“We do not know our destiny. The Jordanian government might ask us to leave at any moment,” said Hana, a widow in her fifties. “There is no rest for a guest.”

Hana is one of 100 women and men I interviewed over the course of four research trips in 2007-2011 in order to examine the gendered impact of war and displacement on Iraqi women refugees in Jordan — or “guests,” as they are called by the Jordanian state. [1] Most of the interviewees were refugees, but I also carried out interviews with representatives of the United Nations and national and international aid organizations. The majority of Iraqi urban refugees live in the Jordanian capital of Amman, hoping to find jobs and improve their access to aid services. Some of the women refugees interviewed chose to live in Zarqa as the cost of living there is less than in Amman. The interviews were conducted in Arabic at a place of the women’s choosing. The women’s names have been changed for their protection. The majority of the women arrived in Jordan after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of them during the years 2005-2006, particularly after the bombing of the shrine in Samarra’. Some had come to Jordan, mostly for economic reasons, during the sanctions period in the 1990s. [2] The women’s ages ranged from 18 to 72, and I chose to interview women who came from different parts of Iraq and had varied economic, educational and political backgrounds. [3]

Jordan and Syria have the largest number of Iraqi refugees. There are approximately 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria and 500,000 in Jordan. [4] Neither Syria nor Jordan is a signatory to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention. In 1998, Jordan signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, wherein it agrees to admit refugees and asylum seekers and to respect UNHCR refugee status determination. The memorandum also adopts the refugee definition contained in the United Nations Refugee Convention and forbids the refoulement — forcible return to country of origin — of refugees and asylum seekers. Beyond that pledge, however, Jordan assumes no responsibility for the Iraqis. If the UNHCR gives an Iraqi family refugee status, making them eligible for host-country integration or third-country resettlement, their new home will not be in Jordan.

Fixed Temporality

“Guests,” the official term used in Jordan for the Iraqi refugees, is intended to connote hospitality, but also the temporary nature of their presence in the country. Many refugees referred directly to this contradiction and explained the lack of rights associated with the term. Many of them have been “guests” in Jordan for a number of years. The majority described their presence in Jordan as temporary and explained that the main reason behind their leaving Iraq was to seek safety and protect their children from violence. As an artist couple in their forties said, “There is no guarantee for us and for our children here…. We are like prisoners, like the torn album thrown in the wind…. We are not refugees because we do not have rights as refugees…. We are dispersed and not refugees.” Su‘ad, a woman in her early sixties whose house was broken into and who was kidnapped in Iraq in 2006, added, “There is no stability. Our living in Amman is temporary, as they might ask us to leave at any moment. If it were not for my kids, I would not be here.” She concluded by saying that the situation in her country will take a long time to resolve and that her extended family is dispersed in the Arab Gulf states and in Europe.

The majority of the women I interviewed reiterated this sense of no return. Samira, born in 1958, has been in Jordan since 2007. She came to Jordan with her children following the assassination of her husband. Samira is not registered with UNHCR. She spoke of how she has no ambition to go back to Iraq, and that not much is left of this life. She concluded, “We have seen a lot.” Nadia, a painter in her early seventies, described how people were afraid to say a word under the Baath regime, and how she does not interact much with Jordanian society. “Nothing is left…. Our group [family] is dispersed. This is our situation — some are in Qatar, New Zealand and Sweden…. When they [the Americans] occupied us, they did not bring a democratic life and the situation became worse. Now we miss the Saddam days…. Many families do not have money to go back and visit their homes. This is a long-term stay for us, for where could we go?” Nadia, as many women interviewed, was steadfast and emphasized that life continues despite the cruelty of the situation. “We are still better-off than others…. I do not have hope that Iraq will return. At times, my husband and I say, ‘What have they done to us?’ We have lost a lot.”

Sama, an Iraqi performance artist in her early fifties, started the interview by saying, “I do not like the word refuge. I prefer shelter…. There is no security and if it were not for my son, I would not have left…. I do not like to philosophize. Before we were able to dream and work to achieve our dreams. Today we only have one dream and we are even afraid to dream it.” She said that, since the invasion, she has been unable to perform despite the proposals she has received. “I feel that I cannot reflect what the country [Iraq] is going through.” This sense of paralysis was echoed by many women refugees who were traumatized by what they went through before their arrival in Jordan. They expressed the limits on their space and the contradictions they live through, first and foremost that they came to Jordan seeking security and found instability instead. This instability is a product of the temporality of their presence in Jordan — they constantly have to pay fees to renew their visas and avoid deportation. In addition, refugees in Jordan cannot work legally unless they deposit large sums in the bank and present themselves as potential investors in the Jordanian economy. Those who are registered with UNHCR are in limbo as they wait for resettlement to a third country. As Suha remarked, “Iraqis are tired and need solutions and not surveys and application forms. We need tangible things.”

Sana, 25, has been living in Jordan since 1994. She said, “We sacrificed everything for security…. The main thing is to feel stable and to be respected as human beings. If there is work, no one is incapable.” Peter Nyers argues in Rethinking Refugees that “refugees are included in the discourse of ‘normality’ and ‘order’ only by virtue of their exclusion from the normal identities and ordered spaces of the sovereign state.” [5] My interviews exposed the level of political invisibility of Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Rabiha, a journalist in her late fifties, described this contradiction between visibility and invisibility when talking about her job. She publishes regular articles in a major Jordanian newspaper that are often translated into other languages. Although she is a well-known journalist in the region, she was granted residency in Jordan through her son’s work permit and not through her credentials as a journalist. She said, “The person that does not have a country does not have protection. Iraqis are not treated well because no one protects them and defends their rights. This was also the case during the sanctions regime…. There is no security
and the poor suffer the most. If the situation remains as is, we will all be poor.”

Sana elaborated on the contradictions in her life by saying, “We are breaking the law. There are no permits for work and no stability…. You feel like a stranger…. It is important that the situation becomes stable, and salaries need to increase. There needs to be security, and you need to be strong; otherwise you could be exploited.” Sana acknowledged that her family’s situation in Jordan will not improve and that it would be better for them to return to Iraq. Yet she emphasized that they will be afraid to go back as long as the situation in Iraq remains unstable. She concluded, “We live in exile, and there is no stability or security…. There is no stability from the inside. We always feel that there is something missing…. You speak two languages, Iraqi inside the house and Jordanian outside. The psychology of it all is hard and the way people treat you is hard as well. The situation is normal now as a result of what we went through. We laugh despite the circumstances.”

The invisibility of the consequences of the US-led invasion of Iraq, particularly the population displacement, prompts concerns about accountability. It was not until late 2006 that the exodus of refugees from Iraq began to attract significant international attention. [6] Only a few hundred Iraqi refugees were admitted into the United States from 2003 to 2006. On the US part, the neglect was political: Admitting more Iraqis would have called into question the Bush administration’s narrative of bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq. In February 2007, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres brought the mass flight from Iraq into the public eye by declaring it the largest population movement in the Middle East since the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands in 1948. Much media coverage ensued, as well as an international relief conference in Geneva in April 2007. On May 10 of that year, Congress passed the Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act, and since then, a total of 64,174 Iraqi refugees have been admitted to the US. This very slow pace, together with the lingering global economic crisis and the tighter restrictions on asylum applications, means that many Iraqi refugees will remain in limbo for some time to come.

Continuum of Displacement

The majority of the women interviewed did not provide graphic details of what they went through before leaving Iraq. They positioned their personal experiences as part of a collective national experience of hardships throughout the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf war, the sanctions decade, and then the 2003 invasion and occupation. Salma, a medical doctor who was kidnapped and severely harassed for five days in 2004, said that she came to Jordan in 2006 to overcome the shock. “I need security to go back. We are thankful to Jordan, but the prospect of return worsens by the day…. There was a loss of security,
and everything collapsed.”

References to trauma as well as paralysis were particularly present in the narratives of younger women still in the process of finding their personal and professional paths. Nadine, a woman in her early twenties who studied computer science in Iraq, said, “My life passes me by, stops, like a machine that has not been used for a long time. I need to get out of this paralysis that I am in…. Sometimes I see my future as black, that my life will end here with no chance to advance, and that the situation will become worse…. [We are] like refugees with no past, present or future. All this could be overcome as long as I have my family with me and I feel settled and comfortable where I live. Work [in Jordan] is a waste of time and you cannot advance.” Nadine fled Iraq with her mother in 2006 after being followed by militiamen in a car. Her father and brother remained in Iraq. She emphasized throughout the interview that if her country were to return to the way it was, she would immediately go back. For her, however, the Iraq where she grew up is no longer there. Her words were echoed by Hanan and Zeina, two sisters who fled to Jordan with their father and other sister as their mother and brothers stayed behind. They fled because of threats made against the older sister, Hanan, who worked as a translator with the Americans. Zeina, a schoolteacher by training, described feeling depressed and gaining weight, as she stays at home most of the time cooking and watching TV. She described her experience of working in a factory in 2006 and 2007 shortly after her arrival in Amman as exploitative with no opportunity for advancement. “They would not pay for work permits or health insurance. There is no stability, no stability. I feel like an intruder. I am not for this place and nothing in it connects me to it…. We as Iraqis hope that they will give us asylum and a place to settle. There is no security, neither here nor there. Everything is hanging.” Hanan, on the other hand, said she had been unable to organize for Iraqi refugee rights in Jordan. The General Intelligence Directorate called her in for questioning about her activities.

Suha, a divorced woman in her late thirties with three children (one of them disabled), described the alienation of living in Amman. “There are lots of people without families. They do not have self-confidence and they have no confidence in others…. Iraqis are tormented…. I am alone and my burden is heavy…. I need a home where I could settle down…. The hope is to leave. That is how we could get our rights and feel secure. We are supposed to be refugees but not here. Here is temporary.” She concluded the interview by saying, “Maybe it will be better in a foreign country…. Things will not improve in Iraq even after ten years…. It is hard to see the country fall apart in front of your eyes. This is what hurts. I live in constant worry yet I am optimistic and won’t despair…. My hope is to gain independence and emigrate.”

The majority of women interviewed spoke of the decades of war, sanctions and displacement as a continuum. Sama recalled vividly what life was like under the old regime. “Terror was implanted even among the members of the same family…. When I remember it now, I feel the bitterness more than when we lived it. We live in exile, we flee from the unknown.” About the Iran-Iraq war, she said, “It was then that things started to deteriorate. We lived as if suffocated and pretended to be living…. I used to walk by the wall [to protect herself from the regime] and if my death would have made a difference I would have sacrificed myself.” Under the sanctions, Suha said, “You were unable to develop — only sleep and eat.” These were the same words that many women refugees used to describe their situation in Jordan. Suha added, “The war [with Iran] started when we were children. We grew up with war and bombing, and something died inside. We lived from one war to another; we were barely living.”

Gendered Body Politics

The bodies of Iraqi women have long been sites of contestation. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Baathist regime wanted to increase birth rates and to play up the masculinity of the male war hero, so it limited access to contraceptives. [7] Under sanctions, as Yasmin Husein al-Jawaheri has documented, Iraqi women were particularly vulnerable to economic destitution, amid a changing social climate and the decline in educational and employment opportunities. [8] In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, women’s bodies were again the locus of struggles over the political, religious and social identity of the new Iraq. [9]

This vulnerability was highlighted by many of the women interviewed. Jamila, a university professor in her early sixties, said, “Under the sanctions, there was hunger and some women sold their honor to leave Iraq in all ways possible. When the woman leaves with nothing, all she has is her body.” Hanan emphasized that the brunt of the instability of being a refugee falls on the woman. “It is hard financially on the man. He feels lost and this has negative consequences for the family…. It is not only that I am not legal. I also do not like to be threatened with that and with the fact that they could deport me at any second…. I am tired and my brain is frozen…. People hide their Iraqi identity and when you speak with an Iraqi accent, you get higher prices and they ask you political questions.” Nasra, an accountant in her early forties, said, “When asked, I say that I am Sunni and not Shi‘i, and I am able to imitate the Jordanian accent. To be a woman and on your own is hard. They harass you sexually because you are Iraqi. They ask whether you are married, engaged, and speak dirty to you.” She cried, “Isn’t it enough what we went through? And on top of that we are being harassed.”

Nasra emphasized, “We are strangers and cannot talk even if they step on our heads.” She repeated a saying that I heard from many others — ya gharib kun adib, literally, “O stranger, be polite.” Here the connection was clear between being polite and being invisible as a refugee. Nasra ended the interview by stating that Iraqis are concentrated in certain areas in Amman. “I am an Iraqi citizen, and if my country goes back to how it was, I refuse to go to the US. I am a citizen seeking asylum and no more.” Suha echoed the sense of being a stranger, saying, “I worked as a secretary for two years. The owner was good in the beginning but then his son would say, ‘Watch out for my father’ [hinting that he might ask for sexual favors]…. As a consequence, I left work and started to wear a headscarf. I should have rights where I live.” Suha described how she changed her place of residence to be close to the Iraqi community in Amman, and how she changes her accent when leaving that community in order to pass as non-Iraqi.

The refugee as an “other” is never just ethnic, but also always gendered and sexualized, albeit in ambiguous and conflicting ways. Within this context, refugee women constitute an extreme form of the “other” that is both vulnerable and an object of domination, and where the physicality of the body could hardly be separated from the symbolic meanings vested in it. [10] Many of the women described the limitations on their space as a result in part of preconceived notions dominant in Jordanian society about Iraqi refugees in general and women refugees in particular. The impact of these limitations on the day-to-day life of refugee women resulted in the gendering of their experiences and restrictions on their access to the public sphere. Lower-class women interviewed described how hard it was at times to walk in the street or use public transportation, let alone find a job, because of the harassment they faced. This difficulty prompted many of them to change their accents and the way they dress to pass as Jordanians. Both lower- and upper-class Iraqi refugees tended to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods in Amman which gave them more visibility in those areas yet limited their interaction with the larger Jordanian society.

Segregation from local communities and a lack of permanent residence could have major effects on the political rights of displaced women. [11] The case of Iraqi women refugees in Jordan illustrates the contradictions embedded in their presence as refugees in Jordan. On the one hand, they are able to work illegally and are less threatened than men with deportation by the border police, who often turn a blind eye to Iraqi refugee women working. Yet they are constantly harassed in the public sphere as a result of the prevailing social assumption that marks them as sexually available. The extent of this problem varies across class and place of residence and the probability that lower-class women will be sexually harassed while using public transportation is higher.

Although sexual harassment is a problem in Jordan and I was sexually and verbally harassed on more than one occasion while conducting the research, my association withIraqi women refugees gave many people the liberty to make assumptions about my work. Whenever a taxi driver would ask me about my research, I could hear the changing tone in his voice as I replied that I conduct research with Iraqi women refugees. The violation of women’s bodies acts as a symbol of the violation of the country, and is regarded at times as a “natural” circumstance of war and conflict. As a result, women refugees frequently face social stigma if they are living alone, or accusations of promiscuity. This was the case with many single, divorced and widowed women I interviewed. Suha, for instance, made clear that she does not reveal to her neighbors that she is divorced.

Women are expected, even under conditions of forced displacement, to take care of the family and to uphold gender roles. This expectation holds even when women are abandoned by their husbands or left without a home, work, family or community support. Khawla, a woman in her mid-thirties, said that her husband (a member of the deposed regime) was assassinated in 2004. She was scared for her children and came to Jordan a year later. She has three children; the oldest is 10 years old. “We came to Jordan seeking aid and I had to become independent. I used to work as a hairdresser before I got married. I came back to work to support my children. I am the mother, father, head of the household and everything…. The kids are confined. I am managing and my neighbors are good. They are always watching, though, because I am on my own. They are always watching.” Khawla added, “The owner of the house rang my doorbell once at 4 am asking for water. I told him to come in and showed him my three kids who were sleeping on the floor. He left immediately.” Khawla emphasized that she wants her children to learn and absorb the situation. She did not care about academic degrees, yet she admitted that she does not have enough time to sit with her children and help with homework. “Our kids are tired from what they went through. They want to purchase things and there are no places for entertainment.” She added that she worked in various places and was at times mistreated and exploited. Although there is demand for hairdressers, she gets paid a fixed salary of 110 Jordanian dinars (about $155) per month. She sells part of the ration that she receives through the UN to help with household expenses. “I had a big house in Baghdad, but Baghdad is in the past. If it wasn’t for good and generous people, I would not have made it.” Khawla acknowledged that she cannot afford not to work and is barely making it financially.

Constrained Resilience

Steadfastness and resistance were present in many of the women’s narratives. Sama expressed optimism and insisted that she wants to sustain her life in the simplest of ways. Although she is enduring, she described herself as weak in asking for her rights. Her first priority is to keep the family together. She described the majority of Iraqi families as dispersed. She sees the woman’s role as protecting the family and keeping memories alive from one generation to the next. Other refugees and aid workers echoed this emphasis on keeping the family together. Suha said, “The Iraqi woman is strong. She endures and is very patient. That is our nature…. We are tired [emotionally and physically]. I wish someone would ask the woman what she wants and how she could get comfort. Nobody asks us what we want. My stability is that of my family.” Suha’s emphasis on the need to be strong, coupled with her complaint that no one asks the woman what she wants, illustrates both the empowerment and the constraints that result from these gendered family roles. Nasra added, “My family is not here. I have no one here…. God wrote this for us. I do not trust people, with all due respect to you.” Nasra is living on her own in Jordan, and she likewise stressed that she needs to be strong in order not to be taken advantage of. She mentioned that she was attacked and forced out of her job by members of the Baath regime in Iraq. Like many interviewees, Nasra spoke of the level of fear and mistrust that she endured in Iraq. Some women went so far as to express similar mistrust in humanitarian aid organizations in Jordan and even in me as a researcher.

The women’s narratives reflected the possibilities of their agency as well as the limits to it. May Muzaffar, an Iraqi poet living in Amman since the early 1990s, insisted that I use her real name. She said, “I have hope even if I have only one day left in my life. I am still defending my existence and memory. I aim to preserve the quality of our presence outside.” May emphasized that she uses her writing and creativity to resist. She also acknowledged her advantageous position as her family and friends are close by and she has financial stability. Nadine’s mother, Arwa, who is in her fifties, described how she relies on herself as she lives with her daughter in Amman. She emphasized how she does not trust anyone, and shared how she changes her accent and wears sunglasses in public in order to pass as non-Iraqi. Arwa is well aware of the limits of her agency, especially that she does not have health insurance and is barely surviving in Jordan with the remittance that her husband and son send from Iraq.

Many of the women interviewed survived life in Iraq under severe conditions during the sanctions period. The expectation among all the women and men interviewed, as well as the aid workers, is that Iraqi women are strong and have to keep the family together. In his study of displaced women in Colombia, Donny Meertens argues that women with previous organizational and leadership experience are best able to overcome the tragedies of displacement and to undertake personal and collective reconstruction in their new urban lives. [12] Despite the increased responsibilities of Iraqi women, they are confined to limited spaces for social and political action. Lower-class women are extremely dependent on aid services for sustenance. For middle- and upper-class women, residency problems in Jordan and political instability in Iraq have adversely affected their ability to take initiative and reconstruct their lives.

Jamila, the university professor, was arrested and held for 40 days in 1991, following the uprisings in the wake of the 1991 Gulf war. She acknowledged that she was tortured in detention. In the aftermath of the invasion, she was unable to drive her car in Baghdad. In Jordan, she has been unable to write or conduct research, as was her common practice in Iraq.

I was not afraid then, and now I am afraid. How I endured, I do not know…. The strange thing is that you do not know who they are [she was threatened by militia groups in 2006 because she is an independent and single woman, and a presumed Baath supporter]…. I left Iraq forced…. I am not comfortable and there is a problem with my residency. It took eight months for them [the Jordanian authorities] to give me residency [to teach part-time at the university in Amman]. Neither my sister nor my nephew have residency. I got mine one month ago. I did finally register with the United Nations, as I was afraid we would have no place to go if they deport us.

