02.05.2006Analysis Nadje Al-AliTotal Inversion of Cultural Codes and Moral Values in IraqIt is especially the women who have suffered under the consequences of the last three wars and the sanctions regime. Nadje Al-Ali, Marie Jahoda Guest Professor for International Women’s Research at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, in 2003, has analysed the situation
Nadje Al-Ali As is common practice all over the world, Iraqi women are ignored in debates about democracy and political representation of majority and minority populations in Iraq. This holds true despite the fact that between 55-60% of the Iraqi population are women. This demographic discrepancy is due to three wars (the Iraq-Iran War, 1980-1988; the Gulf War in 1991; the US invasion in 2003), out-migration and political repression and executions by the regime. Nevertheless, in most media accounts, women are totally absent from the picture. They are neither seen on the streets of Iraq’s cities, nor are they part of any of the political structures, whether pro- or anti-American.
This situation might be perceived as “natural” for a western audience that is used to perceive Muslim and Arab women as oppressed and passive. (Wasn’t the situation similar in Afghanistan?) In reality Iraqi women have been very much part of the “public sphere” until a few years ago. Despite the general context of political repression by the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women were amongst the most educated in the whole region. They were part of the labour force and visible and active on almost all levels of state institutions and the bureaucracy. These days, however, women are prevented from leaving their houses, due to fear and a great sense of insecurity and danger. Looting, violent burglaries, mafia-like gangs that roam the cities at night and increased sexual violence, including rape, have pushed women into the background. The demise of women’s gains during the 1970s and early 80s were already evident prior to the war in 2003. Aside from most obvious effects related to the atrocious humanitarian situation, there have been changes in gender relations and ideologies in the context of wider social changes related to war, sanctions and changing state policies.
Social and cultural fabric of Iraqi society under pressure
Even before this last war, due to sanctions, there was a massive deterioration in basic infrastructure (water, sanitation, sewage, electricity) that severely reduced the quality of life of Iraqi families, who often have to get through the day without water and electricity. High child mortality (about 4,000-5,000 per month), rampant malnutrition, and increased rates of leukaemia and other forms of cancer, epidemic diseases and birth defects were among the most obvious “side effects” of the sanctions against the sanctions regime and war. However, everyday lives changed not only with respect to a drastic deterioration of economic conditions and basic infrastructure: the social and cultural fabric of Iraqi society has also been affected.
An analysis of the impact of economic sanctions and war on women in Iraq must be prefaced by a brief historical background addressing the general situation of Iraqi women before the sanctions regime came into place in 1990. Despite indisputable political repression in the 1970s and early 1980s, the majority of the Iraqi population enjoyed high living standards in the context of an economic boom and rapid development, which were a result of the rise of oil prices and the government’s developmental policies. These were the years of a flourishing economy and the emergence and expansion of a broad middle class. State-induced policies worked to eradicate illiteracy, educate women, and incorporate them into the labour force. In the context of a rapid economic expansion following the oil crisis, the Iraqi government actively sought out women to incorporate them into the labour force.
Saddam Hussein was not a feminist!
It needs to be stressed that policies of encouraging women to enter waged work cannot be explained in terms of egalitarian principles: Saddam Hussein was not a feminist! The initial ideology of the Baath party, the ruling party of Iraq, was based on Arab nationalism and socialism. Human power was scarce, and that, as the Gulf countries started to look for workers outside their national boundaries, the Iraqi government also tapped into the country’s own human resources. Subsequently, working outside the home became not only acceptable for women, but prestigious and even the norm. Another factor to be taken into account was the state’s attempt to indoctrinate its citizens – whether male or female. Obviously it was much easier to reach out to and recruit them when they were part of the so-called public sphere and visible outside the confines of their homes.