Analysis Nadje Al-Ali

Total Inversion of Cultural Codes and Moral Values in Iraq

Life has changed dramatically for women in Iraq, not only due the the war, but also due to 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

It 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

photo: private
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.

Although signs of deterioration in living standards and changing gender relations began to be evident during the years of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), there seemed to be a prevailing belief that the situation would revert to the better, once the war stopped. And while many families lost sons, brothers, fathers, friends, and neighbours during this time, life in the cities appeared relatively “normal,” with women playing a very significant role in public life. However, only two “peaceful” years were followed by the invasion of Kuwait (August 1990) the Gulf War (January-March 1991), the imposition of a comprehensive sanctions system that lasted for almost 13 years, and the recent war – in 2003.

Incredible resistance to pain and suffering

The loss of loved ones has become a common aspect of the pool of experiences of Iraqi women. Aside from sadness, depression, and sometimes anger, Iraqi women and men of all ages have become remarkably fatalistic and have built up an incredible resistance to deal with pain and suffering. In addition to the more obvious effects related to basic survival strategies and difficulties, sanctions and war have also left their mark on the social and cultural fabric of Iraqi society. Without doubt, Iraqi women have lost some of the achievements gained in the previous decades. They can no longer assert themselves through either education or waged employment, as both sectors have deteriorated rapidly.

Higher education has virtually collapsed and degrees are worthless in the context of widespread corruption and an uninterrupted exodus of university professors. Monthly salaries in the public sector, which had paradoxically become increasingly staffed by women, had dropped dramatically and did not correspond to high inflation rates and the cost of living. The situation has even worsened in the aftermath of the last war, yet, the deterioration of the education sector was already evident in the early 90s.

Because of the bad conditions in schools due to the lack of resources and teachers, many parents feel that they have to contribute to their children’s education. This is one reason many women left their work. But they also suffered from the collapse of their support systems. One previous support system, funded by the state, consisted of numerous nurseries and kindergartens, along with free public transportation to and from school and to the women’s work places. The other major support system was based on extended family ties and neighbourly relations, which helped in childcare. Ever since the 90s, women have been reluctant to leave their children with neighbours or other relatives because of the general sense of insecurity.

Crime rates on the increase during the sanctions regime

Crime rates have been on the increase since the Gulf war. Many women reported that prior to the imposition of sanctions they used to keep all their doors open and felt totally secure. During the sanctions regime, there were numerous accounts of burglaries – often violent ones. And in the current situation, looting, burglaries, killings and rape are widespread. Aside from mafia-like gangs that roam the cities at night, most Iraqis do not want to hand in the weapons they have as they feel they have to protect themselves and their families. In the context of the failure of US and UK soldiers to protect hospitals, museums, libraries etc., the only people organizing security in a systematic way are imams at mosques. Although Iraqi families used to be very close-knit and supportive of each other, family relationships have been strained by envy and competition in the struggle for survival. In the past, children grew up in the midst of their extended families, often spending time and sleeping over at the houses of their grandparents, uncles, and aunts. These days, nuclear families have become much more significant in a context where people have to think about themselves and those closest to them first.

The demographic cost of three wars and the forced economic migration of men triggered by the imposition and continuation of international sanctions account for the high number of female-headed households. It is not only war widows who find themselves without husbands, but also women whose husbands went abroad to escape the bleak conditions and find ways to support their families. Other men just abandoned their wives and children, being unable to cope with their inability to live up to the social expectations of being provider and breadwinner.

Divorce rate and family violence increases due to the rise of social pressure?

The situation seems to have taken its toll in terms of relationships between husbands and wives. There are no concrete figures, but it seems that the divorce rate has increased substantially. A caseworker working with Iraqi refugees in London reported that there is a very high divorce rate among couples who have recently come from Iraq. About 25 percent of Iraqi refugees in the UK are either separated or divorced. A few women stated that their husbands have become more violent and abusive during the past years. Widespread despair and frustration and the perceived shame of not being able to provide the family with what is needed evokes not only depression but also anger. Women are often at the receiving end of men’s frustrations.

