Thursday, May 24, 2007

pressures on musicians

From the Saudi Debate website: Beyond the public condemnation by conservatives of live music and theatrical performances that are criticised for falling short of Islamic practices, a burgeoning community of artistic talent is finding a growing audience among Arabs across the Middle East and around the world. From Bahrain’s ‘Spring of Culture’ festival to London’s ‘Ramadan Nights’ season, Arab musicians and others are defying various forms of popular and governmental censorship despite serious risks – including death threats – against which they have little or no protection. As Susannah Tarbush writes, the fury meted out against the Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife and the Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad in response to their staging in Bahrain recently of the love story Laila and Majnoun, was disconcertingly typical of the artists’ plight. 20 May 2007.

Article begins:

The ongoing investigation by a Bahraini parliamentary committee into the "immoral" and "anti-Islamic" performance of a new work by Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife and Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad is just one example of the intense political and religious pressures on the freedom of musical expression in some Arab and Muslim countries.

The new work by Khalife and Haddad is an interpretation in music, poetry and dance of the classic Middle Eastern love tragedy Laila and Majnoun. It was performed two nights running at the beginning of March as the inaugural event of Bahrain's annual Spring of Culture Festival.

Khalife and Haddad are two of the most prominent artists in the Arab world, known for constantly pushing forward the creative boundaries in their respective fields. Their version of Laila and Majnoun features male and female dancers in intimate positions. It triggered fury among Islamist MPs, who control three-quarters of the 40 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. But a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Information's Culture and Heritage Department, which organised the festival, said the response to Laila and Majnoun had been overwhelmingly positive.

The Salafist Al Asala Islamic Society issued a statement saying the dances were "depraved and offended our religious and moral sensitivities as well as our traditions." The lyrics were "a blatant violation of our Islamic precepts and values." MP Shaikh Mohammed Khalid, of the Sunni Islamist Al-Menbar bloc, dubbed the festival "the Spring of Foolishness". He told the Gulf Daily News that Khalife and Haddad's work was against Islam because "it depicted adultery between the two main characters. The actions of the dancers was clearly meant to depict a sexual act between a man and a woman." Khalid called for future Spring of Culture festivals to be modelled on festivals in Saudi Arabia, and to consist of poetry recitals and lectures.

The Chamber of Deputies voted to set up a seven-member committee to investigate the controversy. The committee is due to report back within six months. If it finds evidence of wrong doing, information minister Dr Mohammed Abdul Ghaffar may face parliamentary questioning and a vote on whether he should be sacked.

The MPs could hardly have chosen a more high-profile Bahraini cultural event as their target. The six-week festival of art, poetry, music, dance, theatre and lectures was supported by the Economic Development Board and sponsored by telecommunications company Batelco. Among the international and local artists participating were the Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, Bahraini singer Khalid al Shaikh and the spectacular Brazilian group Brasil Brasileiro...

Friday, May 11, 2007

i never said goodbye

“Munem, how can we ever go to Iraq now?” These were the words of a young Englishwoman, Pauline Knowles, to her Iraqi fiancĂ© in July 1958 as they watched in horror the black and white TV news of overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq. But it was inevitable that Munem Samarraie would eventually return to Iraq from England, where he had been sent by his government on a scholarship. Three years later he left for Baghdad, having completed his studies in engineering at the University of Birmingham.

The following year Pauline, whom he had married not long after the coup, joined him in Iraq with their young son Mazin. It was the first time this unsophisticated young woman from the town of Halifax in the north of England had ever flown in an aircraft.

“I didn’t even feel the slightest twinge of anxiety or fear when faced with the prospect of a new culture, a new language and a new country with a history as old as Time itself,” Pauline Knowles-Samarraie writes in “I Never Said Goodbye: A Mother’s Memoir of Love and Brutal Loss Inside Saddam’s Regime”, published recently by Andre Deutsch of London. She was “like a blank page, all ready for the story of my new life to be written upon it.”

Pauline could not have known that the story of her life over the following four decades would have tragedy and loss written on its pages, in parallel with the bloody trajectory of Iraq’s modern history. Her husband Munem would fall foul of the Saddam regime and would, like so many others, be killed. And as if that was not enough, her son Mazin would be imprisoned in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison and she would only find out his terrible fate years later.

