Ten years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqi women suffer from pervasive hardships — the overall lack of security, gender-based violence, the feminization of poverty and poor access to basic services. Women working at universities face all these challenges, as well as others particular to higher education.

Iraqi academia is in crisis. Infrastructure has been destroyed, and corruption and sectarianism have spread among students and staff. Professors have been assassinated at an alarming rate — 423 by June 2008, with an additional 75 reporting death threats. Both numbers have since increased. While men bear the brunt of armed attacks, women have been hard-hit by a shift toward more conservative gender norms and relations associated with the rise of religious parties in Iraqi politics. Activists in Iraq have documented increasing pressure on women to conform to “Islamic” dress codes, restrictions on movement and behavior, and even targeted killings. Research also suggests that fewer women are working outside the home.

Neither the crisis in higher education nor the erosion of women’s rights began with the 2003 invasion. UN trade sanctions during the 1990s had a devastating impact on the university system, as on all of Iraqi society. In addition to facing economic deprivation, academics were denied access to new books, academic journals and magazines and were prevented from international collaboration and travel. Hundreds of professors left the country seeking employment, or at least refuge, abroad. Those who stayed behind struggled with extreme conditions inside the universities, as well as students who could not concentrate on their studies because they had to supplement the family income. Despite these pressures, female enrollments continued to be high, and female academics persistently played an important role in higher education.

Women’s role on campus remains significant. In 2005, the Ministry of Higher Education decreed that all M.A. and Ph.D. holders would be offered jobs, and many women postgraduate students were subsequently given posts as lecturers or researchers. Because of the assassinations and death threats, many senior academics had fled the country, adding to the brain drain of the previous decade. Some 30-40 percent of Iraq’s most highly trained educators are thought to have emigrated since 1990. Of the remaining staff, only 28 percent hold a doctorate. The rules require educators to have a master’s degree, yet one third only have a bachelor’s degree. In 2005, according to UNESCO, about 44 percent of all academic staff were women, including B.A. and M.A. holders who were teaching or engaged in research posts. Although the Ministry’s decision was widely hailed, anecdotal evidence suggests that the policy has led to “hidden unemployment” as many young academics were not given tasks commensurate with their level of education. Moreover, the sudden influx of young academics, many of whom lack training in teaching and research methods, added to the burdens of more experienced staff. At the same time, established female academics often feel alienated by or at odds with their younger colleagues, who might perceive the older generation as remnants of the deposed regime.

Male academics share many of the problems of their female colleagues. There is a lack of transparency about access to resources, scholarships, training and conference attendance — many feel these perks are granted in a personalized way or tied to political party membership. Another common point is the lack of a developed research culture. Teaching tends not to be research-led, and many instructors spend years focused only on teaching without engaging in serious research. Several professors, particularly in the natural sciences, note that they do not have the necessary laboratories or equipment. Those working in the social sciences have only limited access to updated, internationally recognized research material and theoretical literature. Language is a barrier, as few read English and many can only use Arabic sources that are often outdated. Another obstacle is poor access to international libraries that provide electronic journals and e-books.

But there are gender-specific issues that deserve attention. Women’s ability to engage in research is seriously undermined by child care and domestic responsibilities, as well as lack of encouragement and mentoring. There is a perception of systematic bias toward men in opportunities for professional development. A Baghdad professor argued, “Priority is given to men, particularly senior men, in terms of selecting candidates for conferences or training courses outside Iraq.” Another complained: “Due to the nature of men’s relationships with one another, travel is almost always restricted to men.”

And women still labor under suspicion about their capabilities. One woman complained, “When I was working as head of my department, a younger and less experienced male who was working for me was always defying me. He did not want to believe that I was a woman in charge.” A senior political sociologist at Baghdad University said, “There is significant discrimination. They do not even allow us to manage an exam hall. I went to the dean myself and asked him: ‘Why don’t you trust us?’” A colleague working in Iraqi Kurdistan added, “I can feel discrimination in the university atmosphere. For instance, departments rarely emphasize the need for women to attend meetings. If women attend, their suggestions are hardly listened to. And if they are, they are dismissed as unreasonable.”

Such exclusion appears to be a consequence of prevailing norms of social conservatism toward women, as well as widespread nepotism. Many, especially younger female academics, lack assertiveness or have internalized cultural assumptions about women’s lack of competence and rigor. Social expectations that women are the primary (or sole) caregivers for parents or children pose practical obstacles to career development, given the lack of support structures, for example, child care centers.

Aside from providing child care, universities could help women professors by adopting transparent procedures for conference attendance and other professional development. They could encourage women’s involvement in administration and decision making, possibly with quotas. But given the reemergence of authoritarianism, widespread corruption and nepotism in today’s Iraq, as well as systematic gender-based inequality, such recommendations are unlikely to be implemented any time soon.

These findings are based on the work of two research teams. Irada Zaydan and Inass El-Enezy, both lecturers at the University of Baghdad, carried out research in the Iraqi capital, focusing on their school, in addition to the University of Technology and Nahrayn and al-Mustansiriyya Universities. Huda Al-Dujaili, a former economics lecturer at al-Mustansiriyya University and now a refugee, carried out research among Iraqi female academics based in Amman. The interviews took place from January 2010 to March 2011. The London-based Council for Assisting Refugee Academics supported the project. Shortly afterward, I worked with another team of researchers — Muzhda Muhammed, Hataw Kareem, Dlaram Salih and Kawther Akreyi — from Salah al-Din University in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan). This team interviewed 70 female academics from Salah al-Din, Suleimaniya, Dohuk and Cihan Universities, as well as Hawler Medical College, and generated findings very similar to those in Baghdad.

How to cite this article:

Nadje Al-Ali "The Challenges for Women Working at Iraqi Universities," Middle East Report 266 (Spring 2013).

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