Bodybuilding and building the body politic in Iraqi Kurdistan

By Diana Hatchett
Submitted to Session P4987 (Gendering and Governing the Body, 2017 Annual Meeting
Iraq; Kurdistan;
Diaspora/Refugee Studies; Education; Ethnography; Gender/Women's Studies; Health; Identity/Representation; Kurdish Studies; Minorities; Modern; Nationalism; State Formation;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
I examine bodybuilding and gym-going in Erbil (Hewlêr) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as ethical practices concerned with formation of both self and collective identities in the Iraqi state and in the Kurdistani statelet. Much scholarship has explored the role of sports in the modern Middle East in producing "fit" and patriotic citizen subjects and in creating new spaces of intimacy. In this literature the state often appears as strengthened through citizens' contributions to the nation through sports. In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, however, the state is largely experienced as fragmenting and possibly reforming, and sports constitute an ethical practice in response to, and sometimes counter to, the state. In this paper I draw upon anthropologies of the state, morality, and the self to consider how physical training in a state that is said to have become "weak" or "failed" reflects citizen-subjects' preoccupations with forging self and collective identities in the wake of a fragmenting state. The paper is based on 20 months of ethnographic research in Erbil, primarily participant-observation and interviews at gyms, during which time I also coached indoor cycling ("spinning") at one of the popular "mixed" gyms (for both men and women). The common discourse which emerged across communities of exercise in Erbil was that exercise is 1) an agentive practice, 2) practiced in the gaps left by a "failed" state, such as inadequate education, healthcare, employment, security, etc., which 3) is part of becoming, foremost, an ethical self, and secondly a responsible member of a community. Many gym-goers in Erbil embody one or more types of marginalized identity in the Kurdistan Region, being IDPs, members of the Kurdish diaspora, immigrants from neighboring Syria or Iran, youth, or women. By analyzing marginalized gym-goers’ narratives of stress, violence, and displacement, we witness the bodily effects of the state. For example, some gym-goers shared stories of fleeing Baghdad or Mosul to Erbil, where they began exercise programs to combat adverse effects of violence, or similarly, the effects of difficult pregnancies and surgeries which are said to evidence inadequate government healthcare. Some exercise communities remained informal, such as women who happened to exercise together in group fitness classes; others were formalized, such as body-building collectives and private security men who trained together. Gym-goers' projects to cultivate the individual body foster the body politic, revealing how embodiment of self and citizen-subject emerges through participation in sports in Iraqi Kurdistan.