Family planning has become a big source of tension and conflict between husbands and wives. Before the Iran-Iraq war all kinds of contraception were available and legal. During the war, contraception was made illegal as the government tried to encourage Iraqi women to “produce” a great number of future citizens to make up the loss in lives during the war. Many incentives were given, such as the extension of paid maternity leave to a year, of which six months were paid. Baby food and articles were imported and subsidized.

After the Gulf War in 1991, contraceptives were still not available, but women’s attitudes toward children had changed because of the material circumstances and the moral climate. There has also been fear of congenital diseases and birth defects, which have risen dramatically since the Gulf war in 1991. Unlike the case in previous times, Iraqi women are reluctant to have many children. Abortion is illegal, so many women risk their health and their lives to have illegal abortions in back alleys. The director of an orphanage in Baghdad stated in 1997 that a new phenomenon has emerged in Iraq: women abandoning newborn babies on the street. These babies may be a “result” of so-called illicit relationships, but, according the director, they are often left by married women who just can’t face not being able to feed their children.

Total inversion of cultural codes and moral values

While families and marriages are affected in multifarious ways, many Iraqi women can only dream of marriage and having their own families. One of the numerous consequences of the current demographic imbalance between men and women is the difficulty for young women to get married. Polygamy, which was mostly practised in rural areas or by uneducated people, has been on the increase in recent years. There is also a growing trend among young women to get married to Iraqi expatriates, usually much older than themselves. This is largely due to economic reasons as most Iraqi men are not able to provide for a new family.

At the same time that marriage has become a relatively difficult undertaking, young women in particular feel pressured by a new “cultural” environment. Many women I interviewed concurred with one of my female relatives in Baghdad when they spoke sadly about the total inversion of cultural codes and moral values. I will never forget when one of my aunts told me: “You know, bridges and houses can easily be rebuilt. It will take time, but it is possible. But what they have really destroyed is our morale, or values.” She, like many other Iraqi women I talked to sadly stated that honesty was not paying off any more. People have become corrupt and greedy. Trust has become very rare word and envy even exists among closest kin.

Social life has grown more stressful

Young Iraqi women frequently speak about changes related to socializing, family ties, and relations between neighbour and friends. Often a parent or older relative was quoted as stating how things were different from the past when socializing was a much bigger part of people’s lives. While the parents of the predominantly middle-class young females used to mingle relatively freely when they were the age of their children, today’s young Iraqis find it increasingly difficult to meet each other. Schools are often segregated between sexes, but even in co-educational schools interaction between boys and girls has become more limited. Girls are extremely worried about their reputation and often avoid situations in which they find themselves alone with a boy.

These fears may have been aggravated by the not uncommon occurrence of so-called “honour killings during the past decade.” Fathers and brothers of women who are known or often only suspected of having “violated” the accepted codes of behaviour, especially with respect to keeping their virginity before marriage, may kill the women in order to restore the honour of the family. Although this phenomenon is mainly restricted to rural areas and uneducated Iraqis, knowledge about its existence works as a deterrent for many female teenagers.

Conservative and patriarchal values have been strengthened

Increased social conservatism and the threat of gossip that would tarnish one’s reputation are a common complaint among young Iraqi women. Girls especially suffer in a climate where patriarchal values have been strengthened and where the state has abandoned its previous policies of social inclusion with respect to women. Economic hardships have pushed a number of women into prostitution – a trend that is widely known and subject to much anguish in a society where a “woman’s honour” is perceived to reflect the family’s honour. In the mid-1990s, the government condemned prostitution and engaged in aggressive campaigns to stop it. In a widely reported incident in Iraq in 2000, a group of young men linked to Saddam Hussein’s son Uday singled out about three hundred female prostitutes and “pimps” and decapitated them, cutting off their heads.

Men often feel compelled to protect their female relatives from being the subject of gossip and from losing the family’s honour. The increasing social restrictions imposed on young women have to be analysed in the context of wider social changes, particularly with respect to the increase in prostitution, significant numbers of female-headed households, rampant unemployment, and the appropriation of Islamic symbols by the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein, the general religious revival within Iraqi society and the rise of Islamist forces in Iraq post-Saddam Hussein.

