On a strange sweet day in June 2007 when I arrived Germany, alone, flying from the oppressive, male-dominated, misogynist society of Iraq, to a liberating land, something caught my attention during my taxi trip to the German language institute where I later studied. It was a poster on women’s empowerment, with the motto “Starke Frauen, Starkes Land”, translated to (strong women, strong land). I did not fully comprehend the meaning of that poster, until later, after months in Germany.
My story is not too different from many other ambitious female academics who wanted to flee a war-zone, a civil war, a persecuting government, and sought for her dreams, dreams of gender equality, freedom of decision making, and basic women rights that other women around the world enjoy. The only difference is that I was fortunate, twice, to receive a scholarship to do my master’s degree in Germany, and later to receive an admission to do my PhD in America, the land of the free. My story is different because I had the chance that millions of Iraqi women never had, and I suspect they will have in the near future. Therefore, I want to share my story, a story of resilience, seeking enlightenment, and self-empowerment. It is an ethical imperative for me to share my journey, hoping to increase awareness, and to attempt to help, at least with my writings.
The narrative of women’s rights violations in Iraq is similar to some other countries around the world, where women suffer societal oppression, demonization and criminalization, authoritarian government-discrimination, and other inter-related forms of oppression. Except, in Iraq, factors of civil wars, governmental corruption, still-dominating tribal norms, and armed militias, to name few, complicate the situation, especially for women, and the situation got worse after the 2003 war (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/dec/13/gender.iraq). In my home country women are accustomed to layers of fear; fear from the government officials who might harass them at any time for no reason, fear from any perpetuator in the street, fear from a corrupted police institution that is above the law, fear from armed militias who can abduct, kidnap, rape and kill any woman they want, or fear from their family male guardians who have all the authority to control. Unfortunately, now, in 2020, the once described “republic of fear” (https://www.google.com/books/edition/Republic_of_Fear/ra8wDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=republic+of+fear&printsec=frontcove) by Kanan Makiya, is getting worse and worse every year, when it comes to human rights, and the case is much worse with women’s rights.
Although complicated and interwoven, those issues of women rights in Iraq can be detangled to multiple problems. At a systemic level, the oppressive corrupted Iraqi government exploits women, and even when you see women assuming “seemingly” important positions, they are actually assigned to pre-defined roles with mandatory obedience and fear. In political circles for instance, women are manipulated like marionette dolls and everything they perform, dress up like, speak, or behave is orchestrated be their male fellows (https://en.qantara.de/content/patriarchy-and-governance-iraqs-token-females). Since the war of 2003 the falsely claimed democracy is actually a superficial cover to the inherently Iran-controlled government in central Iraq and the tribal backward Kurdish government in the north (https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/IRAQ-2018.pdf). In such a government, any voice of protest is silenced by violence as we saw in the peaceful protests in 2019-2020 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019%E2%80%9320_Iraqi_protests).
One of the major oppressive forces of women in Iraq is the misuse/abuse of religion to control women. At the governmental level, Islamic parties continue to enforce the religious agenda that no one can argue against. Under such a regime, women suffer heavily especially if showed rebellion or asked for basic rights. Such male-oppression in the name of religion manifest in institutional domains. Predominantly, the aim is to gain male-authority and supremacy by selectively interpreting religious teachings according to what serves their interest. Unfortunately, the religiously driven systemic oppression is interconnected with and “justifies” the governmental and societal oppression.
Another big issue is the patriarchal society that enforces long-outdated norms to guarantee women’s inferiority and submission to their male society members (https://www.lse.ac.uk/middle-east-centre/research/Conflict-Research-Programme/patriarchal-norms-and-legal-discrimination). Starting with the process of girls-upbringing, every society member makes sure that those girls know that they are inferior to men, no matter what they do. Women’s behavior, outfit, language, or actions are censored, controlled, and judged. Any unexpected behavior means a corrupt woman that is subjected to different forms of punishment. This has manifested in the recent pattern of killing outspoken and high-profile Iraqi women (https://www.france24.com/en/20181026-51percent-prominent-iraqi-women-killed-tara-fares-oman-womens-rights-sailing). It is always the woman’s fault when she is sexually harassed or raped. At another level, female children at age 15 are married off to often much older men, and this marriage is approved by the religion-oriented governmental officials (https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage/iraq/). In the north of Iraq, females suffer additional issues like genital mutilation. Overall, the continuing phenomena of honor killing, torture for disobedience, sexual exploitation, are all common in Iraq (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057%2F9781137367013_4).
I have all the sympathy to my fellow Iraqis, and I have to acknowledge that violations of human rights apply to men also, although children and women suffer the most. Those women’s issues in Iraq are intertwined, and a change in such conditions requires a governmental replacement, a revolutionary societal transformation, a generational change, and a women’s movement to fight for their rights. Yet, I still have a hope, a vision of a “strong land, empowered by strong women”. This might be a daydream now, especially that I can only write about it, when in fact I can never go back to help.