Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Iraqi Women in Conditions of War and Occupation

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Iraqi Women in Conditions of War and Occupation

Article excerpt


Since the early twentieth century, the issue of women's emancipation has been integral to Iraq's struggle for liberation and development. With the foundation of the League for the Defense of Women's Rights in 1952, women moved to the forefront of Iraqi social activism. Reflecting the official misogyny manifest at the time, the League was initially established as an underground organization. It led the struggle for the establishment of women's legal rights and championed the replacement of tribal law with civil law, realized in 1959 with the passage of the Personal Status Law, in effect catapulting Iraq into the role of a vanguard state in the Arab world on women's rights. What this reflects is that the trajectory of Iraqi development in the twentieth century from a backwater province of the Ottoman Empire to a modem state is reflected in the progress of women from tribal chattel to citizens.'

The works under review here document the reverse of this trajectory in terms of the process of transformation of Iraqi women from citizens of a viable state to tribal chattel in the dystopia created by regime change. Insofar as all these works were written in Arabic by Iraqi women and published within the past decade, they bear witness to the events unfolding around them, and reflect the discourse emergent among Iraq's female intelligentsia. Due to language barriers (that affect even some specialists) and limited distribution, this discourse has not received attention outside of Iraq. These works not only provide rare attention to women's active participation in Iraqi intellectual life and in critical debates on issues facing Iraqi society but they also draw on Iraqi sources that are not readily accessible or even known outside of Iraq, such as some government documents. Taken together, these books consider the changing status of women in Iraq over the last four decades and treat their position from different, though related, vantage points, shedding light on women's material conditions, participation in the workforce, and participation in the political system. Together, they document the degradation of Iraqi women's status with the decline of the Iraqi state.

Lahay 'Abd al-Husayn's book, Athar al-Tanmiya wa-l-Harb 'ala al-Nisa ' fi al-'Iraq, 1968-88, is a revised version of her doctoral dissertation (PhD diss., University of Utah, 1988). The book traces the significant shifts that occurred in women's roles in Iraqi society between 1968 and 1988, or from the Ba'ath Party's rise to power to the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) roughly two decades later. This research contributes to our understanding of an overlooked, yet formative, period in Iraqi history, one that saw the beginning of the decline of women's rights. 'Abd al-Husayn argues that the negative effects of the Iran-Iraq war on women's access to education and work outside the home foreshadowed later shifts in Iraqi women's status. These shifts occurred as a result of significant turning points in modem Iraqi history, including the implementation of the sanctions regime in 1990 and the onset of the Anglo-American occupation in 2003.

The significance of this book stems in large part from the author's use of Iraqi sources. For example, 'Abd al-Husayn employs statistical data reported in the main Iraqi government statistical yearbooks for 1967 through 1988, issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning. This source was difficult to obtain at the time of writing and was reportedly destroyed along with other source materials in the rampant pillaging and burning during the U.S. occupation. 'Abd al-Husayn's use of this and similar sources helps to reconstruct the historical record. The author complements these Iraqi government sources with annual reports of several international agencies, in particular the World Bank and the United Nations.

Through exhaustive statistical analysis, the author concludes that while development expanded women's educational and employment opportunities, the Iran-Iraq War pushed women toward more segregated work opportunities in the lower strata. …

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