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Working women in Iraq:

Forced to work without independence

Tempest reprints below an article from Workers Against Sectarianism (WAS), a group of left-wing political activist from Iraq seeking to end the sectarian system in Iraq, and "delivering the voice of the Iraqi revolution." Tempest is proud to reprint their recent article, "Working women in Iraq: Forced to Work without Independence." The article is meant to be the first in a series and we look forward to future articles about and from WAS.

Working women in Iraq and their living and working conditions have received little attention in research, media, and politics. Working-class women are often [improperly] categorized […]. In addition, the interventions of progressive political parties and trade unions in Iraq are mainly man-oriented and neglect women’s conditions, desires, needs, and problems.

At the same time, the existing women outreach programs are usually led by international NGOs. Mostly, they focus on Iraqi women as part of the elites in society. These women’s support and research programs are limited to the visions and ideas of a female elite.

Workers against Sectarianism intervenes in these debates through its project on working women in Iraq. We aim to focus on contemporary and historical contradictions at work and within the family unit as well as on social security and political challenges.

In the last 4 months, we collected information about the working and living conditions of working-class women in Iraq by doing 50 interviews with women from Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriya, and Mosul. In a series of articles, we will present the results from this research. The objective of this research is not only to present the contradictions of the situation of working women in Iraq within the family and in the workplace, but also to provide a platform where women can discuss and organize.

In this first article, we will present some characteristics of the specific form of precarity affecting women in Iraq, highlight the economic factors, bring to the fore the role of political Islam in Iraq’s economy, and discuss the consequences for working women.

The triple weight of work and domestic labor in more than one family

A major theme during the interviews was the triple weight of work, domestic labor in their own home as well as their families’ husbands’ home. As for the majority of women all over the world, Iraqi women have long working hours in their jobs and, when they return back at home, they have to guarantee care tasks in the family. Sanaa Fadel, 45 years old, works in the service sector, specifically in the hotel industry, explained to us the following:

“We work day and night, sometimes I almost forget that I am a human being with needs other than the needs of other people. I think on traveling and practicing hobbies. After the marriage, I expected having my own world in which I could provide a special space for myself to explore my desires and dreams, but I hardly put on make-up or wear clothes I like.”

Working women in Iraq suffer from long working hours that exceed ten or twelve hours in Iraq. After women return home from work, the so-called second job begins: helping children in homework, cooking food and cleaning the house. Fatima Ali, 23 years old is a single women living in Basra working as a sales employee says: “I work for long hours, but I don’t complain because I would lose my job. I’m a sales employee and I work two shifts in a row with the same salary 250$ both shifts from 11 am to 11 pm.”

A third element must be added to the specific precarity of Iraqi women. Not only do women work and take responsibility for the domestic work in their homes, they also have to do the labor in the husband’s family home. Sanaa Fadel continues:

“I have asked my husband over and over to move in a house of our own, in order to live our own lives, but he always justifies that there are no job opportunities that pay enough, which makes him unable to be independent in his own house, away from sharing the house with his family. We were optimistic at the beginning of our married life, but we did not expect that the economic situation in Iraq would deteriorate to this degree every day, and workers would be deprived of their most basic rights, Unfortunately, I am now forced to do domestic work for my home and the house of my husband’s family as well.”

Summarized, working women in Iraq are confronted with long working hours, low-paying jobs and the responsibility for care work at home. In this, their situation does not differ greatly from the one of working women in Western societies. However, the fact that a lot of Iraqi households are integrated in the households of the husband’s family increases the workload of Iraqi women which, as a result, makes their working and living conditions even more precarious.

The economic roots of precarity

What appears as a cultural specificity of patriarchal, Middle East societies has structural roots. The number of women forced to manage two families – the own one and the one of their husbands – grew after the economic crisis due to the sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s.

In that period, the GDP collapsed, job opportunities decreased, and wages fell catastrophically, forcing young people to marry in their family homes, which resulted in participation in financial matters and domestic work with the husband’s family. The social norm resulting from that economic constraint is exactly the triple task presented here.

During the economic sanctions, the Baathist patriarchal authority1relied on men in restoring the strength of local production, which affected women’s working conditions. This was accompanied by further social norms funded by the Baathist political system in the past and which continue until this day.

Above all divorced women were targeted, as it has become very shameful for a woman to divorce or ask for a divorce. Divorced women are seen as a disgrace to their families and to the society. Thus, divorced women are considered invalid, selfish and antipatriotic. Zainab Abdullah a 25 years old, divorced women from Nasiriya working as a make-up artist explains: “I decided to divorce, despite society’s view of the divorced woman as she will always be considered the reason of divorce It is shameful to be divorced and raise kids without a father”.

