The Untold Story of Iraqi Women

I am Inanna.
And this is my city.
And this is our meeting
Round, red and full.
Here, some time ago,
someone was asking for help
shortly before his death.
Houses were still here
with their roofs,
and noise.
Palm trees
were about to whisper something to me
before they were beheaded
like some foreigners in my country.

–by the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail, quoted in Iraqi Women: Untold stories from 1948 to the present by Nadje Sadig Al-Ali

Recently I summoned up “Electronic Iraq” on my computer to discover the following stories:

A Shia woman in Southern Baghdad talks about a new program of house “swaps” in which Shi’i being forced by Sunni “militants” to leave Iraq are taking the homes of Sunnis forced out by Shia “militants.”

Mass weddings are taking place in Baghdad to avoid the expense of single weddings and the “gauntlet of car bombs.”

The government is taking measures to protect university professors “following an increase in the number of lecturers leaving the country because of violence. The initiative will also include providing university teaching staff with personal bodyguards.”

“Baghdad’s residents, especially taxi and bus drivers, are deploying their own tactics to protect themselves from Sunni or Shia militants . . . and setting up bogus checkpoints to capture members of [one or] the other sect.”

At least some of this (not the taxi-driver and university body-guard items, but the others) begs comparison with the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, who ordered the expulsions of Shi’i during the Iran-Iraq War–a measure so horribly effective that the period was given a name — zamn al-tasfirat (the time of deportations.) After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, a 1921 census gave Iraqis the choice between declaring either Ottoman or Persian origin. Those who had chosen “Persian” found themselves expelled by a dictator who feared fifth columnists in Iraq’s midst.

Mass weddings also took place during the latter part of Saddam’s rule–though not to avoid car bombings: at that time there was nothing like the chaos now dubbed, for want of a more descriptive term, “sectarianism.” Mass weddings under Saddam took place to promote a brand-new policy towards women and family: the war he’d so blithely engaged with Iran, thinking he’d win a quick victory, had turned into–this, too, begs comparison–a quagmire. So Saddam turned away from the earlier state-socialism program characterizing the first decade-plus of Ba’ath rule, during which women had been seen as (these are his own words from 1981) “one half of society. Our society will remain backward and in chains unless its women are liberated, enlightened and educated.” [131]

Starting in 1968 the Ba’ath regime promoted maternity leave and daycare, expanded access for women to university education and the professions, and initiated a literacy drive that targeted poor and rural women. (Of the book’s few photographs one of most moving shows women of all ages, with rapt, earnest faces, in a 1978 literacy class–most wear scarves and long sleeves, some the traditional long black coat or abaya.) In her chapter on the Ba’ath in Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present, interviewees now living in the US and UK “said that they had found it much easier working while having children during the 1970s to the mid-1980s inside Iraq than coping with the conditions that working women living in Western societies face.” [134]) As the economy spiraled downward during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam did a hundred-eighty degree turn, urging women to produce more babies for the country (each was supposed to have five.) Early marriages were encouraged; the state forbade pharmacies to sell contraceptives; many women became widows. As for state propaganda, “[I]mages of women and men working side by side to develop a modern progressive nation [gave way to] images of men protecting the land assaulted by the enemy. And the land was invariably represented as a female whose honour might be taken away.” [153]

Nadje Sadig Al-Ali is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, an activist, and a feminist (a participant in London’s Women in Black, in 2002 she co-founded Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq.) Her new book, Iraqi Women, should be required reading for anyone who wants to get beyond the usual litanies of depression about the war and the stereotypes about Middle East women held even by “progressives.” It is a truism that ignorance of the past is a sure guarantee that its worst features will reappear. A premise of the book is that the multifaceted stories collected here will “relate directly to different attitudes towards the present and visions about the future of the new Iraq.” [4] Excerpts from a hundred interviews of Iraqi women stud the author’s narrative to yield a detailed, rich and contradictory “alternative history or histories” that begins with late-1940s post-colonial Iraq. The book encompasses the communist-driven 1958 revolution against the British-supported monarchy and proceeds through Iraq’s short-lived republic; the first and second Ba’th coups in 1963 and ’68; the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and Saddam’s atrocities against Shi’i and Kurds; twelve years of US-imposed sanctions from 1991; and the US 2003 invasion and occupation.

Some of Al-Ali’s interviewees are secular; others are religious. All come from urban backgrounds that “encouraged education and a degree of freedom [in] social lifetheir fathers were lawyers, doctors, or government employees.” [61] The limitation of her interviews to educated women is one she announces from the start; restricting herself to them seems smart in a book that juggles as much historical and social complexity as this one. In her introduction Al-Ali takes care to define her own feminism–a word she says is sure to be misunderstood–as engaging “the struggle against all inequalities, whether they are rooted in sexism, racism, class or Islamophobia, and the attempt to find non-hierarchical and non-violent ways of resisting.”[9] (This kind of cover-all-bases academic prose, which left this veteran of 1970s women’s studies and feminist activism at least bemused, leaves off in the body of the book, written clearly and, for the most part, with little academic lingo.)

