American University of Beirut

Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation

The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) organized a discussion with Sociologist Zahra Ali moderated by Omar Sirri, on Friday, February 21st, 2020. Ali discussed the ideas behind her book “Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation Building and Fragmentation", in which she includes a wide range of interviews with Iraqi women involved in women's rights activism pertaining to daily life in Iraq following the US-led invasion. Ali provided a historical account to her research on social, economic, and political underpinnings of the formation of the Iraqi state since the 1920s. 

In her talk, Zahra Ali traces the waves of political and social disruptions that Iraq witnessed through the years. She points out at the spatial make up of today's Baghdad segmented by checkpoints and concrete walls, divided around sectarian lines and institutions, as government buildings are covered in national symbols, evoking feelings of crisis and entrenched poverty. Moreover, Ali points to the presence of women or lack thereof, in public spaces that are mostly dominated by men. She uses her own individual experience in Iraq to emphasize this feeling: old neighborhoods are now covered in traces of war, women are begging and children are selling scraps.

Ali shows that over the past few years, Baghdad has become a hotspot for research, however most of it was produced from a western centered lens.  Ali's book presents an emic approach through which Iraqi people's experiences manifest. She employs a female centered lens on citizenship through which she focuses on interviewing female activists by employing an ethnographic framework to decolonial and feminist notions of women rights, all the while questioning dichotomies that continue to dominate feminist discourse in the Middle East. Ali's book acts as a tool to tell the her-story instead of the his-story of Iraq by including the life accounts of over a 100 women from different political, religious, and economic backgrounds.

More specifically, Ali traces the status of women in Iraq and their position vis a vis the law, and relates the contemporary status of women to the 50s and 60s early post-colonial period covering the struggle and competing ideas of nationhood and state. The contemporary status laws were considered progressive at the time yet they hadn't covered all areas of Iraqi life, as they only tackled issues pertaining to land inheritance and agriculture. In Iraq, the communist and leftist trends of feminism, which adopted an anti-imperialist stance, were the dominant trend until the 70s and 80s. Then came the era of the diaspora, following Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, which marked a shift towards an authoritarian rule whereby the economic golden age shifted away from quasi-secular pro women regime to militarized conservative one, which affected the personal status law. After the 2003 US invasion, sectarian differences were institutionalized for the first time and contributed to violence and corruption from the governing body. The impact of the US presence reverted Iraq to a preindustrial economy and social makeup with the resurgence of the patriarchy. Ali uses the term “sextarian" to depict how the sectarian regime greatly affected personal status laws and its repercussions on women as main political parties pushed for the sectarianization of personal status law, further degrading women's rights. In defiance, women opted for activism practiced through NGOs subsidized by international funds.

On a more general note, Ali commented on the uprising in today's Iraq, whereby an inclusive trope marks these movements. Iraqi protestors are challenging hierarchies and calling for redistribution of resources as well as ending the rooted presence of militias. It is notable that poverty and the dire economic situation fueled these movements and pushed people such as merchants, precarious workers, and men who previously fought with Daesh to become the pillars of the uprisings. Ali also points out the hyper militarization of the state in the face of the uprisings. Violence increased and more than 700 people were killed, more than 25,000 were injured, hundreds were arrested, and many disappeared. In defiance, protestors have formed a micro society present on the ground through setting up tents and alternative systems of state founded upon the idea of free services. Lastly, despite the backlash coming from the counter protestors, it is important to note that women activists have been playing an essential role in the uprisings, which challenges the previously mentioned presence of men in public spaces as women are on the forefront of the protests, both physically and virtually.

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