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New Texts Out Now: Noga Efrati, Women in Iraq: Past Meets Present

[Cover of Noga Efrati, [Cover of Noga Efrati, "Women in Iraq: Past Meets Present"]

Noga Efrati, Women in Iraq: Past Meets Present. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Noga Efrati (NE): The US-led invasion of Iraq became a full-scale military occupation while I was in the midst of working on a historical account of women under the British occupation and the British-installed monarchy in the first half of the twentieth century. I found myself more and more intrigued, as contemporary events cascaded, to find that the struggle of Iraqi women’s rights activists, especially between 2003 and 2005, to a large extent revolved around the same three issues that had concerned activists during the Hashemite period. Activists in fact warned that women were about to be dragged back to days of the monarchy. I decided, therefore, to risk criticism and add to my historical account an addition concerning present days' events. I believe that placing activists’ post-2003 struggle against the backdrop of the Hashemite period illuminates their efforts to secure meaningful participation in politics, to prevent state tolerance of coercive practices pertaining to women, and to preserve Iraq’s Personal Status Law.

J: How does this work depart from previous research and writing?

NE: Historical studies of women’s issues have only rarely extended beyond the Ba῾ath period (1968–2003). One reason that the weight of activists' warnings was not appreciated was that the history of women in Iraq before 1958 did not receive its due attention in scholarly literature. Women in Iraq seeks to fill this historiographical lacuna, as well as to elucidate activists’ fears springing from the period of the British occupation and the British-backed monarchy (1917–1958).

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

NE: Past Meets Present is first and foremost a historical work. The first part describes how and why women were constructed as second-class citizens during the state-building process under the mandate and the monarchy. It outlines the way the legal and political systems were shaped, first by the British occupation and then by the Iraqi government the British put in place, focusing on the evolution of legislation that defined and influenced women’s position in family and society. At the same time, it acknowledges conflicting perceptions, power struggles, and other larger issues of the era as driving forces fueling this evolution.

The first chapter, "Occupation, Monarchy, and Customary Law: Tribalizing Women," addresses the topic of customary law. During World War I, the British imposed the Tribal Criminal and Civil Disputes Regulation (TCCDR) for the purpose of ruling over Iraq’s vast countryside. The regulation bolstered tribal leaders and tied them to the state by giving them authority to settle disputes between “their tribesmen” in accordance with “tribal methods” and “tribal law.” Customary practices were thus not only sanctioned but, because the existence of “age-old tribal practices” provided an important justification for deploying the TCCDR, also perpetuated. The chapter explains how this regulation, which later became state law, was incorporated into the government gender discourse despite growing criticism from Iraqi intellectuals, and reveals the harsh implications for women. The chapter further demonstrates that women’s well-being was knowingly sacrificed to facilitate the governing of Iraq’s vast rural areas.

The second chapter, "Family Law as a Site of Struggle and Subordination," looks at the topic of family law. Under the Hashemite monarchy, Iraq had no civil law governing personal status matters (marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, etc.). This chapter briefly reviews British policy, which left family matters in the hands of religious leaders in order to tie these leaders to the British-dominated nascent state, and highlights opposition to this course of action. It then expands on state attempts to intervene by way of legislation and examines their ramifications for women. Although the debate over the state’s introduction of the Personal Status Law has been inextricably linked to the debate over Iraqi women’s standing in the domestic realm, the chapter shows that gender relations were not the only object of dispute; in fact, the conflict between the government and the ulama to a large extent centered on who had the authority to formulate laws governing personal status, which courts were to be involved, and who should be entrusted with the authority to adjudicate disputes. Meanwhile, women citizens were constructed as subordinate and dependent and were left unprotected from unfavorable interpretations of Islamic law. One example is that the government, in its proposed legislation, turned to other schools of Islamic jurisprudence, unaccepted in Iraq, for provisions that enabled women to end their marriages through legal procedures in the state courts, rather than offering them a simple way to initiate divorce that was acceptable to both Sunnis and Shi'is in Iraq but did not require recourse to the state court system.

