Women in Iraq protest against gender violence.

The Sociocultural Implications of Being a Woman in Iraq

The past few decades have seen the people of Iraq suffer dire consequences like inaccessibility to essential services and economic stagnation due to conflicts, wars and sanctions. Years of invasions coupled with a war that lasted for decades has taken a serious toll on Iraqi women and girls. While women and girls had greater access to education, employment and healthcare between the 1960s and the 1980s, the Iran-Iraqi War (1980-1988) led to a serious deterioration in the conditions of women. It did not help matters when the United Nations imposed sanctions after the First Gulf War in 1991. Further devastating were the effects of the rule of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) over Iraq’s significant territories. While these cost Iraqi society a great deal, women went through direct and indirect violence and restrictions as well.

In the 21st century, the overall status of women in Iraq is determined by several factors, like wars, Iraq’s constitution, religious conflicts, debates regarding Islamic law, cultural traditions and modern secularism. A series of wars and conflicts have led to thousands of Iraqi women being widowed. While several women’s rights organizations attempt to improve the lives of women in education, law, workplace and other spheres of life, they are continuously threatened and harassed.


A school in Iraq
A school in Iraq. Credit@ Iraqi Thoughts

In 1921, Iraq established a proper education system. By the 1970s, education became free and public at all levels. But despite the fact that education was free till 1970, women’s literacy rate was lower than that of men on average. Lower literacy rates of females was a result of not enough schools being present to instruct them. Moreover, while women did have the right to vote, they were required to have completed their basic education, which most of them did not. A study conducted in the 1950s shows that only around 1% of women could legally vote.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Saddam Hussein encouraged women to pursue their education and more exposure in the public sector. But the overall scenario concerning women’s education took a serious hit with the advent and progression of the Iran-Iraqi War. No better were the Gulf War and the Iraq War in 2003.

Impact of war

Throughout the wars, the government was headed by several authoritarian leaders who imposed policies that severely hindered higher education. Iraq’s economy was seriously affected after the war, and the funds intended for education were used elsewhere. This change can especially be seen in the lack of government funding for universities. The subsequent consequence is that enrolment rates plummeted while dropout rates shot up, especially in the case of female students. The overall literacy rate of women in Iraq has deteriorated. This negative impact can be particularly seen in the Southern rural regions where accessing education was already difficult. The result was that fewer and fewer women in upper-level jobs since they had neither the education nor the economic needs to access the employment sector.

Girls at a damaged school in Iraq
Girls at a damaged school in Iraq. credit@ Education cannot wait

As the wars ravaged the country, women and young girls were forced to work in agriculture rather than pursue their education. Food and water became scarce and expensive. Another reason why education became dust during the wars was that violence against women, like rape, became increasingly common. In the Northern region, war-induced conflicts and violence were less pronounced as the region was less affected by the war. The Northern region was under the governance of the Kurdish leaders.

The Gulf War and the resulting economy were so bad that women could not even afford the transportation fares required to travel to schools. Moreover, many of the universities that did function made it mandatory for women to wear hijabs. Those who didn’t were subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination by their male peers. Violence during wartime gave birth to the idea that marriage provided women with more security than going to school. Hence, many female students had to abruptly put an end to their education to take care of the household, family and children.

Early marriages, illiteracy, grief, and violence brought on by wars have left Iraq’s women in a dire situation. Women’s lack of education has also led to an ever-widening gap in wages and gender equality.

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI)

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) is a non-governmental organization founded in June 2003. Committed to defending women’s rights in Iraq, it was founded by Yanar Mohammed, Nasik Ahmad and Nadia Mahmood. Since its formation, it has been very active with thousands of members. Its aim is to fight for full social equality between men and women, secularism, fight against the American occupation of Iraq and Islamic fundamentalism. Presided by Yanar Mohammed, it is Iraq’s women’s rights organization with the largest international profile.

On  25th November 2006, more than one thousand women took to the streets of London to mark the International Day to End Violence Against Women and march for their right to walk in the streets at night without fear of rape and sexual harassment.
On 25th November 2006, more than one thousand women took to the streets of London to mark the International Day to End Violence Against Women and march for their right to walk in the streets at night without fear of rape and sexual harassment. Credit@ OWFI

The activities of the OWFI are focused on the fight against sharia law, abduction and murder of women and honour killings. It has a network of support from the outside, most notably from the US. Members of the organization are scattered across the globe, including Canada, Great Britain, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands. Needless to say, its directors and activists have, on numerous occasions, received death threats from Islamic organizations.

