Iraq: gendering authoritarianism

Women in Iraq bear the brunt of increasing levels of gender-based violence, inadequate infrastructure and poverty. Yet women activists recognize that their struggle for equality and social justice as women cannot be separated from the wider struggle against authoritarianism and sectarianism

Woman stares into distance as - out of focus - soldiers retreat in background

The recent wave of violence and political tensions in Iraq has been overshadowed by the daily gruesome news about atrocities, violence and deaths in Syria as well as the protests and brutal crackdown by the police in neighbouring Turkey. Clearly, the escalating situation in Syria has a direct impact on Iraq, at the same time as sectarian tensions and divisions within Iraq play out on Syrian soil as well.

However, one of the ironies and paradoxes of the situation in Iraq today is that we almost seem have come full circle in terms of an authoritarian, highly militarized regime that is employing force, violence and intimidation to limit dissent, and eliminate political opponents. Nouri Al-Maliki is emerging as the new über-patriarch in a highly divided society, instrumentalizing - now frankly unrealistic - fears of a Baathi come back. While the government’s wrath is targeted at all political opponents, the regime’s wider tone, discourses and policies have been deepening sectarian divisions. Sunni opposition groups, including some extremist militias and Islamists, are regrouping and talking of their “Arab Spring.” One can only hope that those ready to take up arms once again and engage in devastating bombing campaigns, mainly targeting Shia civilians, are in too small numbers to further unsettle an already unstable and precarious situation. We are painfully reminded when we listen to the news about car bombings, that even small numbers can have devastating effects.

Clearly, a decade after the invasion, security - or rather the lack thereof - is again on everyone’s mind in central and southern Iraq. In addition to the general on-going lawlessness and insecurity, the Iraqi government is failing to counter the increase in gender-based forms of violence, ranging from a high incidence of domestic violence, forced marriages, forced prostitution and trafficking, as well as FGM and honour-based crimes and killings. There is very limited political will to either criminalize gender-based violence , or even more importantly, to implement existing laws. Meanwhile, women bear the brunt of the extremely inadequate basic services, ranging from electricity, access to clean water, sewage, health care and education. A decade after the invasion, the Iraqi state has been unable to provide a proper infrastructure and sufficient employment opportunities, with large numbers of Iraqi men and women still being unemployed. The high number of female-headed households and widows without proper support accounts for the increasing  feminisation of poverty. 

Political participation

Politically, Iraqi women have very limited influence and power to contribute to decision-making. To some extent, this is a direct consequence of the re-emergence of political authoritarianism under Prime Minister Al-Maliki: all political actors experience the systematic side-lining of political opposition, the  lack of rule of law and widespread political violence. However, women are particularly marginalized in a context where they are perceived as incapable of leading and strategizing, where social attitudes have shifted towards more conservative gender norms, and where armed violence, political intimidation, attacks on political opponents as well as rampant corruption are shaping politics.

Whereas  there were 6 female-headed ministries from 2005-2006, no woman was appointed to a senior post in the new 44-member cabinet after the 2010 elections. Only two ministries of state were offered to women, one without portfolio lost her position as part of Prime Minister Al-Maliki’s downsizing, leaving only one female Minister: Ibtihal Al-Zaidi, who was appointed Minister of State for Women’s Affairs. She herself stated that her Ministry: “has no jurisdiction over the directorate of women’s welfare or increasing funds allocated to widows". In fact, she argued "the Ministry is no more than an executive-consultation bureau with a limited budget and no jurisdiction on implementing resolutions or activities". Her predecessor, Nawal al-Samaraie, resigned due to lack of jurisdiction and insufficient budget.

Women have not been involved in many of the important negotiations in recent years, most recently to form a government coalition after the elections in 2010. Many women who made it into the Council of Representatives have been there to meet constitutional requirements, i.e. the stipulated quota of 25%, which translated into 82 women out of 325 at the last elections.  Most of the women parliamentarians are often  the wives, sisters or daughters of male politicians eager to fill the required seats with women without having to engage with wider issues of gender equality and women’s rights. Indeed, many Iraqi women’s rights activists I spoke to over the last years bemoan the phenomenon of female parliamentarians often being  more interested in expressing partisan views – frequently of an Islamist and sectarian hue – instead of furthering the interests of Iraqi women.

It is important to stress that the situation in the Kurdistan Regional Government area is slightly different for female parliamentarians and politicians, given that they have been allowed to play a more active role in shaping legislation and policy. Many Kurdish women’s rights activists, however, also complained to me about tokenism and lack of proper consultation, in addition to the small number of women in decision-making positions.

