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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.


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