My pain and suffering as a woman is hard…. I feel that my hand eats me. There is no respect for my health or dignity. Now I get by on my salary. I am managing but cannot afford luxury. The Jordanian society does not want to accept us.

She wondered out loud if it is solely the responsibility of Jordanian society to absorb Iraqi refugees.

I cry bitterly for myself, for the homeland and for what has happened to us. I do not leave the house much because going out costs me financially and psychologically. I am in pain. Sometimes I wonder whether it is better to go back to Iraq and die there. I am well known in Iraq. I was a patriot… Suddenly, I am a refugee. I did not expect this at my age. I am here and my situation is not stable. After serving [at the university in Iraq] for thirty years, I need to start from zero.

The longer refugees remain in exile, the more difficult and complicated it may be for them to return. [13] The terrible fighting in Syria has compelled many Iraqis who took refuge there to cross the border back into Iraq, but, with violence escalating in Iraq as well, that option is hardly appealing to refugees in Jordan. Meanwhile, the flood of Syrian refugees into Jordan has put strain on aid to Iraqi refugees. Since the prospects of local integration or return are dim, most of the Iraqi women I spoke with were interested in resettlement to a third country. With the current global economic crisis and the dwindling number of countries willing to grant asylum to Iraqi refugees, this option is becoming quite difficult to achieve as well. Since viable options were almost entirely outside the realm of the control of refugee women, they were still resilient and constantly searching for ways to improve their situation.

Endnotes

[1] I conducted four interviews with the husbands of the women, and more than one interview with some of the women and with representatives of national and international aid organizations.
[2] Geraldine Chatelard, “The Politics of Population Movements in Contemporary Iraq: A Research Agenda,” in Jordi Tejel, Peter Sluglett, Riccardo Bocco and Hamit Bozarslan, eds., Writing the Modern History of Iraq: Historiographical and Political Challenges (London: World Scientific Publishers/Imperial College Press, 2012).
[3] Parts of this article were published in “Negotiating Identity, Space and Place Among Iraqi Women Refugees in Jordan,” in Dyan Mazurana, Karen Jacobsen and Lacey A. Gale, eds., Research Methods in Conflict Settings: A View from Below (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
[4] Some scholars contest the numbers. See Geraldine Chatelard, “Iraqis in Jordan: Elusive Numbers, Uncertain Future” (2009), available at: http://www.academia.edu/189411/Iraqis_in_Jordan_elusive_numbers_uncertain_future.
[5] Peter Nyers, Rethinking Refugees: Beyond States of Emergency (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. xiii.
[6] See, for instance, Human Rights Watch, The Silent Treatment: Fleeing Iraq, Surviving in Jordan (New York, 2006) and From Flood to Trickle: Neighboring States Stop Iraqis Fleeing War and Persecution (New York, 2007). The special issue of Forced Migration Review in June 2007 was titled “Iraq’s Displacement Crisis: The Search for Solutions.”
[7] For background, see Nadje Al-Ali, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (London: Zed Books, 2007).
[8] Yasmin Husein al-Jawaheri, Women in Iraq: The Gender Impact of International Sanctions (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2008).
[9] See Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt, What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009).
[10] See Isis Nusair, “Gendered, Racialized and Sexualized Torture at Abu Ghraib,” in Robin Riley, Chandra T. Mohanty and Minnie Bruce Pratt, eds., Feminism and War: Confronting US Imperialism (London: Zed Books, 2008); and Dubravka Žarkov, The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity and Gender in the Breakup of Yugoslavia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
[11] Thomas Buck et al, “Aftermath: Effects of Conflict on Internally Displaced Women in Georgia,” Working Paper 310, Center for Development Information and Evaluation, US Agency for International Development, Washington, DC, 2000.
[12] Donny Meertens, “Forced Displacement and Women’s Security in Colombia,” Disasters 34/s2 (April 2010).
[13] Alice Bloch et al, “Refugee Women in Europe: Some Aspects of the Legal and Policy Dimensions,” International Migration 38/2 (June 2000).

How to cite this article:

Isis Nusair "Permanent Transients," Middle East Report 266 (Spring 2013).
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