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Saturday, October 29, 2016

What would I do with a master in physics in Iraq?

I didn't realize the picture is so grim in Iraq, till I was telling my colleague about my sister who is doing now her master in physics and how she is eager to get married, as if it is the only option she has. While I was expressing my shock how someone was studying such advanced science and yet still maintain a way of thinking that is considered today as medieval, my colleague found it quite normal: "what she would do with master in physics in Iraq? would she be put in a lab or something like that?" Then it hits me: Iraq is not a developed country that is concerned with scientific research, we don't have advanced research labs or centers and definitely we are hospitable environment for any kind of science. Our patients would rather do pilgrimage and other religious rituals when they develop any serious sickness, rather than go to hospitals. When there is sun or moon eclipse, all mosques call for prayers, because it is such a miracle to have the sun or the moon disappear. All Muslims would be praying for Allah for one of his glorious "miracles"!! Even if those Muslims know exactly how and why the eclipse happens, it is still for them such a mystery and should not be trifled with.

In a country where women are still used as ransom for tribal disputes, and children at the age of 14 and 13 are happily married off to either equally child husbands or 30+ adults, there is nothing that tells Iraq will welcome physics or any other science. The scientific research environment needs a critical mind to mentor this research, and this critical mind is not going to develop in a country where the majority are waiting for a 'hidden' imam who is assumed to be alive for almost 1300 years. Among this majority are people who have postgraduate degrees in different scientific fields and have come across different scientific developments and achievements across the world. However, they still maintain the same kind of thinking that created the myth of the hidden imam 1300 years ago. It is definitely not a world for science, not a world that a master in physics would mean anything beyond being a fancy degree that give its holder a fancy academic title, as well as prestigious social status. If the holder is a female, though, how fancy the degree sounds does not really help in attracting equally fancy marriage proposal, because a master in physics may reflect on her as being "woman who reads", which is not a very attractive label for girls in Iraq.

I remember when I was telling my colleagues in the department of English that I was admitted to the PhD program in University of Baghdad. I was over the moon for doing the PhD was my dream, but instead of getting congratulations from all, there were female colleagues who expressed their skepticism over this academic honor. One of them told me that she wished to congratulate me, but having PhD and in English would not reflect nice on me in the marriage market for I would be intimidating to men. She was right! My male colleagues, though express their admiration of scholarly females, but when they choose a wife, they would choose a wife whose priority was family life. A woman who seeks postgraduate degrees in English or any other subject deemed "complicated and advanced" in Iraq is definitely someone into family life!

One would argue, could this be individual cases and there are other people more interested in advancing research and development in the country. If the case was like that, we won't be till now a third-world country, we won't score the highest in so many social and political problems. Again, research and economic developments need an environment that encourage critical thinking, which leads to advancement in research and discoveries. The critical thinking won't sustain most of the social and religious cultures that dominate life in Iraq. The fact that we have so many universities does not make Iraq a  developed country, nor it makes a hospitable culture for research. Our universities are not research institutions, but teaching centers, where students are given degrees to make them employable for jobs, which are remotely related to their training in the university. Most of my students graduate with bachelor degree in English language and literature, but instead of working in related fields (journalism, publishing, and editing), they become teachers of English language without being trained for the job of the teacher. In Iraq being a teacher is not such an important job, and basically anyone can do it. Having no proper job markets for all the graduates from Iraqi universities, it becomes a phenomenon worth studying that most of these graduates seek postgraduate studies. It becomes trendy to do master and PhD to seek a job in the university, because teaching in the university gives prestigious social status (specially to men) pays well to both men and women and with the advantage of less working hours. Actually the last two privileges are what make a teaching job in the university so attractive to educated women in Iraq. Rather than worrying about the social status (which is mostly a major concern for men), female graduates care for the good payment (specially if they are already married), but the most important point is the less working hours. In addition to two months summer vacation and two weeks spring break, a teaching job in the university require 2-3 working days during which lecturers give all their teaching loads. The more they are advanced in the academic hierarchy, the less teaching hours required from them. The promotion process may seem to encourage innovative research as it depends on the publications of the scholar. However, most of the research is published in Iraqi or international journals which charge publication fees. These are not usually the highly esteemed journals in their respected fields, but they are popular among scholars from countries like Iraq, whose institutions only ask for publications, rather than investigate the quality of this publication. As a result of this process, I have met so many professors in English and other fields who do not reflect well the academic title they carry so proudly. Besides, this is how we have so many professors in scientific studies, while Iraq is still among the underdeveloped countries.

