Iraqi women shackled by cultural constraints
Baghdad - Iraqi women managed to break many social barriers between 1960 and 1980, gaining access to education, health care and employment, as well as participation in the political and economic spheres, with far more rights than in other countries within the region.
Sadly, many advances for women in Iraq receded in years of violence, conflict and sanctions resulting in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Social Institutions and Gender Index classifying Iraq as being “high risk” for gender discrimination.
The shortage of men during the prolonged Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s allowed women access to roles previously unreachable due to misogyny. Nonetheless, Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the consequent international sanctions resulted in regression of women’s rights in Iraq.
Yasmin al-Jawaheri in her book Women in Iraq: The Gender Impact of Economic Sanctions described how UN-backed sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s discriminated against women because a lack of funding for kindergartens, transport services and significant reductions in wages acted as barriers to employment.
The 2003 US-led invasion theoretically paved the way for a new Iraq built on values of equality and justice. Article 14 of the 2005 constitution supposedly cemented the role of women in society, prohibiting discrimination based on sex.
The legal framework for women’s equality, however, is not necessarily reflected by societal norms as explained by Noor Hashim, head of development and marketing of a women’s opportunity campaign in Baghdad. “There are no governmental laws limiting a woman’s freedoms,” explained Hashim, “but it is society that limits freedom”.
The culture established in Iraq frequently sees women in only classical maternal roles. “Women only want to cook or clean at home. It is not laziness but more ignorance,” Hashim said. “Women do not know their potential role in society.”
Frequently, women are pressured into domestic roles at a young age through forced marriages, preventing them from developing ambitions or dreams. The US-based Population Reference Bureau showed that child marriages in Iraq are on the rise, with 25% of girls marrying before the age of 18 and 6% before the age of 15.
These marriages result in the girls becoming housewives with no potential for a greater role in the wider society. Jawaheri said women in Iraq, especially those who are married, were often prevented from seeking work for fear of their interaction with unknown men who dominate the private sector.
Women in Iraq do play a role in the Iraqi political sphere, with one-quarter of all parliamentary seats required to go to female MPs. Nonetheless, male domination of politics, as well as on a societal level, continues.
Diane Elson, a professor of gender and development at the University of Essex in England, describes the potential of “gendered crises”, in which political or economic crises unfairly affect women considering their absence from decision-making roles. History has shown that the rights of women in times of severe crises have often improved. For example, in the United Kingdom women made significant gains in freedom and equality during the world wars.
Iraq, however, despite the crises, is yet to see a significantly improved role for women in society. Often, various public spheres are dominated by men even when a number of qualified women are available. Conferences, panels and lobby groups have a severe underrepresentation of Iraqi women. In a society dependent on tribes, women are denied a role in tribal meetings with the position of tribal chief reserved exclusively for men.
Iraqi women often through environmental pressures, however, put limits on themselves in their role in society, suggesting that certain roles are for men alone. Hashim explained how even her friends try to place these limits on her. “The women themselves ask me why I do what I do, saying that girls should not be doing such hard work. They start comparing me to a boy,” she said.
The Iraqi cultural limitation on women is not restricted to Iraq. Aysha Fekaiki, an Iraqi Londoner and former community and welfare officer at the London School of Economics, explained: “Being in the West, there is regression to hold on to culture from the homeland that is imported as a method of resistance.”
Fekaiki repeatedly described her wish to return to Iraq and work on development projects but said: “Thanks to my parents, I have taken the perception that it is unsafe for a woman to work in Baghdad.”
The role of women in Iraqi society is not limited by the legal system but by cultural values. There are exceptions. Zekra Alwach, the first female mayor of a capital city — Baghdad — in the Middle East, has broken these cultural limits and proven to be a role model for the women of Iraq.