In light of International Women’s Day as well as the recent appointment of Baghdad’s first female mayor, civil engineer Zekra Alwach, it’s an opportune moment to remember the many “firsts” enjoyed by Iraqi women.
The nation produced the first female judge, ambassador, and government minister in the Arab world. Iraqi women benefited from state subsidised childcare and education; they once formed about half the public sector workforce and 50 percent of the country’s doctors.
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Sadly, as the 12th anniversary of a disastrous invasion and occupation looms, there is another rather grim “first” to ponder.
Iraqi women are arguably the first to see their status go from one of the highest in the region to one of the lowest, in less than two decades. (Now followed closely by their sisters in neighbouring Syria.)
While most news reports on the new mayor of Baghdad were quick to point out last year’s UN report that documented the illiteracy rate of a quarter of Iraqi women over age 12, and the fact that only 14 percent of women are part of the workforce, they lacked any real context.
The tragic decline in women’s status did not happen in a vacuum. It was the result of 30 years of war and occupation.
While the verdict is still out on whether former Dawa party member and director of the Ministry of Higher Education Alwach will actually be able to implement any progressive programmes to assist women suffering through rampant poverty, corruption and violence in the beleaguered capital, most agree anyone is better than the former mayor, Naim Aboub, an odd-duck incompetent, who refused to leave his post.
But the woman who oversaw the construction of the new Iraqi national bank in London, certainly has her work cut out for her.
After the eight-year war with Iran bankrupted the country, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait – ostensibly to force them to cough up “war debts” – resulted in the first Gulf War and 12 subsequent years of draconian UN sanctions. Not only did sanctions wipe out the middle class and cripple what had been one of the region’s best public health and education systems, they also forced Iraq’s women into impossible situations.
With a 3,000 percent devaluation of the dinar, mothers, many of whom like today were war widow heads of households, were forced to sell off their living room furniture to pay for basics like food and medicine. Girls were pulled out of school for early marriages or to work to help support their families. And many women, even those with PhDs, were forced into prostitution.
Still, there were some basic foundations left in place. When I first arrived in 1997, I befriended Ahlam, a war widow mother of two who supported her family by working in a hair salon. She was a proud member of both the Iraqi Hairdressers Union and the Iraqi Women’s Union – a state run institution that would often intervene in cases of domestic abuse and divorce settlements.
With a 3,000 percent devaluation of the dinar, mothers, many of whom like today were war widow heads of households, were forced to sell off their living room furniture to pay for basics like food and medicine.
I would while away hours talking to women in her salon, a refuge from the outside world and the male “minders” from the Ministry of Information. It was a world of female solidarity and unvarnished truths about life in Baathist Iraq; talk of how to survive when state rations ran out and how to pay for children’s schoolbooks.
This was a time when Sister Marie, a tough Iraqi francophone nun who ran a private hospital in Baghdad, would have to negotiate with black marketeers to buy penicillin. But it was also still a time when women could have state subsidised abortions performed at this Catholic hospital.
After the invasion of 2003, supported by rather disingenuous “feminist cheerleading” from the likes of Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, things went from bad to worse for Iraqi women. The salon Ahlam had managed to buy after 12 years of scrimping, was soon threatened by newly empowered extremists; she had to pull her 13-year-old daughter out of school as a security precaution; and kidnappings and rapes were at an all time high.
Secular to sectarian
As the country – and its old civil code – went from secular to sectarian, churches were fire bombed for the first time ever, and life became even more of a struggle for survival.
But still, Iraqi women carried on. Women like the Christian activist Hanaa Edwar, a powerhouse who once confronted male parliamentarians during the nine-month hiatus of 2010 when politicians horse-traded and squabbled while millions of widows and orphans languished, by screaming at them and demanding they actually attend to affairs of the state.
Edwar runs Amal, a grassroots NGO that assists women and children, and cuts across the largely male dominated sectarian lines. When I called her to get her thoughts on the new mayor, she sounded exhausted. Added to the ambitious programme she administers that encompasses literacy and employment training, domestic abuse prevention and political empowerment for women, is a new programme addressing the post-invasion phenomena of extremism and the internally displaced.
While Ahlam has joined millions of compatriots who are now refugees, her salon goes on. I took tea there a few years ago with the Christian owners and their customers of many faiths; women who all agree that things were so much better “before”.
In a city of car bombs and corruption, with ISIL at the gates, I think of those ladies in the Baghdad beauty parlour/refuge and marvel at their strength. If the new mayor is half as tough as any of them, there is still some hope for the “city of peace”.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman’s Journey Through Iraq and has been reporting from Iraq since 1997.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.