[This article was translated into Arabic by Zahra Ali and Wasan Qasim. Qasim is an Iraqi poet and translator with degrees from Mustansiriyah University, MacEwan University, and an MFA from Lindenwood University. She published poetry and translations in Arabic and English.]
In the past month, gender became a buzzword in Iraq’s mainstream media and political discourse. An ideologically motivated campaign led by factions of the Iraqi political establishment has demonized and banned the use of the terms gender, social sex, and homosexuality, accusing those who use them of conspiring to corrupt society, undermine religion, and destroy the family.
The actors behind this campaign are well known: they are the conservative Islamist political groups and individuals affiliated with the Iraqi political establishment. The argument sounds dated and all too familiar, a repetition of a discourse we heard in the 1990s and 2000s about the words feminism and equality: “It is Western, it is against our culture, our religion,” etc. In fact, the anti-gender campaign is so caricaturish, so extreme in its simple-mindedness and lack of expertise that it was at first hard to even take it seriously.
This campaign, however, has brought about a climate of collective frenzy in the country, and it has been followed by real measures from governmental authorities in provincial councils, the parliament, and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research sanctioning or limiting the use of the terms gender and social sex. The Communication and Media Commission also recommended imposing the use of “sexual deviance”, a derogatory term for referring to LGBTQ people, instead of the neutral term “homosexuality” in media, businesses, social media, and communication agencies.
Anti-western conspiracy theories and “sexual morality” panics have been successfully used by the Iraqi political establishment as a smoke screen to distract public opinion and as a tool to undermine the opposition and justify violent crackdowns on protests and dissent. This campaign is a character assassination of progressive forces and the opposition, particularly feminist and civil society networks, organizations, journalists, and academics who use the concept of gender. A network of Iraqi intellectuals, human rights, women, and civil society personalities denounced this campaign in a petition published last week titled “On gender, freedoms and social justice” in which they call on the Iraqi authorities to stop this campaign of demonization and remind state officials that their use of the term gender is derived from international and United Nations treaties and agreements signed by the Iraqi state and in line with the country’s constitutional guarantee of equality.
After decades of war and militarization, violence is the language of masculinity and the language of power, both in the household and in the street. This campaign only exacerbates violence towards individuals and groups who are already victims of it, and who are marginalized and demonized. Gender violence permeates all aspects of life in Iraq and there is no recourse against it. Feminist groups have tried for more than a decade to pass a law sanctioning domestic violence. At every attempt, they have faced the same backlash from the same groups that are leading the anti-gender campaign today.
This campaign expresses a violence towards women, and also towards anyone who does not comply with hegemonic and rigid models of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality. LGBTQ people are the most marginalized and persecuted. A decade ago, a wave of brutal killings targeted those who were “perceived as homosexuals” and until now the use of violence against queer people is still normalized, predominant, and pervasive.
The Iraqi political establishment put in place by the US invasion and occupation in 2003 is repressive and hypermilitarized, and it operates with impunity. Activists, intellectuals, and protesters are threatened, many have been kidnapped, tortured, killed, or disappeared. In such a context, many are cautious in their public statements about this campaign both because the danger is real, and international solidarity with Iraqi activists, intellectuals, and protesters is scarce. The silence and often the outrageous complacency of the Iraq-based United Nations Mission (UNAMI) in regard to these abuses only consolidates the impunity enjoyed by the Iraqi authorities and the armed groups affiliated with it.
This anti-gender campaign is an illustration of how power operates in Iraq and in the contemporary world. Gender is at the heart of systems of power, a nexus through which power is asserted, deployed, or confiscated. The anti-gender ideologues portray themselves as the bearers of the authentic local culture and as protectors of religion. However, their strategy is a programmatic version of a classically masculinist, homophobic, neofascist, far-right discourse that is found in the region from Lebanon, Iran, to Egypt, and in the world from Hungary and Japan to the US and France. From Trump supporters in the US and the Hungarian prime minister who banned gender studies in universities, to Iraqi anti-gender ideologues, there is a common politicization of hegemonic religious, racial, or sectarian identity coupled with homophobic masculinism. Unsurprisingly, these forces also have in common the gutting of all social protections and public services and depriving poor and working-class people of access to essential resources and rights.
These attacks cannot only be interpreted as strategies that emerge before crucial electoral moments; rather, they are constitutive of the contemporary far-right neofascists raison d’être, and a resource to keep their power and maintain their class and social privileges. In other words, the anti-gender campaign shows that in Iraq, like elsewhere in the world, the struggle for social justice, equality, and freedom cannot exclude combatting gender violence. To defend gender is to refuse violence.