Iraqi Female Pressure: "You Are Not a Woman Until You Are Married"
"You Cannot Go Outside Alone"
When visiting Iraq last year for the first time in my life, I noticed that I could not leave my relatives front gates without being accompanied by a male or married female counterpart. Living in London, England, I found this to be not only shocking but I felt as though I had stepped into a time machine where everything was distorted and I was the enemy. Living in London I experience more freedom than the women in Baghdad do. I go out quite regularly with friends, colleagues male and female and keep in touch with friends also quite regularly over social media. My parents have met my male and female friends, especially so when I had birthday get togethers at my parent's house.
The thought of being placed as a secondary to men in an entire culture (with a few exceptions) is upsetting to say the least. According to UNESCO a quarter of the female population is illiterate in Iraq, in some areas such as rural Iraq: 47% of women are illiterate and a significant number have never attended school. With such shocking statistics, it helps to paint a picture of the social disparity between the treatment of women in Iraqi culture.
A friend of mine was recently told that once she was married that this meant to her family and relatives that she was 'finally a woman'. This not only made me recoil in disgust but also worried me about the state of our culture. I was 5 years older than her and still referred to as a girl, just because I did not have a ring on my finger. This was not only embarrassing but severely archaic.
Women's Treatment Post US Invasion of Iraq 2003 - present
Nadje Sadig Al-Ali in her book 'Iraqi Women: Untold Stories From 1948 - Present' (240:2007) discusses the growing threats women face in Iraq. Islamist threats to 'cover up' or face being killed started in early 2003 and concentrated heavily on University students, often stopping female students at the entrance and shouting abuse at them if they did not have their hair covered.
I remember driving past a fried fish street vendor when I was in Baghdad, I was in the back seat and rolled down the window to take a picture. The vendor looked at me and started to speak to me "MashaAllah (Low and behold what God has willed, also a term used to berate women for their beauty) why don't you cover your hair?" I was so enraged. I did not know this man and should not have been spoken to in this way. My mother told me to quickly roll up the window and not reply. The westerner in me wanted to get out and give him a piece of my mind, the tourist in me needed to learn to fear for her life.
This was not the only incident where my choice not to cover my hair was questioned in Baghdad. I remember distinctly crossing a busy street with my cousins one evening in a shopping area when a man driving past shouted at me that he wanted to drag me from my hair and then swore at me for having my hair out. I was shocked. Why was this so important to him, this was a one in a million chance meeting, we would probably never see each other again. What did my hair not being covered have to do with him? I realised that it had become a society wide issue. Many women feared the repercussions and so covered up.
Whilst visiting a family friend, her daughter, a University professor of fine art explained to me that there were threats posted on national Iraqi television in prior years suggesting that Islamist groups would cut off the heads of any women they saw in the street with their hair uncovered. Many non-religious, atheist, Christian, Jewish and other non-Muslim women were forced to cover up. She stated to me how uncomfortable she was with having to cover up but that if it meant that she could still go to work and teach and paint in peace, that she had to go with the norm. It was sad to see that her safety lay in a piece of cloth.
So why had the male population not stood up to say anything? I noticed that even the older generation suddenly started to think it was important for women to cover up. When walking in a busy street in Baghdad, my uncle decided to tell me my top was too short and that I should find something to cover my legs. My thighs would attract too much attention. This was ludicrous to me, my father in the U.K. never said anything remotely close to this to me in a Western country. But then it hit me, my father was from a previous generation who never lived through the current toils of Iraq, he had his own torturous experiences with Iraq but never during the earlier 'golden' years.
I remember my father telling me stories of when he worked in Baghdad as an accountant in a civil engineering company in the late 70's, the entirety of the office he worked in were women. Hundreds of women: not a single woman had her hair covered. Women wore short skirts, sleeveless tops and were influenced heavily by Egyptian cinema, often with make-up on and beautiful up-do's.
"Do Not Raise Your Children in the Way Your Parents Raised You, They Were Born For a Different Time" Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib
Living in the U.K. I noticed that many of our Iraqi culture are still living years in the past, even though they had moved abroad and lived several decades in a Western culture. Many relatives believed that there were certain jobs that women just don't do (plumbing, building, anything to do with lifting 'heavy' objects) but it extended out to the idea that most women will complete their education and then get married and would forget about their education. Many of them hadn't banked on how expensive living here would be; that working and raising a family (mainly with zero to no input from their husband) would be a juggling trick more impressive than a circus act.
I was living with the idea that I needed to be careful how I acted, how I spoke, who I was seen with and where I went. The same rules were not applicable to my brother to a certain extent, although our parents tried not to create any differences between us, it was hard not to notice them when extended family were involved. I had to be careful what I wore to visit my grandmother and uncles, tattoos were out of the question and disclosing that I had moved out at one stage for work, was a huge taboo. I remember my grandmother distinctly once telling me off for wearing a dress that was below knee length, because my "meat" was showing'. I still giggle when I remember it.
Living a double life often was the only way to feel comfortable, knowing that I had the law and human rights on my side in the U.K. made me remember that I was entitled to do what I wanted. Knowing that I had my family watching meant that I needed to strategically find a way to make the two coincide. The London School of Economics held an evening by the 'Iraqi Transnational Collective' of journalism, storytelling, poetry and academia in June 2016 on the tensions Iraqi women face 'between home and diaspora'. Unfortunately I missed it, but to have been a fly on the wall at that event would have been fascinating. To meet and hear about other women who also faced the difficulty of living between two worlds would have probably put my mind in a whirlwind, a sort of ease at knowing I am not alone, and a nauseating feeling that things have not changed for the better.