Iraqi Women has few “themes” as such, but one is the absence of religious and ethnic conflict through most of the time covered here: “More than being Sunni, Shi’i, Kurd, Christian, Mandean or Yazidi, and until the 1950s Jewish, it was social class that would be the main marker of differences and commonalities.” [65] Another reality invoked by author and interviewees alike is Iraqi women’s strength in their country’s most troubled times.
An unavoidable limitation — Al-Ali teaches in Great Britain and hasn’t been able to return to Iraq since 1997 — is that all her research was done with women living outside the country (the US, the UK, and Jordan.) She herself has lived in diaspora all her life (her father is Iraqi, her mother, German), which no doubt gives her an advantage in writing about the country for Western readers. Sadig Al-Ali, the author’s father, active in the country’s 1950s left-wing student movement, studied in Germany in 1958, fell in love there, and married the author’s mother in 1966. By that time, however, the Ba’th had come to power, ruthlessly repressing, torturing, killing and jailing members of the Iraqi left (between three- and five-thousand communists were murdered.) Al-Ali grew up in Germany and got her university and graduate education in the UK, the US, and Egypt. Unlike many Iraqis living outside (the country’s history has been marked by the exodus of countless Iraqis: we hear some of their voices in an initial chapter, “Living in the Diaspora”) she grew to know the country from the inside since she visited her father’s family regularly. (It was safe for them to return on occasional visits: having left the country long before the Ba’th came to power–they held it briefly only for nine months in 1963–February to November, and then returned for thirty-five years in 1968 – Sadig Al-Ali wasn’t a target for their revenge.)

Given the country’s nightmarish present a chapter I found at once poignant and fascinating was “Living with the Revolution,” dense with details of the country’s vibrant intellectual, literary and artistic ferment in the 1950s and 60s. Iraqi women’s participation in the country’s powerful Communist Party as well as in the Ba’ath, and their vital women’s movements, are explored here. (We learn about the Iraqi Women’s League: communist-inspired, it was the country’s most significant such organization until the Ba’th take-over. A poignant photograph shows young Iraqi League women marching with banners, bare legs, and what in the US used to be called “shirtwaist dresses” and knee-length “peasant skirts.” Another shows women in traditional and modern or “Western” dress alike marching in 1948 during the “Wathba” or “Leap” — a series of anti-monarchy protests in which students, workers, intellectuals, professionals and the poor took part.) We also learn about the progress of women’s education from the late 20s; differing family perspectives on dress, social life and marriage; women’s participation in the arts and professions (medicine, dentistry, architecture, and university teaching among others.) The 50s and 60s period was the heyday of Al-Ali’s father’s youth, a time for which she feels “romanticism and nostalgia for a past that I never lived myself but that seemed to hold so many possibilities, so much positive energy and so much hope.” [56]

The author makes no explicit comparisons between the past sixteen years of US intervention and the years under Saddam. Nonetheless it becomes clear that however repressive and barbarous the Saddam years were, they were better than life after 1991–the start of US-imposed sanctions. Al-Ali is particularly bitter about that period during which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (among them 500,000 children) died of malnutrition and want of medicine. (She doesn’t engage in long fulminations against the US and the West here, which may disappoint some readers, but the judgment is implicit.) The country’s infrastructure, including its formerly excellent medical system, fell into decay. Al-Ali’s beloved Aunt Salima, one of two women to whom she dedicates the book (the other is Cynthia Nelson, who taught Al-Ali at the American University of Cairo), died of breast cancer during the sanctions period because she couldn’t get medicine or chemotherapy treatment. (The disease was also possibly caused, says Al-Ali, by the depleted uranium the US sowed during the Gulf War.)

Before the sanctions, looting and crime in wartime didn’t take place; the country’s social fabric remained intact. Of the fate of her new art gallery in the Iran-Iraq War a 60-year-old art dealer in Amman says: “Just a month after I started my own gallery, a missile destroyed itbut no one stole anything, nobody touched anything. It was totally different from the last war in 2003. We just put pieces of wood to cover the window for the whole year, because I could not afford to replace the windows with new glass. People were depressed, but everyone rebuilt their own homesPeople were so helpful at the time and we were hopeful that things would get better once the war stopped.” [151]

As for the sectarianism that now rends the country, it, too, seems to have been only sporadic during the sixty years traversed by the book. State efforts to instigate sectarian hatred seem to have failed:

“When I left,” says Khadija, a dentist exiled to Iran during the 1980s (“the time of deportations” at the start of the Iraq-Iran war), “I had no ID, no luggage, nothing. When I was kicked out of my house and deported to Iran, they [the government] locked up my house. My sister-in-law and one of my sisters climbed through one of the windows and recovered some of my personal belongings and brought them to a neighbour. The neighbour said that she would keep everything for a long timeImagine, I went back last year, after twenty-four years, and she still had all my things in a bag. She cried when she saw me and said that she had been waiting for me all these years.” [158]