But these tragedies lay far in the future, and when Pauline first arrived in Baghdad her new life lived up to her expectations. She quickly made friends, and was given a job in the English section of Iraq radio. In their free time she and Munem would travel around Iraq seeing the sights, including his home town of Samarra.

More than 40 years on, Pauline lives near Brighton on the south coast of England, far from the horrific turmoil of Iraq. She wrote her memoir in collaboration with Karen O’Brien, Arab World Regional Editor for the BBC World Service and author of biographies of singers Kirsty MacColl and Joni Mitchell.

The memoir includes accounts of political and economic developments in Iraq alongside Pauline’s personal drama. The first coup Pauline experienced was in 1963. When she returned to her broadcasting studio she found it had been “turned into an executioner’s chamber: the walls and floors were smeared with dried blood.”

Munem rose within the oil industry and the family moved to a new house near the Dora refinery. They enjoyed a rich social life: there were gatherings in friends’ houses, poolside parties at embassies, nightclubs on the banks of the Tigris, open air cinemas and Thursday night dances at the Engineers’ Union. “We were a cosmopolitan group in the Swinging Sixties and we loved the social life.” Pauline gave birth to her second child, a daughter Nada.

Saddam Hussein made his presence increasingly felt. Pauline remembers his coming to her in-laws’ house to pay his condolences after the death of Munem’s brother Bedri in a London hospital. Saddam was a friend of Munem’s oldest brother, Faleh, and was already regarded as something of a hero because he had been among the group of Baathists that had tried to assassinate the leader of the 1958 coup, Abdul Karim Qassim. Pauline conveys his almost movie-star charisma.

Just as Saddam came to take over Iraq and to impose his ruthless power, so he came to dominate the life of Munem Samarraie and his wife. In 1972 the Iraqi oil industry was nationalized which gave the Ministry of Oil new power and status. The sharp oil price rises after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war brought Iraq the riches to embark on ambitious economic development. Munem was intimately involved in the development of the oil industry.

Saddam telephoned Munem so frequently that “my husband came to dread the sound of the ringing telephone.” Munem never had a break from work and Saddam would phone him at all hours of the night to demand “Why didn’t you do this? What’s happening about that?” Pauline writes: “Later we would realize just to what extent Saddam was able to use people but, in using them, he destroyed them. He cleverly hid his cruel streak initially; so many people – millions in fact – were completely taken in by him.”

The intolerable pressure on Munem at work put the couple’s relationship under much strain. According to Pauline, Munem took his frustration out on his family. And yet when she and Munem were invited to a reception by Saddam, “like every other women in the room, I was completely drawn in by the aura of power exuded by this handsome man.”

Nowadays biographies published in Britain are expected to give a warts-and-all picture of their subject, and “I Never Said Goodbye” is no exception. Pauline tells us how she found a candid love to Munem letter from a European woman, whom she calls Anita. He assured her it was just a brief fling, long over. Some time later Munem told Pauline to take the children back to England and then wrote telling her that their marriage was over and that she should not return to Iraq. After Pauline wrote to his brother Faleh, she received new tickets and she and the children rejoined Munem. Later on she discovered a large bundle of hidden letters that had been sent to Munem at his office address by several women in England, France and Germany whom he had met during his long trips on government business. Munem blamed her and seemed unrepentant, but he refused to let her leave him.

Pauline’s depictions of Munem are tinged with bitterness. It is as if the discords of her marriage have blighted her assessment of a man who was remarkable in a wider context. As she recognizes, he had a deep commitment to his country and developing its potential. Indeed, one of the things that first attracted her to him when he was studying for his A-levels in Halifax was his determination, and the way he seemed so assured about himself and his path in life.

Munem was clearly courageous. He realized he must get his family out of Iraq, but knew this plan would be blown if they all left at once and in any case Mazin was at that time in the army. He therefore insisted that Pauline and Nada leave first, as if they were going on holiday to England.

The last time Pauline saw Munem was in a hotel room at Heathrow airport where he had stopped off during a business trip. He was sitting with a number of friends who had left Iraq and now lived in England. Munem told Pauline that Saddam had told him to leave Iraq, but that he could not do this because he did not want to endanger Mazin and his family. She later found out Munem was imprisoned when he returned to Iraq, and executed without trial on August 19 1986. She suspects he had got into trouble for speaking out against something that outraged him. “Munem had gone back to Iraq for that final time in defiance of Saddam, purely to protect his son. It was tantamount to signing his own death warrant.”

