Iraq’s women: more than victims

Issue: 116

Anne Alexander

Nadje AlAli, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (Zed Books, 2007), £14.99

The history of Iraq since 1948 has been recounted many times, usually as a dreary sequence of repressive regimes: monarchy, revolution, dictatorship, occupation. Nadje Al-Ali takes a different perspective, interweaving social and personal history to present a panorama of women’s lives in modern Iraq.

Although the rise and fall of Iraq’s rulers have shaped the lives of different generations, it is the translation of “regime change” into the politics of everyday life that most interests Al-Ali. Reading this book is like dipping into a treasured family photograph album. It is full of vivid pictures that are both familiar and strange. Alongside the stories of women artists from the 1950s, of Communist and Baathist political activists in the aftermath of the revolution of 1958, and of Shia Islamist theological students tortured in Saddam’s prisons, are descriptions of teenage flirting in Najaf in the 1960s, glimpses of miniskirted women in Baghdad’s Al-Rashid Street, and memories of combining motherhood and work as a pharmacist in the 1970s.

The most recent decades have been the cruellest, and US occupation, Al-Ali argues, far from liberating Iraqi women, has killed hundreds of thousands and made millions prisoners in their own homes.

The diversity of women’s political activism and its role in shaping Iraqi history form one theme of the book. Women were active in the Baath Party, Islamist groups and the Kurdish nationalist movement. Under the monarchy, members and supporters of the Iraqi Communist Party formed the League for the Defence of Women’s Rights. The league organised welfare work and political campaigns and formed an important part of an underground opposition movement that mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in protests.

Activists from the league went on to play a crucial role in drafting the Personal Status Law, enacted after the revolution of 1958. The law was still based on the Islamic legal code, but gave women equal inheritance rights, severely restricted polygamy and men’s right to unilateral divorce, and improved women’s legal position in other ways. As Al-Ali points out, one important consequence was the creation of a single legal code for both Sunni and Shia Iraqis, facilitating the mixed marriages that grew dramatically in number during the second half of the 20th century.

Since 2003 the Western media has been obsessed with fitting Iraqis into neat ethnic and sectarian categories, reflecting the conscious strategy of the invaders to strengthen these identities as a counterweight to the strong sense of Iraqi national identity which was hostile to the occupation. Many assume that sectarian divisions have always played an important role in Iraqi politics and society, yet, as Al-Ali stresses, from the 1950s until the 1990s class and political orientation, rather than sect, were the most important factors shaping the majority of Iraqi women’s lives. During the great struggles between the Communists and the Baath Party in the 1950s and 1960s Iraqis from all religious backgrounds were attracted to both sides.

Meanwhile a broad spectrum of middle class urban women, again from all religious communities, saw their horizons widen in terms of opportunities to study and work. The 1970s, despite the consolidation of the Baath Party in power and horrific repression of opposition groups, were remembered by many middle class women as “days of plenty”. Skyrocketing oil prices and the regime’s rapid expansion of the public sector brought prosperity to a relatively large layer of households. Rising affluence took visible form in the shape of huge chest freezers which had pride of place in the living rooms of the middle classes.

Although Saddam Hussein’s repression of the Shia Islamist movement took a sectarian turn with mass deportations of Iraqi Shias in the 1970s, on the grounds that they had opted for “Iranian nationality” in the days of the Ottoman Empire, Al-Ali concludes that the suffering of Islamist activists at the hands of the Baath Party was “more related to their political activism and membership of an underground organisation rather than plainly being Shia”. Under sanctions too, class was more important to Iraqi women than sect, despite the terrible impact of the economic blockade on Iraq’s social fabric.

Al-Ali writes that “a middle class Shia family in Baghdad had more in common with its Sunni Arab and Kurdish middle class neighbours in mixed neighbourhoods than with the impoverished Shias living in Madina al-Thawra (renamed Saddam City and now called Sadr City), or the majority of Shias in the south”.

Most of Al-Ali’s interviewees were middle class, and she met many of them in exile or seeking temporary refuge in the Jordanian capital, Amman, presumably reflecting the difficulties of carrying out fieldwork in Iraq. However, at least for the 1950s and 1960s, my own research points to similar conclusions about the lack of sectarianism in the Iraqi working class. Sectarian identity does not seem to have played any important political role in the struggles to build trade unions under the monarchy or in the aftermath of the 1958 revolution. Even today the Iraqi Federation of Oil Workers’ Unions is able to organise on a non-sectarian basis, and one of the federation’s leaders is a Christian woman.

