Babil collective seeking female empowerment through literacy

Ishtar Reads was not met with objections typically voiced by religious factions against cultural activities.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Large turnout. Visitors at the “Ishtar Reads” festival in the southern city of Hilla, last March.                                         (Ishtar Reads)
Large turnout. Visitors at the “Ishtar Reads” festival in the southern city of Hilla, last March. (Ishtar Reads)

LONDON - The Ishtar Cultural Association for Reading, anchored in the Iraqi southern city of Hilla, is Babil province’s first feminist and activist collective working to unfasten the cultural shackles that inhibit women in society.

The story began in March with the launch of Ishtar Reads, a reading festival “unlike past initiatives,” Dhafer Mirdan, the civil society activist behind the initiative, said in a phone interview.

“What was different this time was the purpose,” Mirdan said, listing three objectives: awakening public interest in reading at a time when web literacy overshadows reading activities, followed by female empowerment through literacy initiatives. The final objective “is to establish an annual reading festival whose educational mission is to steal back Babil’s ancient limelight by educating people about the city’s dynastic heritage,” Mirdan said.

The march towards a literate and book-loving society was married to the wider trend of reviving interest in Babil’s unique heritage and status, one in a handful of ancient cities Iraq boasts.

Ishtar Reads was not met with objections typically voiced by religious factions against cultural activities they deem forbidden under Islam.

“Our city’s historic character has long cherished secularism and civil rights,” Mirdan said. Islam occupies its own place in the hearts and minds of the people, he added, “but our civic culture is centuries old and something our society takes seriously.”

In the West, Babil is widely associated with the Babylonian Hammurabi code, born in Hilla, but as Mirdan cautioned “these universally important local histories must be acknowledged to be protected.” Education, after all, starts at home.

A broad coalition of local civil society activists and organisations — Iraqi Democratic Youth Federation, an Iraqi union of writers among others — pooled their fund to finance the literacy campaign, assuming a role local officials had shown little interest in. Books were donated to the festival to promote reading by adults and children.

The turnout was the largest for such an event in the ancient city of almost 2 million inhabitants and coincided with International Women’s Day.

Hundreds of people from neighbouring governorates visited and the festival attracted a crowd of 1,500. “We were taken aback,” Huda Karim al Jlaihawi said of the turnout and positive responses to the poetry recitals, spoken word, artistic workshops for children and musical performances.

The gender balance, Mirdan expressed, tipped in the favour of men but he commended the female turnout. Babil’s female literati were out in force, as was Hilla’s outspoken teenage activist Rawan Salem Hussein who rose to fame challenging Hilla’s governor to a television debate for having fallen short of his duties to the city. Writer Wiam Mousawi signed copies of her latest poetry collection.

The festival’s founding objectives were taken one step further by a multigenerational group of female volunteers, who established a feminist cultural collective that embodies Mirdan’s three objectives. They took the name of the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar — the source of all life, as she is fabled.

The aim behind the association in Iraq is to inculcate in adults and children the habit of reading books as remedial solutions to self-censorship and female disempowerment.

Every month, members select a book that they discuss in a book club format. The group’s personal Facebook community page serves as a promotional tool and advertising platform for selected book titles distributed among a wider pool of web users, for the inclusion of those unable to attend.

Both the festival and its newly established sister association reject the endorsement of sectarian mindsets that destroy instead of building a healthy collective consciousness that recognises the worth of every Iraqi woman.

“This is a new idea in Babil that offers to every woman the opportunity to express and prove her existence,” attendee Safa Mukhlid told NRT TV.

Mirdan said he hopes that the successes this year will be replicated annually. “Whether under the same name or a new theme, we will continue to host annual festivals,” he said.