In few words, an academic is required to teach in exchange of the all the privileges they enjoy under the title. As they hold big titles, but few merits to show for it, their students think it does not require much effort and smartness to be in the position of their lecturers. I have heard it over the years, that our students wonder how Dr. X or prof. Y get to be in that prestigious position! I used to wonder about as well, when I was a student and could tell that I knew of English literature more than the one who was standing on the stage claiming to be "knowing all". My wondering waned off when I became involved in the process and became first-hand witness to academic reality in Iraq. There is no wonder how all these half-illiterate people running the academic institutions in Iraq, as they are made by the same system that still runs the country.

In conclusion, 50% of the population who will find themselves privileged enough to reach university education, will actually enroll in a system that care for quantity rather than quality. Eventually, they will be the new leaders of the country, to maintain the same system that bring them to the country leadership. One may suggest new leaders, imported from abroad, who are the product of more advanced academic institutions, to help breaking this dominating system. Well, this solution have been thought off obviously, as most of the few elder generation are aware of the problem and work on solving it. As the country is too dangerous to attract foreign academics, it was thought that sending postgraduate students through government sponsored scholarships to do their master as well doctorate studies in the most advanced countries in the world: US, UK, Japan, Germany and many others. As a result the government sent hundred, if not thousands of Iraqis abroad since 2009 around the developed world in the prospect of building rich pool of academics who would come back to Iraq and work, each in their university, to change and advance the academic reality of Iraq, which may lead to better educated generations of Iraqis, and eventually break the rotten system of Iraqi reality. Their goals proved to be too ambitious, because they disregarded the fact that rotten system in Iraqi academia or other workplaces come from the frame of mind dominating Iraqi consciousness, rather than vise versa.

Many of the scholarship students were my colleagues and I had the chance of meeting them while they were doing their studies in UK. Couple of them turned to be more religiously strict than they used to be in Iraq, thanks to all the media presentations about Islamophobia, which helped in creating an environment of hate and intolerance in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. One of them appeared to spent most of her time in Islamic center because she felt quite un-welcomed among other PhD students in the department where she was studying. Without regarding factors of cultural and age differences, she thought the reason was mainly because she was a Muslim woman with headscarf. When I told her I had different experience in King's, she just dismissed my observation as exception to the rule. Another one, who was studying biochemistry thought it was necessary to ask whether the hot chocolate served in a costa cafe is halal (as if you need to kill a cow for milk!)

Most of the Iraqis who came to UK to do their postgraduate degrees didn't really integrate in the academic or social cultures to change their mindsets and acquire new life skills. Most of them moved in Iraqi social circles, always applying for positions in universities which were known for hosting Iraqis, so they could find comfortably familiar environment when they move from their own country to UK. Cardiff, Bangor, Sheffield and Leicester, Manchester and many other universities in UK have welcomed for years Iraqis, Arabs and Muslims that one can find small familiar communities there that bring the sense of home. No sense of alienation or estrangement was felt to push these students out of their comfort zone, to motivate them to think outside the box, or urge them to change. When I was planning to come London, many people told me that I should try to change the university (assuming that I could) and to try to find another position in different city where I could find other Iraqi scholars. As London deemed expensive for Iraqis, they always refrain from applying to universities there and preferred to live in remote cities to the north, where life was cheaper, so they could save money from their stipends which was quite generous if the student would live outside London. For me, London itself was the advantage and staying away from familiar worlds was just a bonus!

That does not mean that the almost four-years time, which Iraqi students spend in UK do not leave an impact or change something in them. It actually does.  After going back to their country, and claim all the social and material benefits of the newly-acquired degree, the reality bites and they start to compare between the last years they have spent in one of the most advanced countries, and their current reality in Iraq. They won't be able to hold the comparisons their minds draw based on their experiences and observations during their years in UK or any other western world, and the way of life in Iraq, which is becoming more medieval every day. Whether they will try to change their reality or not, this is not the question, but whether they would be able to change it. Many people tried, among them are the masterminds that sent them to the advanced countries to change the system, but all failed.

The prevalent culture needs more than hundreds of westernized academics to be changed and exchanged with more liberal one. It needs fathers who raise their sons and daughters to think for themselves and be more in charge of their lives, than forcing them to follow their footsteps. It need mothers who motivate and support their daughters toward realizing their potentials as human beings, rather than convincing them of their dependency on males. It needs stronger law enforcement on the part of the state, which takes the best interest of the people, rather than submit to the corrupted policies of low-level politicians. It needs people conscious of the abyss the country is running into, and strongly willing to push their country back upward, because they know that it is their only home in the wide world.