Pauline lost contact with her son, and found out he was in Abu Ghraib prison. Years later, in 1995, she revisited Iraq and it was only then that one of her brothers-in- law, who had also been in prison, told her: “Saddam hanged him”. She realized the extent of her in-laws’ deception since Mazin’s disappearance.

Throughout her book Pauline paints her in in-laws in generally negative, unsympathetic tones. Of course, we only hear her side of the story. During Munem’s absences from Baghdad on business, she and the children would be expected to stay with his family. She tells how early in her married life his brother Badir objected to her makeup and Western clothes and smashed the wardrobe mirror in her room. It took her years to reach a modicum of understanding with the great matriarch of the family, her mother-in-law Umm Faleh.

One gratifying outcome of the publicity marking the publication of Pauline’s memoir is that it has prompted some Iraqis who knew Munem very well to record their own memories of him. A moving and deeply-felt tribute from the London-based Iraqi oil analyst Muhammad-Ali Zainy was published on April 15 on the blog Iraqi Mojo .

Zainy describes Munem as his dearest and best friend. Both of them graduated from Birmingham University, and they were long-time colleagues in Iraq’s Ministry of Oil. He writes in his lengthy tribute: “Yes they executed Munem, for a ready-made but sham accusation, bribery! What a tasteless joke! Munem lived a poor man and died a poor man. He was most patriotic, most honest, and most incorruptible. He was a true democrat and a strong believer in human rights. His only sin was that he was against the regime and that was a medal of honour for him and for all Iraqis who were martyred for the same reasons.”

Zainy proposes that some time in the future when life in Iraq goes back to normal, the Ministry of Oil should make an oil and gas museum. “The museum should include a big room for all those oil and gas Iraqis who got martyred for one reason or another, from the beginning of the Iraqi oil industry till this day; and the late Munem al-Samarraie should have a statue in that room.”

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 7th May 2007

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

fadiq faqir's novel 'my name is salma'

The Jordanian-British writer Fadia Faqir’s third novel “My Name is Salma” has been a long time coming, but looks destined to attract major interest among readers on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond with its themes of honor killings, exile and personal reinvention. The gripping, non-linear narrative is rendered in a rich multi-layered style, switching constantly in time and place between the Middle East and England.

Faqir’s first novel “Nisanit” was published 20 years ago and her second, “Pillars of Salt”, in 1996. Both were acclaimed by critics, propelling Faqir to a prominent place among Arabs writing fiction in English. “My Name is Salma” will further boost her literary reputation.

Leading publishing houses competed to publish the novel. In Britain, Doubleday/Random House is about to publish it, while in the US it will be published (under the title “The Cry of the Dove”) by Grove Atlantic. The novel’s Canadian publisher is Harper Collins, and it is also being issued in translation by publishers in Italy, France, Spain and Denmark.

The novel’s first-person narrator, Salma, is a young Bedouin woman from an unnamed country in the Levant who, after becoming pregnant out of wedlock, faces being killed by her brother in order to restore the family honour.

Salma has been having a recklessly passionate affair with a young man she has fallen in love with, but as soon as she tells him she is pregnant his charm turns to fury. “You are responsible. You have seduced me with the yearning tunes of your pipe and swaying hips,’” he says. A midwife’s crude efforts to abort the baby using metal implements fail and in order to save Salma from an honor killing her teacher gets her taken into protective custody.

In prison Salma’s companions include Noura, who has been charged with prostitution, and a woman who was arrested for walking out naked into the street after being driven crazy by her husband’s taking a second wife. When Salma gives birth, Noura pays a warder to take the baby girl away from her immediately, thinking this will be better for Salma than being parted from her baby after she has breastfed and bonded with her.

Salma spends several years in prison before being rescued by a nun who takes her to a convent in Lebanon. But her brother is still looking for her, and a Miss Asher manages to arrange the paperwork necessary for her to adopt Salma, under the name Sally Asher, and to take her to England.

In England Salma is held in immigration detention and is released through the efforts of Miss Asher and a Quaker man, who argues that she deserves political asylum because she will be killed if she is returned to her own country. Salma eventually moves to the cathedral city of Exeter in south-west England.

Here she faces a new set of problems as an alien who has somehow to find a new identity and a life for herself. She yearns for her daughter, whom in her mind she calls Layla, and is so haunted by the trauma she suffered back home that she has hallucinations of a man who has come to kill her.