Women’s rights activism

Despite the systematic marginalization and side-lining of Iraqi women in the official political institutions and processes, they  have not merely stood by but have mobilized at the level of formal civil society organizations, social and political movements, as well as more informal community and interest groups. Women activists have been at the forefront of a growing political movement for democracy and human rights that, in line with current  protest movements in the region, asking for greater transparency and an end to corruption and political authoritarianism. Many Iraqi women’s rights activists realize that their struggle for greater gender equality and social justice cannot be separated from the struggle against an emerging new dictatorship, the re-militarization of society, corruption and nepotism. 

Crowd of women with flag smiling and clapping Protest in Sulimaniya. Photo: Johnny Wichmann / Demotix

Women have participated in the protests on Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in the Kurdish region, particularly in Sulimaniya. In June of 2011, a group of women demonstrating for peace and democracy were physically attacked and some sexually abused on Tahrir Square. For many months, groups of students and activists had been gathering in that square, demanding government reforms, jobs, more electricity and clean water. Protesters were brutally beaten by the police, arrested, some disappeared, and a number of organizers were killed, in what many activists allege are targeted assassinations ordered by Prime Minister Al-Maliki. At a human rights conference attended by international organizations in June 2011, one of the leading women’s rights activists, Hanaa Edwar, stormed in with a placard to protest against the disappearance of four activists who had been demonstrating publicly against the government. She was also challenging Al-Maliki’s allegation that some Iraqi human rights organizations were fronts for terrorists.

Iraqi women’s rights organizations have also been at the forefront of condemning the assassination of protesters, civil society activists and human rights defenders over the past years. Most recently, women’s rights activists and organizations joined the protest against the assassination of Jalal Dhiyab in Basrah on 26 April 2013. Dhiyab was a prominent defender of human rights with a special focus on the rights for full citizenship of black Iraqis. Prior to this incident, Iraqi women’s organizations were instrumental in starting initiatives to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq. A few months ago, on the occasion of international women’s day 2013, a coalition of NGOs, informal organizations and individual activists jointly issued a statement condemning sectarianism, corruption, the lack of basic infrastructure and services. It is no surprise that Al-Maliki feels bothered, if not threatened, by the Iraqi women’s movement.  

Meanwhile, mobilization around more specific women’s rights and gender-based issues has mushroomed over the past decade, despite the many challenges and threats to women’s rights activists. Women-led NGOs as well as more informal community associations have been campaigning about women’s legal rights, especially with reference to the unresolved dispute over the personal status code (Article 41) - the set of laws governing marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance - as well as criminal laws that do not offer sufficient protection against gender-based violence, particularly “honour-based crimes”.  Women’s rights activists have also been mobilizing against domestic violence, trafficking, and honour-based crimes, providing shelters and advice to victims. Given the humanitarian situation, most organizations are also involved in welfare and charity work, providing income-generating activities as well as training for women.  Very few activists, however, make a link between increased privatization and neo-liberal economic policies, on the one hand, and the increase in women’s unemployment and the feminization of poverty on the other.

Women’s empowerment and leadership initiatives, trainings and projects appear to flourish in a context where many NGOs indiscriminately take funding from international organizations, including USAID, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). These organisations actively pursue neo-liberal economic agendas with buzzwords such as empowerment, entrepreneurship and leadership, but characteristically fail to address the devastating impact of privatisation and underlying structural inequalities.  This is particularly evident in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) controlled areas in which the invasion is still largely perceived as liberation and not occupation. Women’s organisations in central and southern Iraq tend to be more cautious in terms of the sources of their funding.

Looking forward

At the height of sectarian violence in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, it was clearly apparent that women’s bodies and wider gender norms and relations were used by militias to assert control in neighbourhoods, and to mark the boundaries of different religious and ethnic communities. It was also obvious that there was a link between the militarization of conflict and the increase in gender-based violence.  Unfortunately, these trends have become entrenched in today’s Iraq, even if in slightly more subtle ways than a few years ago.

Acute violence in the form of car bombs and targeted assassinations, as well as kidnapping, forced prostitution, trafficking and honour-based crimes are only the tip of the iceberg of much deeper and widespread forms of gender-based violence. Furthermore, there is a constant policing of women’s involvement in public activities, employment, general behaviour within the home and family, and dress code both by state and non-state actors.  

While there is ample evidence of the negative impact of the occupation on women’s lives in central and southern Iraq, the blame can not be exclusively  laid at the door of  policy failures and atrocities perpetrated by  the U.S and the UK.  A decade on, Iraqi politicians, militia and community leaders need to be held to account as well.

Although currently glossed over and forgotten, women’s  struggles and challenges  as women are closely tied to pervasive militarization and communal politics. But it is also women activists themselves  who recognize that their struggle for increased equality and social justice as women can not be separated from the wider struggle against authoritarianism, sectarianism, corruption and nepotism. 

About the author

Nadje Al-Ali is Professor of Gender Studies at SOAS, University of London. She is the author of Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (Zed Books), and a founding member of Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq