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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

August 2006

Pressure on women in Iraq as procreators of ethnic groups

Women as victims, survivors and custodians of identity.

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | | Iraq

Conflict description:

In the context of Iraq, we have to differentiate between at least two “layers” of conflict. On the one hand, there is the clash between the occupants (US-led coalition) and the occupied (Iraqis of all ethnic groups and religions) that takes different shapes and forms in different regions and municipalities. As previously noted, it is less pronounced in Iraqi Kurdistan. On the other hand, there are several historically grounded and highly complex conflicts among Iraqis. At present, both of these conflicts are interlinked and mutually sustain one-another; for example Kurds may be confronted with the view that they are “America’s helpers” which in turn makes it harder for them to work towards a peaceful coexistence with other ethnic groups.

When it comes to the impact of this multi-layered conflict on women, the following can be observed:

Women as custodians of ethnic identities:

In conflict situations, women are increasingly considered as the “bearers of ethnicity”, the last bastion fighting for the independence and pride of the own ethno-religious group from the private sphere outward. Many authors have observed the pressure put on women’s shoulders during wartime and in post-conflict situations to produce children (especially sons) and to teach them the “right” values of the community (see e.g. Tanika Sarkar 2001, here on ‘Hindutva’ in India). In Iraq, where demography is a decisive factor in the difficult equilibrium between the ethno-religious groupings, this kind of pressure to preserve one’s (Kurdish, Shiite, Sunni, etc.) identity has been mounting in recent years while patriotism (“We are Iraqis”) has declined. In many groups (most notably among the Shiites), many women have shifted towards religious conservatism, e.g. exchanging their small headscarves [hijab] for a body-length black veil [chador], educating their sons and daughters in distinctively conservative (if not anti-Western) ways, etc. However, these developments cannot be labeled as negative only: One could also argue that women are now taking greater pride and confidence in their cultural heritage and are trying to preserve it and pass it on. Sadly, in many cases there is reason to suspect that women are being instrumentalised by male leaders.

Social position:

In conflict-ridden societies, women often take on traditionally “male” roles such as breadwinning, public office, etc. while their husbands are away fighting. In Iraq, this could be clearly observed during the war with Iran in the 1980s (higher taxes, improved administration, strong patriotism, mobilisation of women in the labour market and in politics, etc.). As a result, Iraqi women have been famous for their relatively high emancipation, independence and high educational achievements throughout the Middle East. However, in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, women’s roles seem not to have changed for the better. Many argue that this is due to a new kind of warfare: In Iraq, there is not one army facing another army, there are groups and fractions fighting each other (and the occupation) and civilian casualties are extremely high. The situation can be described as something akin to a “light” civil war with small arms fought by militias. In this kind of a setting, men do not generally leave their families for sustained periods of time but rather engage in guerilla warfare (insurgency or armed ethnic struggle) while living at home and – where still in paid employment – often even continuing to work. This is of course different for households that have lost their male breadwinners in the ongoing battles: here, indeed, women are forced to take on male roles. Thus we can say that in Iraq most female-headed households are run by widows, not the wives of combatants. In this context, the hopes for women’s empowerment via conflict are limited: Not only might the new-found public roles not be sustainable in the post-war periods, women may not even receive public roles in the first place.

How conflict impacts women’s rights:

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was accompanied by the collapse of the state and the complete breakdown of the social, economic, health, educational and judiciary services that had already been immensely weakened under international sanctions in the 1990s. Therefore, even if women’s rights to accessing public services are in principle given by the new Iraqi constitution, these rights cannot always be taken up in practice. The situation is further complicated by the fact that many women and children from Southern and Central Iraq have been displaced by the ongoing violence. Many are seeking refuge in the Kurdish region in the North where their right to access public services may not be recognised. However, some positive developments can be noted; they are most visible in the field of women’s political participation: After the issuing of a quota for the involvement of women in all aspects of political life, some 31% of Members of Parliament (MPs) for examples are now females. In the realm of civil society, there has initially been a mushrooming of women’s NGOs (above all in Iraqi Kurdistan), not least due to the way international relief operations were “doing business” (need for local partners, desire of USAID to “cover up” the American origin of their efforts, etc.). By now, many of these NGOs have disappeared, some activists have been co-opted by governments or political parties (to work in the public sector or to create so-called “governmental NGOs”), others have experienced financial, logistic, security or political obstacles and have given up.


To close, can we therefore say that the ongoing multi-layered conflict in Iraq presents an opportunity for new and more equitable gender relations? My take on this question contradicts common wisdom on women’s behaviour and attitudes/identities in crisis situations: I would argue that while women’s attitudes and identities have somewhat changed in the course of the conflict (ethno-religious identities have become more salient; women are more conscious of their role as educators and guardians of traditions which might be a source of self-esteem and hence “empowerment”), their behaviour has not changed (the traditional gender roles of the patriarchal Iraqi society still apply, few women are breadwinners or public figures). The greater bargaining power that some women enjoy as a result of the conflict (in parliament, in NGOs, etc.) has been imposed on Iraqi society from above (or even from outside), e.g. through the new Western-brokered constitution, rather than being a product of internal bottom-up processes and deep-seated value-change.


In conflict situations, women are increasingly considered as the “bearers of ethnicity”, the last bastion fighting for the independence and pride of the own ethno-religious group from the private sphere outward.How does the American invasion interact with gender identities?


  • The author of the file is : Tina Nebe.