In her acknowledgements at the end of the novel, Faqir says she started working on “My Name is Salma” in 1990 but “a winter of despair had set in. I finally emerged from under the yew tree and picked it up again in January 2005. While writing, and not writing, ‘My Name is Salma’ I had guiding spirits of my own: Angela Carter, Malcolm Bradbury and Lorna Sage, now dead but their souls will always soar above my head.”

Before starting her fiction writing career, Faqir obtained an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia’s famed writing course, and was the first person to be awarded a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing there. Carter, Bradbury and Sage, all major figures on the British literary scene, were among her teachers. Faqir was brought up in Amman, and now lives in the cathedral city of Durham in the north of England with her Magyar-Irish-English husband Dean Torok.

In addition to her work as a novelist, Faqir has been general editor of the Arab Women Writers series, published in the UK by Garnet, which brought to an English-language readership five novels in translation by writers including Huda Barakat, Liana Badr and Salwa Bakr. Faqir also edited and contributed to “In the House of Silence: Autobiographical essays by Arab women writers” in the same series.

Faqir has written short stories, plays, academic papers, and chapters in books on literature and Arab women. Her short story The Separation Wall, which was published in ‘Bound, New Writing North’ and ‘Magnetic North 2005’ is to appear in the forthcoming anthology “Arab-American and Arab Anglophone Literature”, edited by Nathalie Handal.

The long gestation period of “My Name is Salma” has not reduced the novel’s topicality. One has only to follow news from the Mideast, or skim through newspapers published in the Arab world, to see that honor killings, and other intolerable measures against women, continue. In some Arab countries war, instability and growing extremism are worsening the situation of women.

Faqir has carried out research into honor killings in Jordan, so has an inside knowledge of the subject. In countries in the West, there have been honor killings among some immigrant communities. Salma’s best friend in Exeter is Parviz, a young woman from a Pakistani community in northern England who ran away from home when her father tried to marry her off to someone against her will. Like Salma, Parviz lives in fear of being tracked down and kidnapped, or worse, by her family.

Faqir’s writing in “My Name is Selma” covers a wide emotional range, from moments of high drama to quietly satisfying everyday scenes. Faqir captures Salma’s sense of confusion and of being caught between her memories and the fragmented British society in which she finds herself. Faqir’s prose is sensual, fully alive to colors, tastes, smells and bodily sensations. She is an astute observer of English society and of its rules and nuances of behavior.

The author has a gift for creating authentic characters, even those who, like shopkeeper Sadeq, owner of the Omar Khayyam off-licence, play a relatively minor role. There are many touches of gentle humor in her narrative, as seen in the scenes featuring an elderly North African man who runs a kebab van with his son. He suspects that Salma is either a tramp or an employee of intelligence agency MI5.

Salma has experienced cruelty within the patriarchal society of her home country, but British men also have their flaws. She is chatted up one evening in a pub by a seemingly understanding man, an ageing hippy type with a pony tail who runs a health food shop. Salma invites him into her lodgings for a cup of tea with sage, and he stays the night. The man proves to be a letdown. He is furtive when she next meets him in the street by chance, and later he even accuses her of stalking him.

Despite her vulnerability and anxieties, Salma emerges over the course of the novel as a resolute character. When her boss Max, for whom she works as a seamstress, denies her the pay rise she had requested she takes a second job working evenings in a hotel bar. She assiduously tries to improve her English, and enrolls for a BA in English literature.
There is pathos in the predicament of Salma’s elderly landlady Liz, with whom she lodges in Swan Cottage. Liz has a severe drink problem and withdraws into memories of her days in India as a teenager when she had a doomed love affair with an Indian. Salma witnesses the decline of Liz with compassion and horror. In one scene a drunken, whip-wielding Liz dressed in riding breeches and boots slashes Salma’s arm so badly she needs hospital treatment. Another elderly woman, retired Welsh headmistress Gwen, becomes a close friend of Salma’s. Such older women are often neglected by fiction writers, but in Faqir’s hands they are intriguing characters.

The development of Salma’s relationship with John, the university tutor who will become her husband, is convincingly drawn. The couple are happy together and have a baby son. But Salma has an irresistible compulsion to seek her out her daughter, sensing that she is in danger. In the novel’s searing final chapter she embarks on a journey back to her village, and Faqir keeps us guessing the outcome up to the end.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 30th April 2007

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: