What Kind of Liberation?: Women and the Occupation of Iraq

What Kind of Liberation?: Women and the Occupation of Iraq

by Nadje Al-Ali, Nicola Pratt

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In the run-up to war in Iraq, the Bush administration assured the world that America's interest was in liberation—especially for women. The first book to examine how Iraqi women have fared since the invasion, What Kind of Liberation? reports from the heart of the war zone with dire news of scarce resources, growing unemployment, violence, and seclusion.


In the run-up to war in Iraq, the Bush administration assured the world that America's interest was in liberation—especially for women. The first book to examine how Iraqi women have fared since the invasion, What Kind of Liberation? reports from the heart of the war zone with dire news of scarce resources, growing unemployment, violence, and seclusion. Moreover, the book exposes the gap between rhetoric that placed women center stage and the present reality of their diminishing roles in the "new Iraq." Based on interviews with Iraqi women's rights activists, international policy makers, and NGO workers and illustrated with photographs taken by Iraqi women, What Kind of Liberation? speaks through an astonishing array of voices. Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt correct the widespread view that the country's violence, sectarianism, and systematic erosion of women's rights come from something inherent in Muslim, Middle Eastern, or Iraqi culture. They also demonstrate how in spite of competing political agendas, Iraqi women activists are resolutely pressing to be part of the political transition, reconstruction, and shaping of the new Iraq.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A timely addition to scholarship on Iraq."--Publishers Weekly

"Impressive."--The Middle East In London

"Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt's research could not have come at a better time. What Kind of Liberation? offers a revolutionary perspective on the war."--Feminist Review

"A very important tool for those of us living during the 'war on terror."--Fellowship Magazine

"An important and timely addition to the literature on Iraq . . . . [Al-Ali and Pratt] have contributed significantly to the feminist struggle for peace."--Journal of Contemporary Asia

The Middle East In London - Charles Tripp

Feminist Review - Lizzy Shramko

“Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt’s research could not have come at a better time. What Kind of Liberation? offers a revolutionary perspective on the war.”
Fellowship Magazine

“A very important tool for those of us living during the ‘war on terror.”
Journal Of Contemporary Asia

“An important and timely addition to the literature on Iraq . . . . [Al-Ali and Pratt] have contributed significantly to the feminist struggle for peace.”
Marine Corps University Journal - Paula Holmes-Eber

“A critical text that should be read by anyone working in or studying Iraq.”

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What Kind of Liberation?

Women and the Occupation of Iraq

By Nadje Al-Ali, Nicola Pratt


Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94217-2



A few days after Laura Bush's visit to Afghanistan in March 2005, Nadje was invited to speak about the situation of Iraqi women on National Public Radio in the United States. Also live on the air was Charlotte Ponticelli, then senior coordinator for the International Women's Issues Office within the State Department. Ponticelli spoke about Laura Bush's visit and the great achievements of both Iraqi and Afghani women since their respective liberations. Her very positive account of the situation of Afghan women differed drastically from the stories we had heard from friends and colleagues who had traveled to Afghanistan and reported that not much had changed for women since 2001. However, when it came to Iraqi women, the extent of Ponticelli's misconceptions became even more obvious when she stated that people were generally unaware that Iraqi women, just like their Afghan counterparts, had been prevented by Saddam Hussein from entering schools and universities.

When it was her turn to be interviewed, Nadje tried to dispel this extreme misrepresentation of past realities: while there was no doubt about the numerous atrocities and horrors committed by the previous regime, Iraqi women were until quite recently among the most educated in the region and had been actively involved in Iraq's labor force until economic sanctions destroyed Iraq's economy. Nadje argued at the time that Saddam Hussein and the Ba'th regime had committed uncountable crimes while in power—crimes that should be addressed and recognized—but that with respect to women the picture was much more complex.

During the past years, as we have given numerous talks at universities, bookstores, and community centers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and various European countries, we often came across the perception of the passive, oppressed Iraqi woman who had been deprived of all rights including those of education, work, and freedom of movement. Often our audiences' views were based on stereotypes and generalizations about Islam and Muslim societies. In this chapter, we challenge these misconceptions and generalizations and provide a historical context for the current situation in Iraq by examining women's active involvement in political life prior to the fall of the previous regime in 2003. We show how prevailing gender ideologies and relations have been shaped by and, in turn, have shaped the evolution of political, economic, and social structures and state policies. We begin with a description of early reformists and feminists in the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly in connection to the revolutionary movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, before examining "state feminism" under the initial period of the Ba'th regime. We then explore the turn toward greater social conservatism during the 1980s and 1990s as a result of wars (1980–88 Iran-Iraq War, 1991 Gulf War) and economic sanctions (1990–2003). In addition, we highlight the changing nature and significance of secularism, religion, and sectarianism within Iraqi society, challenging both primordialist accounts of the violent and fragmented "nature" of Iraqi society and glorifications of harmonious multiculturalism that gloss over tensions and violent state policies of exclusion.


Like the women's movements in other Middle Eastern countries, Iraqi women's rights activism emerged in the context of modernist discourses about the Iraqi nation and its "new women" (Efrati 2004; Kamp 2003). Male reformers such as the poets Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863–1963) and Ma'ruf al-Rusafi (1875–1945) were inspired by the Egyptian reformist and champion of women's rights Qasim Amin and called for the education of women and an end to veiling, seclusion, and forced marriages (Efrati 2004: 155). Women were seen to be central to the project of progress and modernizing the country.

The first women's organization in Iraq, the Women's Awakening Club (Nadi al-Nahda al-Nisa'iyya, was founded in 1923 by a group of secular Muslim, educated, middle- and upper-middle-class women, many of whom were married to male political leaders and intellectuals. One of the sixty or so members, Na'ima al-Said, stated at one of the group's early meetings: "It is clear that a nation cannot achieve progress unless men and women cooperate, and women can not help men unless they are educated. ... Some people in the east mistakenly consider women to be incapable of undertaking any useful projects.... I hope we can prove by the success of this Club the fallacy of such thinking" (Ingrams 1983: 93). Projects aiming at women's "awakening" involved literacy courses, lectures on health, hygiene, and housework, and discussions on political, social, and economic issues. Elite women from upper-class backgrounds were the main beneficiaries of these educational programs while lower-class women became mainly recipients of charity. However, members of the Women's Awakening Club stressed the importance of education and organized classes for orphaned and illiterate girls. While male reformers and traditionalists were engaged in a fierce debate about "the veil," with reformists arguing that unveiling was a necessary step in the context of modernization, Iraqi women activists focused their efforts more on wider issues related to women's rights, education, suffrage, and entry into the labor force.

Under British occupation and later British mandate, Iraqi women participated in the nationalist independence struggle in the 1920s and 1930s. Although Iraq received its formal independence in October 1932, British meddling continued until the revolution in 1958, which transformed Iraq from a monarchy to a republic. Like their sisters in other colonized countries such as Egypt, Iraqi women gained political and social spaces through their commitment to their nation's independence (Efrati 2004: 164). Charitable organizations proliferated in the 1930s to deal with the main social ills at the time: poverty, illiteracy, and disease (166). These organizations stepped in where the state had failed to provide and established health centers, shelters for orphans, schools for the blind, and mother and child care centers. Women became actively involved in both gender-mixed organizations, such as the Red Crescent Society (Jam'iyyat al-Hilal al-Ahmar), and women-only groups, such as the Women's Union Society (Jam'iyyat al-Ittihad al-Nisa'i) (Efrati 2004: 166).

During the 1940s, these charitable organizations gained momentum while new religiously based groups and organizations with more political and feminist orientations emerged as well (Efrati 2004: 166–67). The Women's League against Nazism and Fascism (Jam'iyyat Mukafahat al-Naziyya wa-l-Fashiyya) supported democratic ideas and dedicated most of its efforts to eradicating women's illiteracy. It also published a magazine called Woman's Liberation (Tahrir al-Mar'a) and attempted to raise women's cultural and social awareness (Efrati 2004: 168). After the end of World War II and the defeat of the Nazis in Germany, the organization was renamed the Women's League Society (Jam'iyyat al-Rabita al-Nisa'iyya) before it was suspended in 1947 by the government as part of a crackdown on leftist organizations and activities.