The third chapter, "Politics, Election Law, and Exclusion," is devoted to women’s participation in formal politics. A parliamentary system was an efficient tool for the British to tie urban intellectuals in Iraq to the new state. But to ensure that the power of the British-backed Hashemite government would not be undermined, the Constitution and election system posed considerable obstacles for most men, and totally blocked women from entering Parliament. This chapter looks at women’s disenfranchisement throughout the Hashemite period. It delineates the huge obstacles that stood in the way of altering the first Iraqi Constitution, emphasizing the entanglement of the efforts to gain political rights for women with the broader struggle to effect change in the existing political order. It argues that the Hashemite government, troubled by the prospect of rocking the political boat, employed a strategy that simultaneously avoided distancing conservative supporters who opposed women’s vote and placated the opposition that favored it. In line with its modernity rhetoric, this government strategy required women to exhibit signs of “progress” as a prerequisite to receiving rights. What facilitated this tack was the fact that supporters of women’s suffrage shared with those opposing enfranchisement certain assumptions that constructed women as ill-prepared for political participation.

J: In what ways do you point to Iraqi women's own agency?

NE: Women's own agency is the theme of the second part of my work. It shows how those active in the women’s movement under the monarchy contested their government’s gender discourse. The fourth chapter, "Gender Discourse and Discontent: Activism Unraveled," unveils some of the earliest scenes of activists challenging their government’s gender discourse and follows the process of organization that later facilitated a more direct challenge. Women’s activism in Iraq gained momentum after World War II: it expanded, gained strength, and became institutionalized. The fifth chapter, "Challenging the Government’s Gender Discourse," focuses on activists’ struggle against their construction as second-class citizens as that construction became increasingly obvious during the 1950s. It registers voices raised by both the Iraqi Women’s Union and the underground League for the Defense of Women’s Rights against the TCCDR, the lack of government intervention in the realm of personal status, and women’s disenfranchisement. I argue that activists' struggle constituted a competing construction of Iraqi women citizens and that the challenge they posed to the government’s discourse shaped to a large extent a new gender discourse that emerged in Iraq after 1958. Their criticism helped precipitate the dissolution of the TCCDR, the ratification of the Personal Status Law, and the appointment of the first female minister in the entire Arab world by Abd al-Karim Qasem.

J: How does past meet present?

NE: I discussed post-2003 events in the epilogue and argued that Iraqi activists in post-invasion Iraq faced the intrusion of a gender discourse all too similar to that of the monarchy period. Once again, an attempt to control Iraq through "authentic leaders"—giving them legal and political powers—marginalized the interests of women and sacrificed their well-being. Today’s activists’ sense of déjà vu was informed by the generation of activists who had exposed and fought against the detrimental gender discourse of the monarchy period. Their struggle was not only against the return of the harsh discourse that in the past constructed women as second-class citizens, but in defense of the very discourse that the founding mothers of the Iraqi women’s movement had helped set in place.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NE: I hope those interested in the social, political, and intellectual history of the Middle East will read Women in Iraq: Past Meets Present, as well as those with a particular interest in the history and historiography of Iraq, and women and gender issues in the MENA region. I hope it will also speak to a readership of women’s rights activists and policy makers, as well as the more general readership of non-scholars interested in current issues in Iraq. As for the impact of my book, I hope it will encourage historians of Iraq to elevate women from the footnotes of history to the text.

Excerpts from Women in Iraq: Past Meets Present

From Chapter One:

The British official position during the mandate period and beyond, then, thwarted any attempt—by British administrators, Iraqi urban politicians, state officials, lawyers, nationalist journalists, and even tribal leaders—to interfere with the TCCDR or with customs affecting women. The TCCDR was still seen as the proper tool of control, and “tribal practices” were a main justification for deploying it. It is not surprising that the more lenient “Tribal Code,” [proposed by tribal leader] which reflected the dynamic nature of rural practices, was rejected. Fir῾awn’s book, more unfavorable to women, was hailed because, by confirming that Iraq was a tribal society with distinct and age-old tribal customs, it lent legitimacy to the TCCDR. Thus, British tribalization of rural women in Iraq encompassed not only women’s construction as tribal, subject to separate “tribal law,” but also British involvement in determining “tribal law” affecting rural women as harsh.

