Lasky: Women Under Saddam Hussein

Women under Saddam Hussein
Monday 24 April 2006
by Marjorie P. Lasky

From 1958 to the 1990s Iraq provided relatively more rights and freedom for women and girls than most of its neighbors. Created in the 1920s and, as an Islamic state, initially adhering to interpretations of Shari’a, Iraq became a republic in 1958. At that point the government legislated power away from the Shari’a courts over many aspects of women’s lives.

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, religious ideologies, and norms of family “honor” and reputation. As the conflict with Iran wore on, these traditional 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 introducing a Personal Status Law (ILPS) that granted equal inheritance and divorce rights, relegated divorce, inheritance 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 encouraged to fill. The carrot was a host of labor and employment laws, including gender equity in education, civil service jobs, and equal pay for equal work, maternity benefits, and freedom from workplace harassment. The exodus 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 economy. 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 education, 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 primarily through female based community centers to offer educational, job training, and other social programs. 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 representatives remained small. Around the same time, laws on divorce, polygamy, and inheritance still further expanded women’s rights.

The above paragraphs were chosen from a large article, to our readers, to have an idea about the status of Iraqi women under the Baathist Regime.

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