Friday, May 04, 2007

nadej sadig al-ali's book on iraqi women

Soraya, an Iraqi woman in her seventies, recalls the exciting days of political and cultural blossoming in Iraq in the 1950s and early 1960s when she was involved in mostly clandestine political activism but also revelled in the cultural and intellectual life of Baghdad. “I used to meet my boyfriend in Cafe Swiss,” she recalls. “There were always lots of intellectuals, painters and poets hanging around, drinking coffee and discussing things. Both men and women. Everybody used to know everybody. We would talk a lot about literature, art and music.”

Sumaya is the widow of an Islamist political activist in the Al-Dawa party and in the 1980s she was arrested and tortured a few days after her husband was killed by security forces in Baghdad University. She says his body was dissolved in a chemical solution in front of his colleagues, who were forced to watch. As a result of her torture, “I had to have my shoulder blades replaced. They beat me, and hung me by the hair. They hit me with a cable that had iron inside...I was a student of Amina Sadr, also known as Huda Bint Sadr. I am the only one of her students who survived.”

Hana, a Baghdad University professor, complains of how life has changed since the 2003 invasion and occupation. “I want my country back. Why do I have to pay the price for their bad government? Since the occupation, I do not feel safe to go to university. The university is no longer the place I used to know. I cannot socialize. I cannot visit my friends. I cannot even read when I want, because there is no electricity.”

Soraya, Sumaya and Hana are just three of the many Iraqi women whose memories of Iraq’s history over the past 60 years are included in the important and stimulating new book by Nadje Sadig Al-Ali , “Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present”. The 292-page book is published by Zed Books of London and New York.

The book makes a vital and original contribution to the literature on Iraq’s modern history and to the literature on gender and women’s studies. But at the same time its rich, fascinating and revealing text is enormously readable and accessible to the non-specialist, and it deserves a wide readership.

Through her excerpts from interviews with Iraqi women, Al Ali gives a voice to Iraqi women of different backgrounds and ages, from teenagers to their late seventies, who spring vividly to life in her book’s pages. She seeks to dispel any impression that Iraqi women are merely “passive victims.” She shows that they have over the decades been resourceful in facing up to a succession of extremely difficult circumstances, and of coping with wars, sanctions, laws and state policies. From the 1920s they have set up their own organisations and have been part of political movements, and this continues despite the harsh conditions for women in today’s Iraq.

In addition to her interviews, Al-Ali has drawn on a variety of other sources, including the works of Iraqi women writers, among them novelist Beteool Khedairi, diarist Thura Al-Windawi (whose 2004 book “Thura’s Diary: My Life in wartime Iraq” was written when she was only 19), and the famous young woman blogger known only as Riverbend, whose blog was published in book form as “Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq”.

Some older women tell of the thrilling days when they were part of political and social movements, a number recalling their activities in the Iraqi Communist Party. Some others are reluctant to admit how attracted they were to the Ba’th party when they were young, as part of their Arab nationalism and admiration for Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The book includes memorable black and white photographs of women demonstrating in the streets in different eras. Interwoven with the testimonies on political, social and economic changes at different times are the stories of flirtations, family dramas and sometimes secret love affairs.

Al-Ali is the daughter of an Iraqi father and German mother who is now Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter in south-west England. Her previous books include “Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East” (2000) and “New Approaches to Migration” (2002).

Although Al-Ali ‘s family lived in Germany, they kept in close touch with their relatives in Iraq and visited Baghdad from time to time. Al-Ali contributes her own experiences and those of her family in Iraq to her book. Her late aunt Salima, who began to lose her sight as a child, was a main pillar of the family, despite her blindness. The book is dedicated to her and to the late Cynthia Nelson, Al-Ali’s professor at the University of Cairo.

Alongside her academic career, Al-Ali is a political activist, and was a founder in 2000 of the Iraqi-British organisation Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq. She is also a member of the London section of Women in Black, a worldwide network of women who are against war and violence

Over the past ten years Al-Ali has extensively documented the ways in which Iraqi women, and gender relations, have changed within the context of political repression under the Ba’th regime, changing policies towards women, a series of wars, and economic sanctions. For her latest book she has extended her time frame back to the late 1940s and interviewed more than 100 women in addition to the 80 she had interviewed earlier. In order to encourage the women to speak freely, their identities are concealed. Although she spoke to women who were diverse in age, marital status, and political and religious background, she recognises that they are mainly middle-class urban women, and that there is further research to be done among poor and rural women.
Al-Ali examines the growth and changing nature of the Iraqi diaspora. It is estimated that more than four million Iraqis, out of a total of 24 million, are scattered over the world. In addition hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced within Iraq itself. She interviewed women for her book in four locations: London, Amman, Detroit and San Diego. The reason for choosing two cities in the US is the role the US is playing in contemporary Iraq. The Detroit area is home to the largest Arab community in the US, including Iraqis, and there she met in particular members of the Iraqi Christian Chaldean and Shi’i communities. In San Diego county, California, there are more 8,000 Iraqi Kurds.