From Chapter Two:

The harsh construction of women’s position vis-a-vis their kin and husbands [in the government's personal status law proposal] was not necessitated by Islamic law. Al-A῾zami and al-Hilli’s works clearly indicate that more favorable rulings were available. It was rather the result of state officials’ preferring some rulings over the others. Judith Tucker has pointed out in reference to other countries in the Middle East that in picking and choosing the rulings for states’ codes, those who framed them “were engaged in the fundamental transformation of Islamic law from a shari῾a of vast textual complexity and interpretive possibilities to a modern legal code of fixed rules and penalties.” In Iraq under the monarchy, this process threatened not only to initiate the loss of diverse interpretive possibilities, but also to bring about a code in which the substantive aspects did not work in women’s favor. Why did the government’s proposal rely on rulings that put its female citizens in such an unfavorable position as regards their kin and husbands?

From Chapter Three:

Granting women political rights was a potential liability for the Iraqi government because it might alienate pro-government MPs, while drawing opposition from the ulama. Allowing women to vote en masse also had the potential to destabilize the political status quo as opposition parties endeavored to mobilize them for their cause of changing the composition of Parliament and undermining the existing socioeconomic and political order. Faced with a growing demand to enfranchise women, however, the government saw an advantage in responding or at least in giving the impression it was responding to demands. To this end, it invoked the notion of “gradual modernization.”

“Gradual modernization” was an important part of post–World War II governments’ platform in Iraq, most notably those governments headed by Nuri al-Sa῾id. This theme merged well with the general aspiration to transform Iraq into a modern state. Indeed, a discourse of modernity, promising a better social, economic, and political future for all, was a salient aspect of Hashemite Iraq. Successive governments highlighted their interest in Iraq’s becoming “modern” and promised “progress” through reforms in all aspects of life. Al-Sa῾id’s party championed a fundamental and comprehensive “awakening” through a series of far-reaching social, economic, and political reforms.

The prime minister and his associates made it clear, however, that rapid changes would be impossible—that reforms would be introduced only gradually, taking into consideration the country’s “reality and its possibilities.” A balanced reform movement, they contended, required stability and should aim at adopting what is good in Western civilization while preserving what is best in Iraq’s own heritage. The linkage between the country’s “reality and its possibilities” and “reform” opened many possibilities for staving off reform. It enabled the government to decide which developments should occur or what change one particular section of society ought to exhibit before reforms affecting it could be introduced. This linkage, as shown in chapter one, provided justification for preserving the TCCDR and for refraining from touching detrimental practices affecting women. It was now used to perpetuate an exclusive political system and to hinder women from gaining political rights. Spurred by objections raised in religious circles, the government could argue that Iraq was not ready for such a change; and buttressed by the consensus among many intellectuals, according to which women were unfit or at least still unfit to take part in politics, it could easily claim that most women were not ready for such a reform.

From Chapter Five:

For the duration of the monarchy period and especially in the 1950s, Iraqi women’s rights activists confronted their government’s construction of women as second-class citizens. They exposed women’s lot in the countryside and the TCCDR’s contribution to their oppression. They bemoaned the government’s nonintervention in the field of personal status. They pushed for women’s full participation in their country’s economic, political, and social life and drew attention to the marginalization of female citizens. Their struggle constituted a competing construction of Iraqi women citizens. This construction comes into relief, however, only after the July 1958 coup.

Following that coup, the new republican government initiated measures largely portrayed as influenced by the efforts of the League for the Defense of Women’s Rights, which now worked legally under the name of the Iraqi Women’s League. However, these measures clearly reflect to no less an extent a response to the Iraqi Women’s Union’s efforts before 1958. The TCCDR was swiftly annulled, and Article 41 of the penal code, which permitted referring offenders to “tribal adjudication,” was later deleted. Women’s formal tribalization was thus erased. In addition, an agrarian reform, demanded by both organizations, was introduced. It was presented as intending to tackle the deplorable situation in the Iraqi countryside and to open the way for rural men and women to possess land.