The Gulf War and the Kurdish uprising in Iraq have led to the Kurdish region gaining an autonomous situation. The situation helped in the development of women’s rights, which influenced many of the women who would later play an active role in the founding of the OWFI.

Iraqi Kurdistan and women’s rights

In the rural and uneducated areas of Kurdistan, society is essentially a male-dominated one. In such areas, serious issues like honour killings, female genital mutilation, domestic violence and female infanticide are reported. Another issue is polygamy. However, rarely are these reports taken seriously because they are considered the norm within the society they prevail. 

Women in Iraq protest for women's rights and against gender discrimination in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, 2020
Women in Iraq protest for women’s rights and against gender discrimination in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, 2020. Credit@ Inside Arabia

The Kurds in such areas are organized into a patrilineal society. Men control property and issues regarding marriage. Generally, women are seen as nothing more than a property that has to be handled by men. Women in rural Kurdistan are often denied the right to make their own decisions concerning marriage, husbands and sexuality. In some areas, child marriage still prevails. In many Kurdish households in Iraq, men practice polygamy. However, this is a declining practice within Kurdish culture, more so after Rojava made it illegal. Many of the Kurdish women from religious, poor and uneducated families who took their own decisions about marriage or had affairs became subjected to violence. This includes beatings, honour killings and, on rare occasions, acid attacks.

According to women’s rights activists, after the elections in 1992, out of the 105 elected members of the parliament, only five were women. Moreover, male Kurdish politicians vehemently opposed women’s initiatives. Since the formation of Iraqi Kurdistan, things have taken a turn for the worst. Honour killings, among other forms of violence, have increased. According to the Kurds, women’s oppression, including honour killings, are a part of the Kurdish Islamic and tribal culture.

It is true that new laws against polygamy and honour killings were introduced in Iraqi Kurdistan. But the prosecution for honour killings continues to be low while the implementation of anti-polygamy resolutions isn’t consistent.  On the other hand, the birth of conservative nationalist forces and the women’s movement represent two sides of the Kurdish nation.

Crimes against women in Iraq

Female genital mutilation

Amongst the Sorani speaking Kurds, female genital mutilation was an accepted part of their culture, including Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. In 2011, a Kurdish law that criminalized FGM was passed in Iraqi Kurdistan, but it is not being enforced. Reports in 2011 showed that the practise was most prevalent in the Kurdish areas of Erbil, Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. But at the same time, other Kurdish areas like Dohuk and parts of Ninewa were almost free from the practice. Despite the Kurdistan Region strengthening its laws, surveys in recent years show that FGM is still prevalent in the Kurdish regions.

Honor crimes

Honour crimes or killings are a serious issue in Iraq, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. A statement released in 2015 by the Free Women’s Organization of Kurdistan (FWOK) noted that more than 6000 women were murdered or forced to commit suicide. Enforced suicide was mostly through hanging or self-immolation.

Protesting against violence against women in the Kurdish region
Protesting against violence against women in the Kurdish region. Credit@ Al Jazeera

Each year, around 500 honour killings are reported in the hospitals of Iraqi Kurdistan. But the actual numbers are likely to be much higher. Speculations claim that in Erbil alone, there is one honour killing per day. Many of these deaths are reported as ‘female suicides’ in order to cover up the actual truth. A Kurdish law was passed in 2008 that demands honour killings be treated as murder. Although the numbers have gone down, it cannot be said that honour killings are completely eradicated.

According to the Criminal Code of Iraq, honour killings can be punished with a maximum of only three years. Moreover, a husband even has the legal right to ‘punish’ his wife. According to paragraph 41 of the criminal code, it is not a crime if the husband commits an act while he is exercising his legal right. Legal rights include the wife being ‘punished’ by her husband, disciplining by the parents and teachers disciplining the children under the law or custom.


The OWFI has opened shelters in Kirkuk, Baghdad, Erbil and Nassiriya for couples and women in Iraq who have been threatened by their families with honour crimes. For safety reasons, the location of these shelters was kept a secret with permanent guards. An underground railroad was built with the aid of Madre, an American Association that focuses on global women’s rights, to allow women to escape the country.

