Gender and conflict in Iraq

“Violence emanates from the man, so we have to have projects that make him aware of this circumstance,” said Zainab Sadeq Jaffer, an Iraqi human rights attorney who presented at the US Institute for Peace Conference entitled “Women Fighting for Peace”. Others may argue that violence is not a gendered concept, but in a post-conflict country such as Iraq addressing specific trends in aggressive behavior has become vital.
Gender violence in conflict zones can stem from a multitude of factors – societal customs, ideologies, stress, as well as government and non-government actors participating in the conflict. As a result, Iraq has seen an increase in the rate of domestic violence during periods of recession and war. Post-conflict Iraq does not represent only a society of war victims. Iraq experienced repression by an authoritarian regime, in which “low-grade” conflict pushed both men and women to take out their aggression on one another in a “battle of the sexes.”

During Iraq’s authoritarian rule, Iraqi civilians had to enlist in the military for three armed conflicts, which introduced an aggressive culture as men militarized to survive. The first was the Iraq-Iran War, which claimed over 260,000 Iraqi lives, according to the Global Security Report. The second was the 1990-91 Gulf war, which claimed over 250,000 Iraqi lives. The third instance of institutionalized violence required Iraq’s military in the second US led invasion. Additionally, between 1979 and 2003, Saddam Hussein’s rule imposed another layer of violence through torture, random execution, rape, and persecution of minorities – both women and men. Even after Hussein lost power conflict erupted on another macro-scale as Iraqi soldiers and policemen, trained for aggression, were left with few outlets to reengage in civil society. Consequently, unemployment skyrocketed as the remaining soldiers returned home.

The combination of unemployment, frustration and arguably, a militarized environment, has made Iraq a post-war hub of aggression. Local Iraqis, like Susan Arif Maroof and Zainab Sadeq Jaafar, are attempting to counter this and ensure peace in Iraqi homes through their professional experience and passion. Specifically, the Al-Mustaqbal Center for Women and Women Empowerment Organization (WEO), led by Maroof, link the non-profit model to the community’s needs. Together they are partnering with international organizations to address these evolving community needs. The US Institute for Peace (USIP), the United Nations Development Programme and the European Union recognize how the third sector merges the non-profit model with innovation. Iraq presents a case study of how Arab females apply their education and professional background to tackle violence on the ground in Iraq as well as provide support services to rebuild civil society, the family and the confidence to move forward post-conflict.

As an attorney and activist, Jafaar procured donor funding to produce the documentary “Be Tender with Flasks,” a 20 minute film that advocates combating violence against women as a prerequisite to peacebuiding in Iraq. Procuring funding for such projects, especially film, emerges as a challenge when many aspects of society require rebuilding, and thereby compete for funding.

Maroof manages WEO to 1) operate a mobile health clinic, 2) provide a telephone hotline and 3) coordinate training the trainers to complete the cycle on community engagement. WEO aims to promote human rights, gender equity, economic engagement and political participation, and elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.

Often, women’s organizations consist primarily of women. The challenge is recruiting men to engage in women’s issues while believing that the gender issues go beyond women. Gender issues relate to raising the human development index back to pre-war and pre-sanction levels. Consequently, both organizations enlist Iraqi males, like imams, to combat violence against women. The innovation by both models rejects that religious figures should remain absent from secular organizations. Consequently, their grant applications appealed to USIP’s goal to “enhance women’s access to justice in Iraq.”

WEO’s project staff conducted eight workshops for 160 policemen judges, lawyers, religious leaders as well as members of the general public. They share in disseminating 500 booklets and brochures to address domestic violence. Both USIP funded institutions acknowledge the social, political, and religious dimensions of violence. Jaafar elaborates on her observation that the cycle of violence in the home extends from the violence perpetrated on the battlefield and related security threats. Economic uncertainty and social factors, like unemployment directly contribute to domestic violence. This link should not be ignored as she asserts that “there’s nothing soft about forcing demobilized soldiers to desist from domestic violence” a trend in post-conflict Iraq.

“Women are the barometer of success,” emphasizes Manal Omar, an activist who has undertaken several trips each to Iraq’s many provinces as the US Institute for Peace Director of Iraq, Iran and North Africa. Omar specializes in conflict resolution and peacebuilding initiatives beginning with her field work and efforts with the World Bank and implementation of the Oil-For-Food Programme. Omar seeks out programs that 1) explore how to tackle gender and post-conflict challenges; and 2) better promotes women and households politically, economically, and thereby, socially.

Essentially, film, PSAs, trainer programs for law enforcement and domestic violence awareness programs coupled with basic/advanced computer courses, women’s health clinics and services catapult Iraqi women activists’ entrepreneurial vision to match the needs of Iraqi households. From both a non-profit and profit standpoint: Iraqi households operate as the fundamental unit of rebuilding a society, and ultimately, an economy. Perhaps that is why a cartoon simulation shows an Iraqi girl handing her mother a pamphlet while an Arabic narrator emphasizes that legal help and training are available to Iraqi women.
(Photo Credit: CWGL)

Mehrunisa Qayyum is the Founder of PITAPOLICY Consulting, and runs PITAPOLICY: a political economy blog on the MENA region. Regarding International Affairs & Trade issues, she worked at the United States’s Government Accountability Office for four years. Prior to that, she earned her MPP & Certificate in Contemporary Arab Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in both Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and Public Policy from the University of Chicago.
Her recent analytical pieces have appeared in Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Aslan Media, and the Middle East Institute on on civil society, transparency & governance, human rights, political economy of Syria, and social media forums’ impact. She enjoys watching the Colbert Report in her free time.

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