 2007 21:57

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17 June 2007 00:52
Little Penguin said...
that's a very good observation, though im not 100% agreeing, but it may well be the case..

It's true that most women who got to occupy senior political positions are of a conservative Islamic background, but that shouldn't stop them from advocating and working their wage's worth for the betterment of women's lives..

but that's all theory to be honest, I dont know what's happening on the ground.. what I know is that we need governmental and non-governmental agencies for the protection of women.. that's one of many many aspects which we have to address urgently should we claim that 'women's lives are improving'..

you're not distracting me from reivising, this stuff keeps me going.. names of studies and linguistic techniques is so monotonous, so dull, it actually sends me to sleep.. this stimulates the senses and gives me an unusual spur to write endlessly.. see? it's happening this very moment! :)

17 June 2007 00:54

Anonymous said...
Thanks for recommending the books. I shall endeavour to read them. When I was in London last year, I picked up a copy of "Baghdad Burning" by Riverbend.
I have also read "The Promise" written by an Iraqi woman escaping Saddam's Iraq who eventually migrated to Australia.
I have been following the war in Iraq very closely these past few years, on a daily basis. I am well aware of the suffering of Iraqi women and children.
18 June 2007 01:14

3eeraqimedic said...
Little Penguin
You will note that I have been very careful to quote others and not put my own words here.
There is no reason why the Islamist women would not want the betterment of women it is in the exact definition of what betterment means that we (i.e. me and them) would disagree.
18 June 2007 19:46

3eeraqimedic said...
Thanks for visiting; I hope you do read the books.
I have not been able to find the book you mentioned. Do you have the name of the author or the publisher?
18 June 2007 19:49

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