Thursday, October 6, 2016

I am out

When I come first to this country, they thought I have come escaping IS, that I whatever I have suffered in Iraq was related to that Islamic beast occupying Mosul and other western town in my country. When I explain to them that I come from Shia family, living in Shia dominant area and never came across IS, or never suffered any abuse from them, I can see in their faces question marks, wondering why I would escape my home if I lived a peaceful life. Why a university lecturer, having a good job, would uproot herself and choose to live the life of a refugee in far away land. For those who think that life in Iraq suffers only from IS, I would say IS was the least of my concerns.

Having survived the last four decades in the country with all their wars and sanctions, IS seemed to me just another chapter of an awful life in Iraq. It was not news to me, nor to many Iraqis living in middle and south of Iraq. Our nightmares consist of some other beasts. As a woman, I have more to fight against and struggle with, as secular scholar I had my battles in the university and in the family. If Is had to do with what I had to struggle against, then it was the polarization of religion that IS increased during the last three years. 

Coming from a religious family, I had to practice religion, without truly believing it. I read the holy book hundred of times, and every time I tried to convince myself that there was a miracle and message to all humanity. I tried to persuade myself to take pride in being Muslim woman and wearing hijab. I remember that I for sometime when I was 11 years old, I hated to pray but the peer pressure I get from sisters, I resumed my five-times prayers. I remember that during the 1991 war, everyone was saying that this war because Allah was angry with the Iraqis, and everyone started to look into their sins in their daily acts; I was one of them and decided to come to terms with hijab, intensified my prayers and read the quran constantly.  I even memorized its first five chapters, which are the longest when I was 18. But all that didn't make me believe, nor convinced me that I have the grasped the essence of knowledge through Islam. I thought I was too angry to bring myself to believe and always blamed myself for not being able to overcome my childhood anger, when I hated the gender roles and expectations imposed on me as a girl, in the way I should act, dress, and look. 

My education increased my doubt and nourished my skepticism. I studied English language and literature, through I was introduced to many great thinkers who changed the world with their ideas, but they were not Muslims. They were infidels who drink alcohol, had their affairs and many were actually homosexuals. In my master study, I wrote my thesis about an American poet, Hart Crane, who was homosexual. As a Muslim, I should have hated him, or feel disgusted with him, which was the reaction Muslims show toward homosexuality, if not anger and call for killing whoever is involved in the term. For me, I sympathized with the man, and loved his poetry. Because I touched his humanity through his words, I decided to read about homosexuality, away from religious texts, and found out its scientific explanation. I came to terms with that and started to question why their creator would torture them for being something he cause in them? Then, the same questioning included everything: why we would be punished for doing something our creator deemed so awful but then he could have stopped us from doing it in the first place. What is the purpose of this sick game where you place people in painful situation and when they choose to relieve themselves from pain, you punish them because they chose to end their suffering? I couldn't understand the twisted mentality that this creator had. But I couldn't say anything about my doubts, my questions because I was surrounded by religious family, and society that couldn't accept the mere term of atheism. 

When I started teaching in the university, my lectures were the only platform where I could have raised these questions, but then I needed to be careful then as I started immediately after 2003, when religious tides started to sweep all over Iraq. One day a student who couldn't accept his failing in learning English, snapped in the class and questions the importance of learning the language of the infidel west! It became part of the teaching discourse then to question the west and their real motives in doing anything in the Middle East. Even learning their language was considered a step of blasphemy. Reading their literature was considered even worse. 

But English literature opened my eyes to my worth as a female. In these English texts of different writers I realized that I didn't need to be fair to be pretty and desirable. That I am human and smart even if I was a female. I realized my humanity in a way that I couldn't achieve the same through all the books of religion I have read. With every text I  read, my wish to escape increased. I failed to communicate with my own family, my colleagues, and my students. My prayers became a routine I had to do, my hijab was just convenient way to save time and trouble before going out. My feminine self was put asleep, my intellect is suppressed and my whole existence was waiting for the ultimate end of death. If I talked to God, I would simply tell him, you should have given me the choice to live or not, because I would rather not exist at all than live this miserable life which I hated every single moment of it. 

Religion was imposed on me and made me miserable because I had to believe in it, rather than choose it. Now, I wonder why anyone would choose to convert to Islam or any religion in their adult life? I can talk about Islam and it is honestly not a very attractive religion, whether it is Sunni Islam or Shia Islam. It is simply a repressive religion that ask humanity to keep suffering so they will be rewarded after death. It tells homosexuals, Allah punished people in ancient times because of this and you are next! it tells men you will satisfy your sexual desires with white women and beautiful young boys (no idea what is the purpose of the boys!). I am sorry for all Muslims who are still waiting for a man whom they is still alive for more than 1000 years and still think that humanity didn't suffer enough yet.. For me, I am out..