More and more people turn to religion for comfort

In the midst of the inversion of moral values and cultural codes, economic hardships and political repression, more and more women (and men) have turned toward religion to find some sort of comfort. The apparent increase in religiosity became very obvious to me during my last trip to Baghdad. None of my aunts or cousins had ever worn the hijab (headscarf) and religion was never a big issue within the family. But now all my aunts pray regularly, wear the hijab, and frequently mention religion and God in conversation.

Islamisation of the Middle East goes hand in had with increased conservatism

I personally do not put any value judgment on increased religiosity in and of itself. Yet in the Iraqi context, similar to Islamization processes in other countries in the Middle East, the turn toward religion is coupled with increased conservatism and social restrictions, which target women specifically. In other words, not only has there been a growing trend toward religiosity by women, but women have also been subjected to increasing social pressures expecting and demanding the expression of religious adherence. For women this often culminates in the question of whether to wear the hijab or not – the hijab being the most visible and obvious sign of religious adherence and supposedly good moral conduct. These days there have been numerous reports of unveiled women being harassed on the streets by Islamists who demand that all women wear a headscarf or abbayah, a traditional black cloak worn.

Involving women in the reconstruction of Iraq is not a matter of “add and stir”

So what can be said about the current situation is that women have been pushed back even more into the background and into their homes since the sanctions regime was initiated. They are suffering both in terms of a worsening humanitarian situation and in terms of an ongoing lack of security on the streets. Aside from the fact that basic needs (including water, electricity, medical care, and food), as well security, are not addressed adequately, a more long-term issue is the lack of women’s representation in the various political parties and emerging political constituencies.

What needs to be stressed is fact involving women in the reconstruction of Iraq would not simply be a matter of “adding women and stir”. What is missing is a gender perspective in line with UN Resolution 1325 passed in October 2000, which acknowledges the importance of the inclusion of women and mainstreaming gender into all aspects of post-conflict resolution and peace operations. Research and political experiences within other conflict areas and post-war situations, such as Northern Ireland and Bosnia Herzegovina, Cyprus and Israel/Palestine give evidence to the fact that women are often more able to bridge over ethnic, religious and political divides and play significant role in “peace-making”. To my mind, any future peace can only be achieved by confronting and working through Iraq’s past with the help of a truth and reconciliation committee that would be sensitive to all kinds of human rights abuses including gender violence.

US government seems not to be interested in strengthening women’s rights in the region

The mainstreaming of gender would have to involve the appointment of women to interim governments, and all ministries and committees dealing with systems of local and national governance. Women would also have to be present and active in the judiciary, policing, human rights monitoring, the allocation of funds, free media development, and all economic processes. There should be encouragement to create independent women’s groups, NGOs and community based organizations.

Unfortunately, the current situation in Iraq leaves doubt about the intentions of the US in terms of good governance, its commitment to human rights and democracy-building. Especially where women and gender relations are concerned, I personally do not expect too much from the occupying forces, considering Bush’s record of conservative policies towards women in the US. The case of Afghanistan is a sad example of the US government paying lip service to women’s rights, but not actually seeing it through in the aftermath of the war. In fact, Afghanistan is an example of how not to do it as the mere appointment of a women’s minister without resources (who subsequently had to resign) was a cynical token towards a human and women’s rights agenda.

The future of Iraq lies in the hands of those who have kept their dignity

Let me, however, conclude on a slightly brighter note. It is very important to stress that Iraqi women are not just passive victims. And here I am not talking about those women who were implicated in the regime. I am talking about ordinary women of many social classes. Contrary to common media representations of oppressed Arab women, Iraqi women have in many ways been more resourceful and adaptable to the new situation than Iraqi men. Small informal business schemes, such as food catering, have mushroomed. Skills in crafts and the recycling of clothes and other materials give evidence to an incredible creativity. And without suggesting that there is anything natural about women being better human beings, if there is any hope for the future of Iraq, it does not lie with fragmented and disputing male opposition, but comes form those who have kept their dignity and have remained non-violent and human.

Nadje Al-Ali

© Nadje Al-Ali 2003

This article was held at the Ruhr University in Bochum in 2003 as a part of the Marie Jahoda Guest Professorship.

Nadje Al-Ali is lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter (click here for more information).
She is also the founding member of Act Together: Women Against Sanctions in Iraq www.acttogether.org ).

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