Women, War and Resistance in Iraq

Women, War and Resistance in Iraq

Report of SHS public meeting by David Morgan

Iraqi-born Haifa Zangana has long been known as a courageous and independent voice against the foreign occupation of her country. She has used her considerable talents as an activist and as a writer to make people aware of the unendurable suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people over decades of war, oppression, economic sanctions and occupation.

Haifa is justly and widely admired for her tenacity and outspokenness, qualities which were much in evidence when she spoke to the Socialist History Society on 16 September. The SHS organised the meeting at the Bishopsgate Institute in cooperation with Women for an Independent and Unified Iraq with Haifa speaking on the theme of “Iraqi Women’s Role in the Anti-colonial Resistance”. Khatchatur Pilikian, a SHS committee member who was also born in Iraq, chaired the meeting (we have taken the opportunity to include his spirited opening address in this newsletter).

A passionate advocate of the full participation of women in Iraqi and Muslim societies, Haifa chose the occasion to celebrate the role of women in the building of a modern Iraq, whose secular society and social gains for women she described as the most progressive in the Middle East in the sixties and seventies. Latterly, successive wars and the ongoing occupation of the country have proved a disaster for women in particular despite the fact that the American occupiers used the promotion of women’s rights as one of their main justifications for the US-led military intervention in 2003.

While passionate and angry about the terrible treatment of the Iraqi people today, Haifa was careful to situate the current resistance within the history of Iraq since the creation of the modern state in the 1920s. She cited numerous examples of heroic individuals and described the participation of women in progressive organisations such as the once highly influential Communist Party of Iraq. By means of this evidence, too often neglected by commentators on contemporary Iraq, she demonstrated that Iraqi women have had a long history of political activism and social participation throughout the 20th century and even before.

In Haifa’s perspective, the Iraqi women’s movement undeniably played an integral part in the construction of the modern identity of Iraq as a progressive secular state, an identity that she understands must continually be remembered and defended against the negative images of dictatorship and ethnic divisions that too often prevail today. The role of Iraqi intellectuals, many of whom were Marxists, had been crucial to the development of the progressive national movement including the women’s movement, she argued. As regards the Marxist influence in Iraq, Haifa told the meeting that the first Marxist study group was established in 1924, publishing the short-lived journal, As-Sahifa. Meanwhile, the first Iraqi women’s magazine, Layla, appeared in October 1923. A particular important role had been played by poets given that poetry in both its written and oral forms has traditionally had a special public place as a genre in Iraqi society. As an example, the woman poet Um Nazir, was a pioneer in calling for women’s liberation in Iraq as well as in the fight against colonial occupation and injustice.

Women had taken part in the struggle against colonial domination under British rule and were in the forefront of the fight for national unity, social justice and legal equality. The gains made by women’s struggles had eventually led to Iraqi women becoming among the most liberated in the region and their country’s social policies among the most progressive in the world. A key event was the 1958 Revolution, when Iraqi people for the first time won control of their own lives. Haifa saw this moment as one of jubilation for Iraqis, women especially, because the revolution ushered in a new constitution that established important legal rights for women. International Women’s Day on 8 March was celebrated as a public holiday as was International Workers’ Day on 1 May. The great tragedy of modern Iraq is that wars, conflict and outside intervention have led to a situation where the Iraqi people have lost many of the social gains that they once enjoyed. It is vitally important for Iraqis to remember their history in order to show that there is nothing inevitable about their present plight. Haifa Zangana provided an illuminating talk with much food for thought and a lively discussion followed.

For anyone who was unable to attend the meeting, many of the themes that she dealt with are treated in much more detail in her recent book, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2007).

Welcome address to Haifa Zangana

by Khatchatur Pilikian

I met Haifa for the first time in November 2006, at a Conference in the Friends House, Euston. In her end-of-Conference talk, she exposed the hypocritical nature of most of the so-named Non Governmental Organisations, NGOs, engaged in occupied Iraq. Her detailed analysis of the NGOs functioning, as she thought, as an “integral part of the US strategy in Iraq,” brought her to conclude that the NGOs “represent US colonial policy rather than the interests of Iraqi men and women.” The two quotations above are from Haifa’s latest book, The City of Widows, which includes her analysis of the mission of NGOs in Iraq.

