Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Iraqi women’s resilience: in search of a new story

Rose Codner


Under the ruins which was a city

and the stones which were a home 

with the burnt trunks which were trees

and the dried blood which was a person

look there

for under the ruins and the stones and the dust

lie golden ingots uncollected by the invaders.


In colonial Algeria, Algerian women were ceremonially unveiled while the French National Anthem was solemnly sung in the background, and the newly 'liberated' or 'rescued' women were encouraged to imbibe 'the true spirit of Western civilisation'. Not a century later we see this in almost exact repeat. Post 9/11, endless images of the now near-fetishised blue Burka covered the press and became the quintessential symbol of the oppression of Afghan women under the Taliban – a convenient excuse that allowed the US to portray its greedy imperialist war there as a moral mission to 'liberate' or 'rescue' these women.

More recently, Reuters released a ‘snapshot report’ on women’s (lack of) rights in the Arab world which yet again reaffirmed this casting of Arab or Muslim women as somehow passive, paradigmatic victims, oppressed by their 'barbarian' menfolk and their misogynist culture/religion (never mind that the report was highly inaccurate and in many cases just plain wrong). This pernicious stereotype is rooted in the racialised and gendered binary logic of orientalism that even today plays out in multiple arenas and in multiple guises. It sees these 'oppressed women’ as a monolith and refuses them their autonomous voices. While it apparently seeks to 'help' it also seeks to control. While it seeks to 'speak for', it also silences.

The voices of Iraqis and Iraqi women in particular, have been lost in mainstream Western media and popular thought. The picture here appears endlessly dark. With distressing monotony news reports speak of yet more bombs, yet more destruction and yet more deaths, as images of pain and violence unrelentingly monopolise our screens. Of course the suffering that Iraqi women, children and men have experienced can not be denied or glossed over. In recent history, Iraq has passed through two gulf wars, 12 years of devastating economic sanctions and a brutal 10-year occupation as part of the global war on/of terror.

Women now make up 60-65% of the population of Iraq and figures reveal the increasing feminisation of poverty. The breakdown of basic services in the past 10 years has led to a lack of clean water and electricity, rising food and commodity prices, a lack of education and employment and health care, all of which affect women disproportionately as the primary caregivers. Women also suffer specifically from gender-based violence.

The past 10 years witnessed a dramatic increase in trafficking and forced prostitution of women and girls, 'honour'-related crimes and domestic violence. Women have been targeted for assassination, abduction, rape and other sexualised forms of violence by both US-trained soldiers and extremist militias. Women are seen as bearers of culture or communal identity and so in the struggle for power and control between warring parties, women's bodies literally become the battleground.

But this is not the full story and to end here risks further entrenching this long-held narrative of Iraqi/Arab/Muslim women as victims, without agency or hope.

This is not the case and has never been so. In fact, the women's movement in Iraq has been active since the 1920's when women played a central role in expelling the British. Later in 1959, it was popular pressure from mass mobilisations from the Iraqi women’s movement that led the then president to issue a wide range of progressive regulations that afforded women some of the widest rights in the region; forced marriage and arbitrary unilateral divorce were prohibited, polygamy was rendered practically impossible, the legal age of marriage was raised to eighteen and men and women were to receive equal inheritance.

And today, there are hundreds if not thousands of women’s groups active in Iraq; Organisation for Iraqi Women’s freedom, Knowledge for Iraqi Women, Iraqi Women’s Will, Iraqi Women’s league, Iraqi Al-Amal (hope) Association, to name but a few women-led organisations working passionately at grassroots level to forge their own destinies in the most difficult of circumstances.

Iraqi women have led successful campaigns for changes in legislation on gender-specific issues such as trafficking, honour crimes and domestic violence. They have been at the forefront in campaigning against the assassination of human rights defenders, as well as participating in Iraqi ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrations demanding true democracy and human rights, an end to corruption and increased transparency. Throughout the war they have continued to demonstrate, write letters, organise sit-ins and popular boycotts, work with national and international media, put out press releases and statements, maintain links in solidarity with each other and transnational women’s groups, constantly monitor violations against Iraqi women and men, run forums for creative resistance, such as theatre and poetry, publish and distribute newspapers and journals, debate and (re)create discourse, and so on and so forth, and all this despite constant pressure and persecution from many sides. AlHamdulilah, this does not look like the passive victim of (neo)colonial yore!

Besides this, Iraqi women’s groups provide vital services to those in need, particularly the most vulnerable; widows and orphans. Many focus on education as a way to improve Iraqi women’s status in society, running workshops in literacy, computer skills, health issues, child rearing and women’s legal and political rights. Many also run income-generating projects including hairdressing, running small shops, sewing, baking and raising livestock, amongst others, many of which are making vast differences in the lives of many women, children and men across Iraq. I ask, is this not an example of transformative feminist politics in action? Does this not show an interruption of repeated patterns of inequality?

And so it seems then that we need a new story. We need a new narrative that is based on listening to herstory, and on being transformed by that listening. Our story must acknowledge the suffering of Iraqi women, yes, but must also that pay attention to those multiple spaces of hope and autonomy, resilience, grit, rage and imagination that burn brightly with the human spirit that refuses to be crushed.      

            It is not enough to open your eyes

            to look about you

            to step with care


            that within you is a heart liable to explode.


Poem credit:

By Muzaffar, M., 2006, translated from Arabic by Peter Philips

Source Zangana, H., 2009, An Iraqi Women's account of war and resistance. Seven stories press, p155


Rose Codner is Assistant Programme Officer at WLUML's International Coordination Office 


Peace and Security