Iraqi women were once among the most progressive in the Middle East.
Entering the workforce in the 1930s, they were supported by women’s magazines and many women’s organisations fighting for equal rights.
In the late 50s, Iraq was the first of its Arab neighbours to appoint a female judge and government minister.
In the 60s and 70s Iraqi women were considered among the most educated in the region and were economically active, studying and working in the prestigious fields of science and engineering.
Despite spending on defence taking priority in the lead up to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, women continued to participate in Iraq’s economy, taking the place of active servicemen in factories, government agencies and small businesses.
After decades of struggle, women were on their way to emancipation and equality. Now 13 years since the US invasion, they struggle for the most basic of human rights.
“The decline is so huge for women, it’s very shocking,” says Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi novelist, political activist and co-founder of Tadhamun; Iraqi Women Solidarity.
“Iraq is probably one of the few countries in the world where the grandmother is more educated than her daughter and grandchildren because of this disastrous situation.”
The golden era for women was the 70s, in which the culmination of decades of struggle finally put women on the road to financial independence and equality.
“It was the accumulation of long history of struggle and trying to achieve equality and to be recognised as a force in building the country which started after the 1920 revolution in Iraq,” Haifa says.
“Then the thirties came with the publication of women’s magazines and then women started to join political parties, movements, charitable organisations, establishing the Red Crescent.
“Women were being sent by various governments to study abroad and that began in the late thirties, women doctors, women judges in the 50s, cabinet ministers.
“Then there was the movement of liberation; national liberation and women’s liberation. It was a cultural movement in writing poetry, writing short stories, contributing to various newspapers – not using their real names but there were publications where they published their own pieces, how they felt.
“That was linked with the economy and with the discovery of oil. The country was living a new era of affluent society. Women took part in it and benefitted from it.
“If you are independent economically, you can really force your way, you can defy traditions in order to assure your place in the public place as well as the development of the whole the country. It was the peak of this in the 70s – not because of the 70s on its own was when everything happened, but it was an accumulation of what had happened in previous decades.
“Jobs until then were more or less only for men. Women were contributing to every aspect. The government at that time encouraged studying the sciences especially for women. That deprived us of poetry and writing fiction but it was necessary at that time to develop the country.”
Progress paused during the Iraq-Iran War. It wasn’t the beginning of the decline – yet – says Haifa, but a switch in the Government’s priorities.
It was the 1990s with the first Gulf War and the degrading UN sanctions which came as a “real time for losing”.
“Women had to give up their work. It was too expensive to get decent clothes, to look decent to go to work and the salary was not worth it. [With] the depreciation of the currency, your salary for the whole month was $2 or $3.
“Even education started to deteriorate at that time which was a big blow for Iraq,” Haifa adds.
In the wake of the US invasion, women had a new part to play. “It was not because they earned a new life, taking advantage of any real development in society, about democracy, about women’s rights. No,” Haifa says. “The role change became obvious at that time when it became too dangerous for men to go out because they were targeted at checkpoints everywhere.
“Because women were not on lists of direct targeting or assassination, they became the real power to go out, although risking their lives also. They carried that burden.”
Decades of progress has rapidly unravelled since 2003 and the sectarian conflicts now plaguing the country relentlessly hamper development. Security and survival, rather than education and employment, dictate daily life.
Today, with 4 million people internally displaced and 10 million in urgent need of food and medicine, the struggle to provide is paramount. In a country where citizens fight for the most basic of human rights – “nothing fancy like freedom of speech,” – cultural norms are also at stake.
“Women are the unit of society. Women are the carriers of tradition, carriers of history, of culture, the narrative which we have been brought up listening to.
“You can feel there is an interruption of cultural continuity among the new generation. They almost don’t know much about what happened before. You can see the despair of not recognising even what is a national unity, what is being an Iraqi. It’s reflected on the identity in a deep way.
“Many changes are taking place culturally when you have this chaos in the country where there is no law.”
Less than 50 years ago, women’s education was considered vital to nation-building, their economic participation imperative to the country’s global standing.
But the past three decades in Iraq – characterised by conflicts, economic embargoes and civil strife – have seen schools obliterated and gender-based violence dominate headlines.
Such is the deterioration of women’s rights, child marriage is seen as a way out of poverty, with girls as young as 13 marrying for a dowry and husband’s protection.
“The law is non-existent so it goes on without anybody being held accountable for it,” Haifa adds. But families choosing not to educate their daughters or forbidding them to work only perpetuates a cycle of poverty. A working woman could contribute to a family’s income.
Empowering Iraqi women to participate in the economy faces many issues – from the break down of security and rule of law to cultural restrictions and lack of Government impetus. But Haifa remains optimistic that there will be progress once more.
“Women were struggling for decades for these achievements. But when you feel, like in any other country, when you feel genuine danger on your life, family, your security, there are mechanisms of survival, mechanisms of resistance, you use them at a time of emergency and we are at such time in Iraq.
“When the situation will change, when it is as peaceful as it used to be, or relatively peaceful, women are going to regain what they achieved over centuries.”
By Shams Shakarchi