The Iraqi Women's Union, founded in 1945, was the most important feminist organization at the time. It was inspired by a major women's conference in December 1944 organized by the Egyptian Feminist Union (which had been founded by Huda Sharawi) (Efrati 2004: 169). The Iraqi Women's Union had been active throughout the 1940s and 1950s, not only in charity work, but also in women's education and networking between the various women's organizations inside Iraq and across the Arab world. Most significantly, however, members of the Iraqi Women's Union had addressed previously taboo issues such as prostitution, divorce and child custody, women's working conditions, and property rights (Efrati 2004: 169). But members were largely affiliated with the political establishment under the monarchy and did not share the revolutionary spirit of many of the younger women, who later became involved in the Iraqi Women's League (Rabitat al-Mar'a al-'Iraqiyya).


From the late 1940s onwards, resentment against the established political regime grew. The major opposition force in the 1940s and 1950s was the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), founded in 1934. Notions of social justice, egalitarianism, class struggle, anti-British Iraqi nationalism, and secularism were appealing to an intellectual elite as well as impoverished workers and peasants, shantytown dwellers, and students. Not officially licensed by the government, members of communist-led organizations had to work underground and were regularly subjected to repression and persecution. Nevertheless their numbers grew.

In 1952, mass demonstrations initiated by student discontent, known as the Intifada (Uprising), resulted in martial law, increased repression, and mass arrests of political leaders. Many of the older women we talked to had become politicized in the context of the student movement in the late 1940s before they joined the ICP. Soraya K., who has been living in exile in London for over three decades, remembers with great enthusiasm the days of her political activism: "I was initially recruited by fellow students when I was at the university in the late forties. We were all politicized. After I graduated I started to become involved in the Communist Party. We would spend a lot of time in the countryside talking to poor peasants, helping them out with food and medicines but also educating them and trying to get them to support our struggle." Not all women were attracted to communism. Some slightly younger women Nadje spoke to found it generally quite hard to admit that they had been initially involved with the Ba'th Party as part of their Arab nationalist orientation and admiration for the pan-Arab leader Nasser in the 1950s. Women who had initially been attracted to the Ba'th Party were careful to stress the difference between the ideology of pan-Arabism rooted in Arab heritage and regional solidarity and the way political leaders, such as Saddam Hussein, had implemented it and acted when coming to power. Mona F., who became an outspoken critic of Saddam's regime in the eighties and nineties, said:

At that period, in 1959, I joined the Ba'th Party. All my friends and my sister were in the Ba'th Party. This was my life, my teenage years. I was so much involved. I put all my passion, all my love into the party. My parents did not know about it. My mother once told me that someone told her that I went to someone's house. She was very angry with me. My father heard that I went to demonstrations. He took my hand and for the first time he told me: "My whole family honour is in this hand. Please protect it. I respect you. And I don't want to question you. I trust you, but please protect our family honour." I was attracted to the Ba'th because of Arab nationalism and Nasser. My sister brought home lots of Ba'th Party literature. She was a librarian and she had access to books. She was highly educated. She had a strong personality and was very dominating, so I would do anything she would say. (Al-Ali 2007: 81–82)

Different political orientations existed evenwithin one family. What seems to have united the generation of young educated people across a range of middle-class backgrounds was their politicization rather than a specific political orientation. Mona and her elder sister left the Ba'th Party shortly after the first Ba'th coup d'état in 1963 in protest against the arrest and torture of their brother, who had been a leading member of the ICP:

My brother was moved from one prison to another. He was tortured, despite my sister's connection in the Ba'th Party. We both left the party and that was the end of my political career. But I have no regrets. It made me read a lot. It made me think on a much higher level than what is usual for an ordinary teenager. I was thinking about the world, about the needs of people. The experience in the party formed my personality and made me grow up a lot. But leaving the party and knowing what I knew about the party was devastating. I suffered from depression for the first time in my life. I escaped into the world of books. (Al-Ali 2007: 84)

Both of the main political orientations at the time—communism and Arab nationalism—were essentially secular, and religious ideology did not play a significant role. Political ideology also cut across ethnic and religious backgrounds. Ba'thism promoted an Arab nationalism based on the idea of Arab "brotherhood" and attracted Iraqi Arabs of all religious backgrounds, including some middle-class secular Shi'i and Christians, especially during the initial period of economic expansion (Davis 2005: 149). The Ba'th political leaders, including Presidents Hassan al Bakr (1968–79) and Saddam Hussein (1979–2003), were convinced of the superiority of Sunni Arabs (Tripp 2000: 195), but to secure support of other religious and ethnic groups they placed a few token Christian and Shi'i in powerless positions (Davis 2005: 148) and stressed Iraq's Mesopotamian heritage as a means to unify Iraqis of all backgrounds. Yet more Iraqi Kurds and Shi'i were attracted to the more inclusive and egalitarian Iraqi nationalism promoted by the ICP.


Several women who had been involved in the student movement also became active in an emerging women's organization that was closely linked with the ICP, initially called Rabitat al-Difa'an Huquq al-Mar'a (League for the Defense of Women's Rights), later changed to Rabitat al-Mar'a al-'Iraqiyya (Iraqi Women's League).One of the founders of the league was the famous pioneer Dr. Naziha al-Dulaymi, who inspired thousands of young women to join in the struggle for women's legal rights. Dr. al-Dulaymi, who passed away as we were finishing this book in the fall of 2007, also played an important role in her profession as a medical doctor, where she was instrumental in improving public health in Iraq, and has been credited as the first woman in the Arab world to become a cabinet minister (she became minister of municipalities in 1959).

Soraya K., who has been in the midst of debates and campaigns revolving around changes in women's legal rights, feels proud about the achievements at the time: "The most important thing we did in the Rabitat [Iraqi Women's League] is the Qanun al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiya (personal status laws). We had a group of women lawyers working in the Rabitat. What we ended up achieving was not complete, but it was the best we could do. In the media and in the mosque, we were accused of not caring about religion. But our friends and family were happy and they appreciated the changes. Reactionary people and Ba'thists attacked it" (Al-Ali 2007: 90). Despite widespread opposition and protest by conservative social forces, the revolutionary regime of 'Abd al-Karim Qasim did take women's demands for increased legal rights and equality seriously and passed one of the most progressive family laws in the region in 1959. A unified code replaced the previously differential treatment of Sunni and Shi'i women and men with respect to legal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Although still based on shari'a (Islamic law), the personal status code of 1959 was relatively progressive in interpretation and entailed some radical changes to previous laws: women were given equal inheritance rights, polygamy and unilateral divorce (i.e., on the part of the man) became severely restricted, women's consent to marriage became a requirement, and women's right to mahr (bride-price) was stressed (Efrati 2005). Although these legal changes would not have been possible without the support of the male political leadership, it was women activists' lobbying, campaigning, and participation in the legislative processes in the context of drafting a new constitution that led to the new more progressive personal status code.


Excerpted from What Kind of Liberation? by Nadje Al-Ali, Nicola Pratt. Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A timely addition to scholarship on Iraq."—Publishers Weekly

"Impressive."—The Middle East
In London

"Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt's research could not have come at a better time. What Kind of Liberation? offers a revolutionary perspective on the war."—Feminist Review

"A very important tool for those of us living during the 'war on terror."—Fellowship Magazine

"An important and timely addition to the literature on Iraq . . . . [Al-Ali and Pratt] have contributed significantly to the feminist struggle for peace."—Journal of Contemporary Asia

Meet the Author

Nadje Al-Ali is Reader in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Nicola Pratt is Lecturer in Comparative Politics and International Relations at the University of East Anglia.

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