But towards the end of 2007, it became increasingly difficult to safeguard the location of the shelters. Soon, it became too dangerous for the residents to continue staying there, so the shelters were closed. The women were accommodated with host families.

Abductions, killings and forced prostitution of women in Iraq

Inquiries made by the OWFI to examine abductions and killings of women have come up with disturbing results. According to their estimates, militias in Baghdad and the suburbs often executed women. In the past few years, unclaimed and often unidentifiable corpses of women were processed through the Baghdad morgue. Most of the bodies were either mutilated, decapitated or had evidence of having undergone extreme torture.

Women in Iraq in a protest against the government in Baghdad.
Women in Iraq in a protest against the government in Baghdad. Credit@ Al Arabia

The OWFI usually links these deaths with honour crimes. But such crimes have taken a new form as murders occur outside the family circle, in paramilitary groups. The OWFI’s attempt to enquire and establish a link between abductions of women in Iraq and prostitution networks has been denounced by pro-government media channels.

Reports claim that the Iraqi Kurdistan region has received women and children trafficked from other parts of Iraq with the intention of prostitution. In the Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dahuk regions, NGOs have claimed that even personnel from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Asayish internal security forces have aided prostitution in the Syrian refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan. Women in Iraq were sold into ‘temporary marriages,’ while young Syrian girls in the refugee camps were forced into ‘temporary marriages’ or early marriages.

Invasion and abuse of women in Iraq

Women clad in chador in Iraq
Women clad in chador in Iraq. credit@ National Geographic

Before the arrival of forces in Iraq in 1991, women in Iraq enjoyed considerable freedom regarding education, attire and movement. The Iraqi Constitution of 1970 granted women liberty and equality in the Muslim world, but the invasion destroyed it all.  

Since the 2003 invasion, women in Iraq have been subjected to brutal attacks and kidnappings. Any participation of their part in Iraqi society was completely cut off. The war and occupation have dearly cost Iraqi women their freedom in most spheres. The fear of being raped, attacked or harassed has forced women to hide under not just their veil, but also the chador, so as not to ‘attract’ attention.

Women’s social life

Till the 1990s, women in Iraq played a great role in the economy and development of the country. In 1969, the General Federation of Iraqi Women was established by the Ba’ath Party. The Federation offers several social programmes for women and implements legal reform, advances women’s status under the law and lobbies for changes concerning the personal status code.

During the 1970s and 1980s, women were encouraged to take up places in schools, universities, factories, hospitals, the army and the police. However, women’s enrolment in employment spheres significantly decreased when they were asked to make way for the soldiers who returned home towards the late 1980s and 1990s. After the Gulf War in 1991, many of the steps taken to advance women’s status in society were reversed because of economic, legal and political factors. As the economy suffered, women were forced into traditional roles.

Women in the government and military

In the late 1950s, Iraq became the first among the Arab countries to have a female minister. Dr Naziha Jawdet Ashgah al-Dulaimi, who was one of the early pioneers of the feminist movement in Iraq, was appointed as the Minister of Municipalities in 1959. She was the first female minister in the modern history of Iraq. During her government career, Dr al-Dulaimi was responsible for transforming eastern Baghdad’s vast slums into huge public works and housing systems, now known as Sadr City.

Women Advisory Boards in Iraq will help elevate women's voices in the provinces.
Women Advisory Boards in Iraq will help elevate women’s voices in the provinces. Credit@ IKnow Politics

Women also got the right to ask for a divorce, to vote and also to run for public office. Under Saddam Hussein’s reign, women working in the government sector were granted a year’s maternity leave.

There is also a large difference in opinion among the women themselves. While modern, educated women feel they should occupy a larger part of the government of Iraq, more traditional women feel they’re not qualified enough for such roles. Another current issue is the growing number of illiterate women in Iraq. This makes it harder for women to attain government positions.


The current status of women in Iraq is the result of the poor economy, conservative culture and a series of wars and conflicts. Women have become marginalized and have limited access to the economic, political and social spheres of the country. Add to this, the insufficient opportunities for education and healthcare. The situation is further aggravated due to traditions, cultural and social norms. The lack of education also means women themselves have false perceptions and are unaware of their rights. The absence of security and stability and increasing violence has only pushed women into more traditional roles.

Examining the causes of the persistence of violence and discrimination against women in Iraq is an opportunity to amend some of the laws of the country and to enforce them. Working to support the changes required to make a better world for women and girls is something that the Iraqi society and government need to do.

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