Also working in mixed workplaces was and is until today considered immoral. This does not make it easy for working women to deal with the family’s judgement. In Iraqi society, when women work, there are a lot of rumors about her personality. People will talk badly about her, just because she is working especially if she works together with male colleagues. Zainab Abdullah continues:

“I didn’t dare to tell my grandfather and my uncle that I work in the mall and that I put on make-up. I change my work clothes on the way to work, so that no one can recognize me there. I come from a rural area and I don’t want that this circulates. For us, it’s not allowed to go to the mall or to parks. They tell us it is for safety reasons as there are bad men there”.

As presented in this part, the economic roots of the precarious working conditions of women in Iraq are connected to the sanctions imposed to the country in the early 90s which lasted till 2003. They produced strong patriarchal and authoritarian social norms with which women have to deal with.

The role of political Islam in the Iraqi economy

With the collapse of the previous regime in 2003, a new Islamic sectarian system2 was implemented in Iraq. This brought new challenges for working women and a modified situation they had to face to gain their place in the Iraqi labor market.

The US occupation in Iraq adopted an open market policy where almost 90 percent of the goods were imported. The economy of Iraq is mainly based on oil profits and has therefore often been seen as a rentier state. The US occupation also supported new bourgeois forces, especially merchants, most of whom were affiliated to parties and militias connected to political Islam. In addition, the high level of violence during these times forces large sectors of the pre-2003 local bourgeoisie and state bureaucracy to flee the country. Islamic parties and militias took over their positions.

The immediate consequences for the daily work of women are strong, as Suad Abdel Moneim from Baghdad, a 30 years young teacher in a private primary school, explains:

“I had many doubts about the educational level of the principal of the school in which I work since the first day I met him. Despite his practice of this profession for more than 8 years and his administrative experience, he still faces problems in writing. This did not prevent him from continuing to practice this job. No one dared to check his university degree because he is affiliated to a large religious authority in Iraq. He regularly sends us religious teachings or forces us to attend religious events held by one of the Islamic parties inside the school. I don’t know how they let him do that, it’s totally illegal, but no one dares to talk about it.”

Employers and male employees exploit their affiliation with Islamic parties in order to gain power within the work hierarchy even though their skills are insufficient. In this way, they guarantee their privileges and enforce a corrupt system.

This system threatens working women. Bullying, sexual harassment and interference with the professional tasks practiced by women are some of the mentioned problems. In addition, they force workers to falsify papers and documents and accept corrupt deals. All this happens in total absence of a just judiciary or security system that protects Iraqi workers and especially women. Yusraa Muhammed, a 48-year old divorced woman, mother of children, working as a baker in the countryside, explains:

“I get bulled by everyone because our society doesn’t respect working women at all. I was subjected to verbal and physical harassment, not only at work. When I went to the market, especially since I live in a popular area, I was subjected to a lot of touching and disgusting words, even at university”

Women are forced to work in these kind of environments for the need of earning money that preserves, at least partially, their dignity. In light of this sectarian system, women suffer from a state of fear and alertness when a person belonging to an armed faction or a sectarian militia enters the work environment. Working women are obliged to carry out their tasks quickly in order to not anger the employers. The same applies in cases where clients belong to a militia.

As presented in this first article about working and living conditions of working-class women in Iraq, the economic, political and social context in which women are forced to act are complicated, limiting their freedom and dignity.

The interviews confirm that in their job environment, women suffer from long working hours, low wages, oral and physical abuse and toxic male behavior. Furthermore, working women have to deal with a series of care tasks such as childcare, cooking and cleaning. In addition to their precarious situation at work and the traditional tasks in their households, women also work in the household of the husband’s family, which aggravates the amount of work and limits women’s independence.

The war in the 1990s and the resulting economic and commercial sanctions, the US invasion in 2003 and the resulting sectarian political system can be considered structural elements of women’s precarious working and living conditions in Iraq today. On the one hand, these structures have today produced an instable welfare system while on the other hand patriarchal and authoritarian social norms have been strengthened that above all affect the life and work of working-class women. It is in this general context that working women in Iraq have to deal daily with precarity and act (and fight) for their independence, freedom and dignity.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by PERSON; modified by Tempest.

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Workers Against Sectarianism are a group of leftist political activists from Iraq seeking to end the sectarian system in Iraq and delivering the voice of the Iraqi revolution.