It all began in the year I was born. According to an Iraqi tradition, with each child’s birth comes a blessing. My parents always referred to our family’s house as the blessing of my birth. They started building this house in 1969, the year I was born, and it has since been our home. Over the ensuing decades, it became home to my family’s joys and our sorrows. Today the house shelters the story of our family, and a story of Iraq.
Like most middle class houses in Baghdad, it is a simple two-story building. Inconspicuously nestled among eucalyptus trees and perched at the end of a cul-de-sac. As a child, my bedroom was the big, spacious room at the end of the second floor hallway. Intimidated by the room’s grandeur I often consoled myself by staring out the window. From this window I observed the growth of the eucalyptus trees alongside the constant, and often unsettling, coming and goings of the nearby cul-de-sac.
In my earliest memories the cul-de-sac is teeming with water. While my parents blamed the country’s nascent infrastructure for this lack of proper drainage, I welcomed the accumulation of heavy rains. It meant a chance to frolic, surrounded by enormous newspaper boats that my father diligently, and lovingly, constructed by hand for my brother and I. To this day, I smile when I think of those innocent days.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that often, long after I went to bed, Saddam Hussein parked his car in our cul-de-sac. It was the 1970s and Saddam was vice president of Iraq. In hopes of advancing his political ambitions, Saddam was courting different social groups in Baghdad. My parents were considered part of the “hip” crowd. My father had studied in Scotland and now traveled the world as a commercial pilot, accumulating a diverse collection of musical records as he traveled; my mother was a fashionable, intelligent teacher who loved dancing and partying with my father and their friends. Most importantly, neither of my parents was interested in politics; this made it “safe” for them to entertain Saddam as their visitor. Saddam didn’t acknowledge that my parents didn’t care about his politics and my parents didn’t recognize how hard it was to refuse any of Saddam Hussein’s wishes – not in the 1970s, not ever.
In 1951, Ali Al-Wardi, one of Iraq’s most respected historians and social anthropologists, wrote about the need to lift women’s seclusion and the necessity of women’s full inclusion in all aspects of the public life in Iraq. He argued that gender equality was one of the major prerequisites for a healthy Iraqi society that eliminates the dualism caused by the seclusion of women and systematic encouragement of segregation and separation of men and women. Nearly 60 years later, Iraq is witnessing more seclusion of women than ever, more suppression of women’s rights than ever, and the near total disappearance of a female presence in the public sphere. This is a dangerous phenomenon that should not be taken lightly.
Women are a bellwether for society and no progress can be achieved in any country, let alone Iraq, if women are continually suppressed and hidden from the public sphere with little or no rights or freedoms. In my recent visit to Iraq in May of this year, I was saddened to learn the extent to which women status has detracted in the country. Legally, women’s rights remained unprotected. The Family Status Law, written in 1959 and shaped by legal scholars of a similar mind to Al-Wardi, had been practically erased by the new Iraqi constitution of 2004.
Those who wrote the 1959 Family Status Law wrote about the need for a consistent, centralized law that ensured the protection of all women in Iraq as a vision for progress in the country. While the 1959 legislation and its Hussein-era amendments left much room for improvement, the Family Status Law protected Iraqi women’s rights in many ways from establishing the legal marriage age at 18, to creating barriers, polygamy, specifying a women’s right to maintain her lifestyle upon her marriage, and asserting a women’s right divorce her husband. The Family Status Law was written under the auspices of Islamic law with an intent to gear away from sectarian laws that suppressed women’s public participation and basic human rights established in many other Muslim countries at the time.