“Iraqi women: between Home and Diaspora” was the subject those in attendance had come to learn more about. The gathering was the first public event to be hosted by the London branch of the newly formed Iraqi Transnational Collective.
For the first time in a long time, the limelight was not monopolised by the same male voices that often represent Iraq to a western audience. Instead, the selected panel was strictly female. Each woman – born into a different historical time and from different backgrounds – exists as part of London’s Iraqi diaspora. As one attendee stated, “there was something refreshing about the absence of expert voices, and the delivery of personalised tales”.
Thirteen years ago when Blair and Bush presented their moral case for war against an immoral ruler, women were frequently co-opted into their rhetoric. Meaningful political participation, emancipation, and representation were all promises the coalition failed to deliver. The war not only denied women the right to become agents of change in their own lives, it ruptured their dreams and social existence, and stole their brothers, husbands and children. What it has not succeeded in doing however, is extinguishing the voice of the Iraqi woman, no matter what challenges are thrown her way, as the panel made clear.
The night kicked off with ancient tales fleshed out by creative practitioner and ITC member Tara Jaffar, centred on Nammu – the forgotten Sumerian goddess and creator of life. Tara described Nammu as “the earliest recorded deity in history”, the progenitor of all gods and the mother of sea. She juxtaposed Nammu’s importance with her eventual demise after she was ousted from her place in history by another male god. Tara asked the audience to contemplate the status of women today, whose vibrant activism following Saddam’s fall has been similarly written out of history. Such erasure prevails in today’s Iraq where, despite having a number of female MPs, male dominated politics denies women their political voice.
Jaffar’s whimsical tales from Iraq’s ancient past were followed by stories from Iraq’s present, narrated by celebrated Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Al-Pachachi. Pachachi began by sharing her personal journey and described how life as she knew it was permanently transformed by the first Gulf War. Her timeline began in 1991, when the entire nation was sentenced to a brutish life that came to replace the elegance that previously characterised Iraq.
The smart bombs raining down on Baghdad that Maysoon watched in full technicolor propelled her into a state of shock. As Iraq slowly fell apart, Maysoon naturally gravitated towards (re)making as a creative response to the unmaking of life in Iraq. In her words, she was “putting together and giving voice to something that was being shattered”. Maysoon and Iraqi filmmaker and friend Qassim Abid, decided to put their film knowledge to use as a way to resist strategies of erasure employed by coalition forces.
After 35 years outside her motherland, together they returned back to Baghdad in 2004, establishing a free-of-charge film training centre, running several courses and workshops. As funds and resources dwindled, the centre was forced to close down in 2014. As Maysoon explained, “we were just living hand to mouth, we didn’t take any government money, not from anyone, we just got things from NGOs and charities”. The stories Maysoon went on to share were based on a photography project at her film centre involving twelve Iraqi women spread across different cities in the country.
Each tale, while punctured by light Iraqi humour, spoke of both human perseverance and torment and degradation. The rapid decline of life spoke the loudest in each account, whether from the woman who no longer recognised her beloved, to the Baghdadian woman left isolated after the war forced away the most recognisable faces in her life. The most harrowing account came from a women in Fallujah, retelling the story of the night American forces aggressively entered her home, and arrested her male relatives.
Maysoon also told the tale of Dina, a young Iraqi girl, which was warmly received by the audience. Dina, by her own admission, loved herself too much – so much so that she used the film centre’s cameras to take countless photos of herself, an expression of her unashamed self-infatuation. Her humorous and innocent outlook nevertheless contained a profundity that, at her young age, perhaps she didn’t quite understand: ‘why is it,’ she asked ‘that so many are dying in Iraq when they are neither sick nor old?’
Nadia Mohammad was the third speaker of the night, a young poet and research fellow at King’s College London. Nadia spoke at length about her experiences as a female lecturer of English and American literature in Iraq before she left in 2015. Roaring laughter echoed around the room as the audience listened to Nadia’s tales of defiance against traditional values in the realm of education. Nadia spoke of the criticism she faced, at times from her students, other times from other women and religious figures. Intimidation and fear were recurrently used to silence her, and efforts were made to strip her of her faith as she was deemed “unworthy of the headscarf” and “a bad Muslim,” to which she responded, “I am proud”.
The accusations levelled at her stemmed from the insecurities of those around her. Her teaching style unnerved power holders in the society where she taught, and stood up to the older generations that have tried to keep women intellectually subjugated. She was accused of introducing a subversive syllabus that was corrupting the minds of her students and insulting Iraq’s conservative values.
The problems Nadia raised in her talk point to how the politics of neglect and religious chauvinism is the looming threat suppressing the dreams women may never realise. As one guest noted during the discussion, whereas before the imposition of sanctions women made up forty per cent of the workforce, “Iraqi women today make up just 3 per cent of the non-oil economy.”
Nadia is a strong example of how change needs to come from within and from the ground up, and how advanced education is a far more valuable gift to girls than parcelling them up for early marriages or having them pin their hopes on, in her words, “finding their prince charming.”
The final presentation came from myself, writer and member of the ITC. I was determined to broaden the parameters of the night beyond talking about women in the diaspora. For a more comprehensive conversation, we needed to hear the voices of Iraqi women in Iraq. With this in mind, I presented the findings of an electronic survey that I distributed to various Iraqi women in Baghdad, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Erbil and other locations. The outside world hears little about the respective universes of these women so it was their voices I sought to transmit.
During my presentation I unpicked the central themes embedded within the women’s responses. I spoke of a yearning for yesterday, nostalgia and its transmission, psychological unrest on a national scale, and how insecurity has forced women back into the private realm, favoured however, as a space they have control over. As a speaker from the audience pointed out “isn’t it strange how we went from Nammu – the first Iraqi queen – to hearing how the home is the kingdom for Iraqi woman today. Nammu is now a prisoner of her own home.”
The Iraq of yesterday, as many concluded, is better than that of today, but the war, as many described, has empowered women to rely on themselves.
As the discussions struggled to draw to a close, the lingering theme of the night that the audience were left thinking about was a ‘bridge’. Pachachi’s summation of the bridge as a characterisation of being “at home nowhere and everywhere” resonated strongly with the audience. The symbol later acquired new connotations as a way of fusing the dispersed parts of the Iraqi nation, and to build this bridge is to build dialogue between those inside and outside Iraq which, in a nutshell, is what the Iraqi National Collective is all about.