In a seminar today I talked about the situation of women in Iraq and I mentioned the tribal culture and medieval frame of mind in relation to gender expectations in Iraq. After I finished, I was approached by a woman who pointed out that I should have mentioned the glorious history of women in Iraq, and that my speech was totally biased. Biased? against whom? I am Iraqi and I am woman. I am not a white English woman who is undermining the role of Iraqi women, or biased against women in the Middle East. I didn't grow up in highly privileged family, to be biased against the poor people in Iraq and dismiss them as tribal people. To be bias, to be prejudiced out of ignorance. I came from that world, I lived that world I talked about.
The history that I was asked to mention, the half-full of the cup, was those years when Iraq became or was moving toward being a secular state under the influence of communism which became gained so big momentum during the 1950s and 60s. However, during these years, the group of women who enjoyed the privileges of the secular state were women of middle-class families, who had access to education, and job market. Yes, they traveled, gained postgraduate degrees from the US and UK, came back to the country to occupy advanced positions in the government offices. These were the women who led the feminist movement in Iraq: received an education in the west, or educated in western schools in the country and through this cultural encounter, they developed a feminist voice.
However, the question I am interested in is what is the percentage of these privileged middle-class girls in comparison to girls from working class, rural backgrounds? Definitely not much. Most of women in Iraq, if they didn't belong to working class families, they belonged to rural Iraq, in which tribal culture was, and still is, prevalent. Under tribal rules, women did not have access to education, and when they did, they were allowed basic education. Probably, if the Baath didn't take over power in 1963, we would have had better world for women (or probably we would have had a dictatorship like the one in China and Russia?!). But the golden days of secular Iraq didn't last long, and soon the Baath took over, and then the communist party was banned. In consequence, most of the Middle class families left, as most of the educated Iraqis were followers. The ones who remained, they had to submit to the patriarchy of the state, which was created by Saddam.
Anti-illiteracy campaign helped a lot of women to have basic reading and writing skills, among them was my mother. It was mandatory for the illiterate to attend evening classes to learn reading and writing. Education was mandatory till the age of 15 under Saddam's rule, especially during the 80s. The main reason was to create a female workforce, as men were in the battlefield. Feminist ideologies were drawn by the general federation of women, a Baathist institution, which soon to adopt a religious discourse, when Saddam decided to go religious in the 90s.
While many Iraqi and Arab feminists like to adopt postcolonial rhetoric, asserting the glorious feminist culture we must have had and blame the colonizing powers for destroying this wonderful past, I prefer to face the reality. Yes I believe colonial powers, especially UK in the 20th and the US in the 21st cc., have enabled tribal customs, but they haven't invent them. They were there, functioning strongly in the rural areas and south of Iraq.
Unless we are ready to see the truth about tribal culture and medieval religious dogams, then we are not going to move out of the abyss we are in. Postcolonial discourse didn't help us in the last half of the 20th c. and it is not going to help in the future. We don't need to be afraid of facing the truth of our reality and the backwardness of the prevalent frame of mind. Engaging in fruitless debates to prove what has been an exception as the general rule, won't help. To have some hundreds of women privileged with education doesn't mean we dismiss the plight of the millions who suffered and still suffering medieval tribalism.
The situation of women in Iraq today is not different from what has been before. To have most of the workforce in Iraq made of women doesn't mean women enjoy freedom, or they have been liberated. Women started form the majority of employees in the public sector during the 80s and 90s, when most men would quit, as government-paid salaries were less than $5. Men preferred to work in the private sector, and women were employed to replace them, even if they didn't have proper qualifications, nor skills.
We need to think of the majority, rather than see things through the bright lenses of the privileged few