Jumping the queue, I should mention that Haifa is scheduled to be in New York on Sept 22, to launch a new edition of her first book, Dreaming of Baghdad, for the Feminist Press NY. In the next couple of months, before the end of the year 2009, she will be presenting papers on the evolving role of colonial feminists in occupied Iraq, first on October 4-7, in Beirut, at Arab Feminisms: A Critical Perspective, then on December 9-12, in The Hague, Netherlands, at the Institute of Social Studies.

Haifa’s courage of her convictions reminds me of the phenomenal grandeur of miniature art in general, and in particular of the images of Sumerian, the ancient Iraqi-Mesopotamian art of the cylinder seals. Miniscule images notwithstanding, they essentially have monumental and impressive presence. As you all can witness, Haifa Zangana is a tiny little woman, but she has a monumental personality and an impressive talent to tell what really is happening in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, and particularly what is happening to the Iraqi women. But most fascinatingly, Haifa also tells us what the Iraqi women used to make happen to the Iraqi society and to their feminist, humane aspirations. They  waged, for decades, impressive anticolonial resistance for independence and persistent struggles for genuine democracy, not the latter-day imperialism’s camouflaged, nay deranged version of it that reflects the servile ethics of by-gone colonialism. As John Milton, the revolutionary republican poet, once declared in his Apology of 1648: “they who have put out the peoples eyes, reproach them of their blindness”. And yet, Haifa tells us how good the Iraqi women have seen and continue to see and grasp the reality, both the causes and the effects of their tragedy. Moreover, they continue to act upon it, thus refuting the masquerading of that reality by the occupying powers and their local junta, both still adamant to oblige their Grand Master’s dictating roar.

Once upon a time, well fifteen hundred years before the original Odyssey was written down by Homer, the king of Uruk in Sumeria, named Gilgamesh, “went on a long journey” and “brought us a tale of the days before the flood,” and, finally, he  “engraved on a stone the whole story. ” (N.K.Saunders. The Epic of Gilgamash. Prologue. Penguin Books 1972) That most archaic odyssey also tells us about a haunting predicament worth ‘lending our ears’ to, especially in our own turbulent times. Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, asks the Heavenly father of Gods, Anu, the following: “Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction.” Ishtar’s plea kindled a paradox, as she herself was arrogance incarnate. Ishtar knew herself well. Unlike Gilgamesh, her safety was secured by her ‘divine immortality’.

How true this quinto-millenial wisdom of Sumeria sounds today. Uttered in the land now an occupied Iraq, the arrogance of the most powerful military power the world has ever witnessed, is doing, it seems, its utmost to destroy itself, after having decimated the heritage of the land and its culture, annihilated over a million of its population and left behind nearly a million displaced children and close to five million Iraqi refugees roaming around both in neighbouring countries and in their own homeland too. And all, because of the occupying power’s “addiction to oil,” as confessed, not long time ago, by the arrogant, supreme commander of its awesome military conglomerate, the pre-Obama US President, now in the dustbin of history, so decreed by US voters. Arrogance is indeed a Hara-kiri power. Ishtar is proving to be right.

The City of Widows of 2009 is the odyssey not only of its author Haifa Zangana, but also and essentially of the Iraqi women and their resistance to the unjust war and occupation, not devoid of a graceful yet taciturn eulogy to their resilience and tenacity for survival. Perhaps tinged with wishful thinking, I could also read in between the lines, a compassionate, warning advice to the occupying powers to stop their indulgence in the brutal Hara-kiri arrogance. Would they ever believe they are not divinely immortal, unlike Ishtar? Inshallah! Otherwise, Bertold Brecht’s theatrical aphorism will continue to pinch our alter ego: “If sharks ruled the world they would teach the little fish that it is a great honour to swim into the mouth of a shark.” Let us welcome Haifa to tell us her tale.

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November 2009

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