Even after Saddam Hussein became president in 1979, at war with Iran and unsparing with political repression, women’s access to education and to waged labor continued to grow — mainly because the expanding economy increasingly demanded their labor. Throughout, however, women’s legal rights and social and economic position teetered in an uneasy relationship with tradition: the overarching importance of the traditional patriarchal family, reli¬gious ideologies, and norms of family “honor” and rep¬utation. As the conflict with Iran wore on, these tradi¬tional ideas regained some lost ground; Hussein looked for allies among conservative Sunni religious groups as well as tribal leaders, and women’s rights and freedoms began to contract. This trend gathered momentum during the 13 years of United Nations’ sanctions.
In 1959 Iraq broke somewhat from Shari’a by introduc¬ing a Personal Status Law (ILPS) that granted equal inheritance and divorce rights, relegated divorce, inher¬itance and marriage to civil, instead of religious, courts, and provided for child support. Shari’a was still allowed to adjudicate cases that the ILPS did not cover, and polygamy was permitted under certain circumstances.
In 1968, the newly controlling Ba’ath party harnessed female labor in the service of Iraq’s flourishing economy. Spurred by the West’s thirst for oil, Iraq’s burgeoning economy after the nationalization of the oil industry in 1972 created labor shortages that women were encour¬aged to fill. The carrot was a host of labor and employ¬ment laws, including gender equity in education, civil service jobs, equal pay for equal work, maternity bene¬fits, and freedom from workplace harassment. The exo¬dus of men to fight the Iran¬Iraq war (1980¬88) created yet more demand for female workers. Women took ever more positions in the workforce, particularly in civil service and in formerly male¬dominated professions, such as oil¬project designers, construction supervisors, scientists, engineers, doctors, and accountants. However, in the last years of the war, a backlash against women entering the work force arose—a movement which grew significantly when men came home from the war in 1988 to a faltering economy.
Not surprisingly, patriarchal and conservative values of most Iraqis did not automatically change in tandem with the transformations in legislation and the econo¬my. Women’s access to all rights still depended greatly on social class, religion, and rural/urban residency. For example, religious and patriarchal values weighed more heavily on rural and impoverished women than on their more secular, educated, and urban peers. As we explore Iraqi women’s fate over time, we will see how tenacious are the urban¬rural split, secular¬religious conflicts, and class differences.
Still, the Ba’ath party’s program, which sought to cement loyalty to the state, penetrated as well into edu¬cation, politics, and society. In the early 1970s, the party established the General Federation of Iraqi Women (GFIW) to implement state policy. The only women’s organization allowed, the GFIW operated pri¬marily through female¬based community centers to offer educational, job¬training, and other social pro¬grams. It also communicated state propaganda. The government passed laws to encourage literacy for the entire population, female and male, between the ages of 6 and 45. Women were given the right to vote in 1980 and to be elected to the National Assembly and local governing bodies, although the number of female repre¬sentatives remained small. Around the same time, laws on divorce, polygamy, and inheritance still further expanded women’s rights.
Although a great deal of policy and law continued to women’s advantage when Saddam Hussein became presi¬dent, his voracious appetite for dictatorial power over the entire population could not but undermine women’s gains. Women, like men, were jailed, tortured, raped, and mur¬dered. To extract information from dissidents, suspected dissidents, and opposition members abroad, Hussein was fond of sending them video tapes showing their female rel¬atives raped by members of the secret police.
The war with Iran subjected Iraqis not only to the dep¬rivations of war but also to gross human rights viola¬tions inflicted by their own government. Women were targets for rape and sex trafficking because of their rela¬tionship to male oppositionist activists; thousands of women, children and men were expelled because of their actual or alleged Iranian descent; tens of thousands of Kurds disappeared, and the Iraqi government used chemical weapons against thousands of Kurds.
By 1990 Hussein was courting support for his war¬weary regime from neighboring Islamic states and from religious and tribal leaders. Hussein’s public embrace of Islam’s moral authority changed many of the laws gov¬erning divorce, child custody, and inheritance rights so as to limit women’s rights and freedoms. Laws restrict¬ed women’s ability to travel abroad without a male rela¬tive and reintroduced single¬sex education in high school. The GFIW stopped promoting women’s rights to work and education and focused primarily on humanitarian aid and health care. Honor killings of women who were suspected of pre¬marital sex or vic¬tims of rape, thereby “dishonoring” the family name, dramatically increased after Hussein reduced the prison sentences of male perpetrators from 8 years to no more than 6 months—a punishment in any case rarely imposed.
And the government’s brutalization of women contin¬ued. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and the sub¬sequent Gulf War ended with U.S. President George W. Bush urging the Kurds and Shi’a, whose religious activ¬ities were strictly regulated by the Ba’athists, to rise up against Hussein’s government. They did so—unsuccess¬fully. During and after the uprisings, government forces killed thousands of people, including women and chil¬dren, who were also allegedly used by government forces as “human shields.” By 2000, a militia founded by Hussein’s son, Uday, was beheading women in a cam¬paign against prostitution.
According to the World Health Organization, prior to the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq’s health conditions and health system were among the best in the Middle East. The degradation of the system and the health of the popula¬tion began during the Iran¬Iraq war and seriously accel¬erated during the 13 years of United Nations sanctions that followed the 1991 war. Between 1991¬1997, the government could only supply 10¬15% of the country’s medical needs, material and human. The Oil¬for¬Food Program, instituted in 1997, allowed the Iraqi govern¬ment to sell oil and use the revenues to obtain humani¬tarian aid. But the health care system never really recovered, and women paid the price. Pregnant Iraqis had to rely heavily on emergency obstetric care, prena¬tal care all but disappeared, and skilled delivery person¬nel were scarcely available. No wonder that maternal mortality tripled. At the same time, increasing poverty and poor nutrition undermined all women’s health, as it did men’s. Approximately 60% of the population became dependent on rations handed out by the gov¬ernment and paid for by the oil¬for¬food program.
Widowed woman and women who had lost fathers, sons, or prospective husbands in the wars were especial¬ly impoverished. Women had difficulty finding paid work or could not afford to work as the state withdrew its free child¬care and transportation. The wages of women who still worked dropped precipitously, and many middle¬class women fell into poverty. Impoverishment forced families to keep their female children out of school, and illiteracy soared. Prostitution, domestic abuse, and divorce soared. Two wars and the economic migration of men had led to a gender imbalance, so that the number of marriages fell while polygamy, which had generally been confined to rural or less educated Iraqis, grew.
The deteriorating economy, social crises, and Hussein’s courtship of religious and tribal leaders were reflected in the government’s support of returning women to domesticity. A generation gap emerged between educat¬ed mothers and their less educated, more conservative, daughters. Young girls wearing the hijab became ever more noticeable on Iraqi streets, motivated by many fac¬tors, not least of which was an increased religiosity and changing cultural and moral values.
By 2003, then, the position of women in Iraq had wors¬ened, particularly for those who did not enjoy the priv¬ileges of class or Ba’athist affiliation or the benefits of the black market economy. Indeed, one might even have imagined that groups of women would welcome American “liberators,” and briefly, when Hussein was removed from power, that might have been true for many people. However, that moment passed quickly as everything that could have been done wrongly was indeed so wrongly done.