And while the Iraqi state expelled most of its Jews after 1948, there is no sense here that the general population approved. “When I grew up in the late 1930s and 1940s,” says Siham, a Jewish woman who now lives in London, “I lived in a multi-cultural society. We had equal opportunities in school and with jobs. I never thought that being Jewish meant being differentWe were proud of being Iraqi and JewishEven in ’48 when Israel was established, most Iraqi Jews refused to go.” [25] “We were all friends,” recalls Zenab B., anti-communist, a Shi’i sympathizer now living in Dearborn, Michigan. “We celebrated holidays together. When we had the celebration in commemoration of Imam Husayn, they came with us. Even Jews and Christians joined usIn schools, we had Jewish, Christian, Sunni and Kurdish classmates. There were no bad feelings towards anyone. I myself came from a very conservative family. We wore abaya and long dresses. But when I look at some family pictures, some of my cousins had sleeveless shirts and short skirts.” [25]

Cast against such a past, the present seems all the more horrible. A final chapter on the US invasion and occupation makes clear that Iraqi daily life has shut down. Women fear going into labor at night: they are terrified they and their husbands will be killed on the way to hospital. Everyone fears going outside on the commonest of errands — so much that when people leave the house they say a final farewell: each time may well be the last. Women in particular fear venturing away from home because of frequent assaults by criminal and reactionary Islamic gangs, and by “militias.” Professionals–doctors, university professors–have been killed. Kidnapping for ransom is pandemic.

At the close of a book that has shown us how rich and varied the country’s past has been, how accomplished its women, and how great their capacity for survival, the following quote is painfully elegiac:

“The alarm clock woke me at 6.30 in the morning. There was no electricity. I wanted to take a shower but there was no water I took a jug and went to get water from the emergency tank, washed, gathered my things and went out. The air was cool, lovely…You see how simple things can make you happy? Suddenly I heard a loud car honk and spun around, fearfulwe’ve become used to things without an explanationWhat makes me very afraid on the streetsis hearinggunshots, which then move increasingly closer. Iask myself, ‘is this the gunfire of people chasing terrorists, or gunshots at a funeral procession, or something else entirely?’ . . . I see queues of cars waiting to fill up with petrol, winding down one street after another, and I ask myself ‘will the petrol run out before the last queue gets to the station?’ Ah, how patient you have to be, oh Iraq. No electricity, no water, no petrol. No peace, no security.” (247)

The author’s Aunt Salima was blinded at age eight in 1948, year of the Wathba. No one in her family can say exactly why the little girl lost her sight. According to Al-Ali’s grandmother, a woman jealous of the little girl’s gorgeous black hair and eyes put a curse on her. Al-Ali’s father said Salima had been playing with children who were tossing lime at one another from a nearby building site: some if it struck her eyes. The author’s eldest uncle, Salem, a retired judge, recalled that an eye disease had blinded many children in the 40s. [3] Al-Ali rejects the evil-eye interpretation but won’t settle decisively on any other.

The story hallmarks the book’s general premise “that all histories and memories are constructed;” no single account can be said to be “true.” Al-Ali does say she doesn’t want to fall “into the postmodern trap of nihilistic relativism,” but still she makes few value judgments in the book. The absence of any clear political stand apart from the author’s feminism often gives Iraqi Women a frustrating “on-the-one-and-on-the-other-hand” quality. For instance when Al-Ali evokes her nostalgia for the palmy time of her father’s activist youth, she counters with a caveat: “But even then, in ‘the good old days’ there was repression people’s experiences differed radically, depending on their social classplace of residencefamily background andpolitical orientation.” [56] This is the character of the book: no one story is “privileged” over any other. There are certainly virtues in this, but in the constant to-and-fro with its feel of obligatory coverage of all bases, I sometimes longed for a simple story line. And while it’s admirable that the book attempts to cover so much historical terrain, negotiate so many arenas (political, social, cultural) and represent its interviewees’ many allegiances, it is inevitable that it can read like a text book. The interviews aren’t consistently vivid; neither is its connective tissue. The historical narrative sometimes soldiers on dutifully and without animation. (Al-Ali’s own personal reminiscences, on the other hand, are always warm and vivid: at some point she would do well to write a memoir.)

Still, this is an invaluable introduction to the country and its women, the only one of its kind available to American and British readers, who sorely need it. I found myself returning repeatedly to various sections for fresh reflection about the book’s manifold details and the questions they raise. For instance the long section on the rout of Iraq’s Jews in the initial “diaspora” chapter implies that the general population didn’t approve. But it does beg further exploration of what the general population felt. It will also prompt those who, like me, have read accounts describing the extent to which Zionist “dirty tricks” provoked the Iraqi state’s reaction, to search for other writing about this critical period.

Another question implicitly raised is how much the flight of Iraq’s educated elite, which includes this book’s author and her sources, will slow the country’s recovery from its devastation. Al-Ali’s concluding comment, “I do feel that Iraqi women continue to carry and embody the seed of hope for a more secure, peaceful and dignified time,” is appealing, but not altogether convincing. It will be left to future writers to explore the rooms whose doors this hallmark new book has opened for us.

ELLEN CANTAROW is a Boston-based musician and writer.



Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in Le Monde diplomatique, the Village Voice, Grand Street, Tom Dispatch and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at CounterPunch, ZNet, and Alternet.