In Amman there are around a million Iraqi refugees while thousands of other Iraqis visit the Jordanian capital for short periods. As regards London, Al-Ali describes her own experiences of the Iraqi diaspora there after she moved to London from Cairo, where she had been studying, to do her PhD on the Egyptian Women’s Movement. She describes these experiences as “becoming Iraqi in London”.

Ali stresses that the current tendency to classify Iraqis in terms of their sect is relatively recent. Before, other classifications were more important, such as social class, generation, place of residence, urban or rural identity, professional background and political orientation. At the same time, she recognises that at certain times Saddam Hussein encouraged sectarianism and tribalism at certain times to increase the regime’s grip on power. Her interviewees include an Iraqi Jewish woman living in London who grew up in Iraq in the late 1930s and 1940s in a multicultural society, and was proud of being both Iraqi and Jewish

Al-Ali’s academic and activist activities are inspired by her feminism. She acknowledges that feminism is now a “thoroughly unfashionable and almost dirty word“ both in Muslim societies, where it is often seen as imposed from outside and, in western societies where it is seen as being to do with man-hating radical women.

She is scrupulously objective and balanced in recording what the women told her and in putting her text together. She probes beneath the surface of what the women say, and her interviewing method was interactive and involved her having discussions with the woman and occasionally arguing with them. One aspect she brings out is tensions between those women who had stayed in Iraq before the invasion and those who returned in 2003 and afterwards, sometimes after decades outside the country. Some women in Iraq resented such newcomers who were put in positions of “empowering” them.

Al-Ali explores crucial issues regarding memory and the construction of history and personal narratives, and recognises the possibility of “multiple truths” about an event. “Memories, whether individual or collective, are not static and frozen in time, but are alive, rooted in the present as much as in the past, and linked to aspirations as much as social experience.”

In the context of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, “and the escalating violence and sectarian tensions, contestations about power and national identity, history becomes a very important and powerful tool. Contesting narratives about what happened in the past relate directly to different attitudes towards the present and visions about the future of the new Iraq.”

She finds a tendency among Iraqi women, finding themselves in bad circumstances at various points of history, to look back on the past with nostalgia. Women were involved in the major Al-Wathba uprising of 1948 and in other activities against the monarchy, but despite the inequalities and repression then some women now look back with great nostalgia to that time. Some have revised their views of that period in light of the conditions in succeeding decades.

Al-Ali brings out the contradictions in the history of women in modern Iraq. Saddam Hussein in the early years of his rule spoke out for the liberation of women, although the intention may have been to thereby gain the loyalty of women and their influence on the next generation. Women were active in the work force, and were encouraged to combine lives at work and at home. “Even some of the women I interviewed who were extremely critical of the Ba’th regime and had suffered themselves in various ways stressed some positive policies vis a vis women,” she writes.

Iraqi women became among the most educated and professional in the entire Middle East. And although the General Federation of Iraqi Women was a branch of the ruling party, it played a positive role in promoting women’s education, literacy, labour force participation and training and health. It was not a mere mouthpiece of the regime, but did have tensions and differences with the Ba’thist leadership in defending women’s rights and gender equality.

But the year 1980 marked the beginning of a decline in conditions for Iraqi women, with the start of a series of wars, violence and hardship. During the war with Iran there was a stress on the Iraqi male’s military prowess, and on the woman as a mother. Women were asked to have five children in the fertility campaigns.

The Gulf war of 1991 and the 13 years of sanctions brought further deterioration in the conditions for women. There was a drop in employment and pay levels, crime increased, women went back into their homes, and “umm beit muharama” (the respectable housewife) replaced the educated Iraqi woman as the “proper Iraqi female”. The education system declined and illiteracy soared.

“More than three years after the invasion, all indications point to the painful reality that women are among the biggest losers in the new Iraq,” Al-Ali writes in the conclusion of her book. Women have been used “by all political parties and actors concerned to score points and get across specific messages and signals. They have been pushed back into their homes. They are targeted not only because of what they wear or do not wear, their activities, their politics, even their driving, but often simply for being women.”
But despite this she feels that “Iraqi women continue to carry and embody the seed of hope for a more secure, peaceful and dignified time.”

Susannah Tarbush

Al Hayat website, 3 May 2007 (accessible at:

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