The new republican regime also promised women political rights once political life renewed and gave a clear signal that it intended to end women’s exclusion from formal politics. Naziha al-Dulaimi was appointed as a minister, setting a precedent not only in Iraq, but in the entire Arab world. Women now became part of the administration and took part in formulating laws. Al-Dulaimi, appointed minister of municipalities, was among the specialists, jurists, ῾ulama, and politicians who prepared the new Personal Status Law, and the league prepared and presented a draft of this law to the Ministry of the Interior.

On 30 December 1959, Iraq’s Personal Status Law was introduced with the declared intent “to ensure women their legal rights and family independence.” Personal status issues came under state control, and by borrowing lenient provisions from the various schools of Islamic law, it was attuned to criticism regarding family matters and gender relations raised by activists prior to 1958. The law moved toward securing women’s personal rights, such as the right to consent to marriage, the right to choose a spouse, and the right to decide when to marry. It made an effort to address the problem of child brides by setting a legal minimum age for marriage and, by emphasizing their entitlement to mahr, made women a party to the marriage contract rather than objects of transaction. Women were thus to a much greater degree able to make free and rational decisions.

The law also severely curtailed polygamy, sanctioning it only with the express permission of a judge. In addition, it restricted a man’s ability to divorce his wife. Repudiation became void if uttered by a man whose mental capacities were in doubt—due to intoxication or extreme anger, for instance. A triple declaration of divorce could now result in a single divorce only, and men were required to commence divorce proceedings in court. The law also allowed women to seek the dissolution of their marriages through judicial proceedings on various grounds, including injury and domestic discord. The threat of divorce—with the resulting loss of a woman’s financial support, home, and children and thus cemented dominant–submissive gender relations—was eased; the law gave mothers preferential rights regarding the custody of their children. Maternal custody following divorce was granted for children up to the age of seven; the court was allowed to extend this upper age limit if the child’s welfare so required. The new legislation also contained a particularly far-reaching reform: Islamic inheritance laws were abandoned in favor of equal inheritance status for men and women. It is noteworthy that when religious leaders protested to Prime Minister ῾Abd al-Karim Qasim over this clause, he replied that the public welfare of the Iraqi people demanded equality between men and women in every respect out of consideration for the rights of half of the Iraqi people. But the significance of this clause lay not only in making men and women equal before the law, but also in strengthening women’s economic base, thus undermining a major coercive element cementing men’s dominance over women. Although in later years some critics pointed to the many loopholes contained within the 1959 law, it was in actuality a milestone when viewed against the draft Code of Personal Status and the TCCDR of the monarchy period. As the TCCDR was annulled, the law significantly offered the same treatment for rural and urban women in the personal status realm. 

These measures may more closely resemble “first steps” than the comprehensive reform the Iraqi Women’s Union had hoped for or the radical transformation the League for the Defense of Women’s Rights had desired. There was no legislation tackling customary law (e.g. prohibiting the nahwa and fasl marriage—the handing over of women in blood dispute settlements) or severely punishing perpetrators of “honor” crimes; the new Personal Status Law was far from perfect; Dulaimi’s appointment was short lived; and because the new government failed to establish a Parliament, any provision in the new Constitution that could be interpreted as granting women political rights became a dead letter. Yet with these measures a new government gender discourse had clearly been born. The contour of that discourse, as we have seen, was shaped by the struggle of activists, both union and league, throughout the monarchy period. Although competing with other perceptions, entangled with the problematic notion of modernity, and often utilitarian and hypocritical, the new construction of women now gained dominance and prevailed well into the second half of the twentieth century.

[Excerpted from Women in Iraq: Past Meets Present by Noga Efrati, by permission of the author. © 2012 Columbia University Press. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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