Exploring Feminism in Contemporary Iraq: Legacies of the Past and Present Struggles

By Zahra Ali
Submitted to Session P4760 (Postcolonial Arab Feminisms: Past Meets Present, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Exploring Feminism in Contemporary Iraq: Legacies of the Past and Present Struggles

Sabiha al-Shaikh Dawood’s landmark book, Awwal al-Tariq (1958), provides details about how women’s rights issues – such as access to education and the work sphere, veiling, and legal and political rights – structured the emerging nationalist consciousness and the idea of the “new nation” among the Iraqi elite. The first female lawyer in Iraq brings to light the emergence, among urban educated Iraqi women, of growing nationalist awareness that placed women and gender issues at the core of aspirations of modernization and national liberation.
Nazihah al-Dulaymi, in her book al-Mar’ah al-Iraqiyah (1952), posed the second competing narrative on Iraqi women’s activism of this period. Al-Dulaymi puts forward a short study of the conditions of women’s lives in Iraq in the 1940s, which uses social class as an analytical framework. Al-Dulaymi was a gynecologist by trade, a prominent figure of the League for the Defense of Women’s Rights, the first Iraqi (Arab) female minister, and prominent communist activist. For her, qadhyat al-mar’ah [the woman question] is situated at the intersection of class struggles and national liberation.
This presentation will explore the commonalities and differences between these two main trends that characterized Iraqi feminism in the middle of the 20th century. It will also show how these feminist legacies influenced contemporary women’s rights discourses and activisms in Iraq in the second half of the 20th century. Finally, I will analyse how the post-invasion Iraqi context marked by the very fragmentation of women’s legal rights on ethno-sectarian lines, has deeply affected, without totally undermining, these feminist legacies.
My research is based on an ethnography of women’s political organizations in Baghdad primarily, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan secondarily (conducted between October 2010 and June 2012, and more recently in March-April 2016) and a social history of Iraqi women’s social, economic and political experiences since the formation of the Iraqi state in the 1920s.