Al-Ali’s analysis of the changing dynamics of women’s oppression under the Baath Party emphasises the pivotal role of the state. She acknowledges that many women benefited from the party’s policies, particularly before the war with Iran. “Our society will remain backward and in its chains unless women are liberated, enlightened and educated,” declared Saddam Hussein. The state pumped money into childcare; it encouraged women to study, and enter professions such as medicine and engineering. Unlike many women in Britain today, middle class Iraqi women in the 1970s and 1980s could expect to receive full pay while on maternity leave and benefit from an extensive system of state-subsidised nurseries.

Several of Al-Ali’s interviewees were shocked to discover how Western women continue to struggle with balancing work and childcare. Yet, as Al-Ali shows, the Baath Party’s commitment to advancing women’s economic and social rights was driven by the same kind of pragmatism that pushed the British ruling class to encourage women here to join the workforce during the Second World War. Iraqi women were badly needed to fill gaps in the labour market during the oil boom of the 1970s. Once political and economic conditions changed, the Baath Party’s commitment to “state feminism” weakened.

War with Iran increased the double burden of work and childcare, as women replaced men absent at the front while Saddam Hussein exalted mothers and called their wombs into service to replace losses on the battlefield. State propaganda was awash with images of women whose honour needed to be protected from the enemy. Saddam Hussein was even reputed to be the author of a series of bodice_ripping novels playing on this theme, which was published complete with pictures of swooning damsels in distress.

The final years of Baath Party rule also saw the promotion of tribal law codes that reversed many of the reforms improving Iraqi women’s legal rights. Islamist opposition parties increased their support, and Iraqi women began to re_adopt the abaya, a traditional women’s cloak that covers the head and body. Al_Ali acknowledges that in Iraq, as in Muslim societies elsewhere, re-veiling was a complex phenomenon in which women’s personal choice played a significant role. (Arlene Macleod’s book Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling and Change in Cairo discusses this issue in Egypt, while Linda Herrera’s article, “Downveiling: Gender and the Contest over Culture in Cairo”, in Middle East Report 219 discusses recent trends.)

But the most important factor in the dramatic decline in Iraqi women’s social, political and economic position over the past two decades has been the assault on Iraq by the Western powers, led by the US and Britain. Sanctions gutted the Iraqi public sector, the main employer of Iraqi women, and destroyed the state welfare system, which provided healthcare, public transport and education. As a result, women’s participation in the workforce collapsed from 23 percent in 1991 to 10 percent in 1997. With public sector salaries below subsistence level, marriage, not education, appeared to be the only way to secure Iraqi girls a decent future.

Since 2003 the occupying forces have not only failed to rebuild the economy and welfare system; they have killed and injured hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women and their children. Millions of Iraqi women remain trapped in their homes as a result of the spiralling violence. They live in fear not only of the occupying forces but also of violent crime, the militias attached to the sectarian parties that the occupation have strengthened, and radical Islamist groups.

Al-Ali is relatively pessimistic about the possibility of rebuilding Iraqi society if the occupiers withdraw. She paints a grim vision of life for Iraqi women at present—caught between the occupation and radical Islamism. Yet I felt there were missing dimensions to her analysis in this final chapter. I would have liked to have seen a discussion of women’s role in resistance to the occupation, both in their participation in political campaigns and in supporting the military struggle. Guerrilla fighters always rely on the active and passive aid of a wider population, a fact that US forces recognise through their policy of taking women hostage, and three women were condemned to death by the Iraqi government on charges of aiding the resistance in early 2007.

The restrictions on women’s participation in public life are also perhaps more fragmented than Al-Ali acknowledges. While threats and violence against unveiled women have been widely reported, images of a recent demonstration by oil workers in Basra, for example, show veiled and unveiled women leading the chanting side by side (a video of the demonstration was posted on

This book is a powerful antidote to the image of Iraqi women as passive victims, promoted by apologists for US imperial policy in order to justify sanctions, war and occupation. It opens a window onto a past all our rulers would rather forget, reminding us that women’s struggles for liberation have shaped Iraq’s history, even when mere survival would have been achievement enough.