Iraqi women shackled by cultural constraints

Sunday 06/11/2016
A role model. Iraqi Zekra Alwach, mayor of Baghdad, signing documents. (AFP)

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.