SESSION 3 B
Gender and Access to Higher Education after 2003
Women Academics in Iraqi Universities between Sectarian Policies And Occupation Effects; (Challenges and Results)
It is a well known fact now that the USA designs and strategy to occupy and rule Iraq has not only failed but also resulted in destroying the country and turned it into a chaotic and corrupt place, divided between too many struggling elements, far from being democratic and finally threatened to be split into more than one state. Instead of admitting that these were the results of the US policy, or the lack of it, the US administration, and those who supported it, started to accuse Iraq and the Iraqis for these failures. They blame the history of Iraq, the social fabric of the country, the existence of different ethnic, religious and sects as the reasons for the chaotic situation that resulted from the occupation. Then they started to speak about dividing Iraq into three states as the only solution left. The US administration almost accused everybody, but not themselves, for what happened in Iraq. Neighbouring countries and non-state actors were blamed for the spread of inter-factional and terrorist activities that spread in Iraq since 2003. This US attitude was accentuated following the pulling out of its forces from the big cities, 30 June 2009. Their argument, once again, was that what is happening in Iraq is related to the struggle between the different Iraqi factions, and that the problem is an embedded Iraqi crisis.
Nevertheless, the conduct and policy of the US occupying forces did not show any interest in devolving Iraq. Despite their declarations that they will develop Iraq in all aspects, to make it as the best example in democracy, reconstruction, respect of human rights and prosperity in the Middle East. As Iraq was declared an occupied country by the UN-resolution of 1483, and according to the international treaties the occupying forces was responsible for the development, rebuilding and keeping the security of the occupied territories, but nothing was done in that respect in Iraq. Right from the beginning destruction was the main strategy of the occupation, a destruction that covered all aspects of live; the higher education system was not an exception.
All segments of the Iraqi society suffered under the occupation, and the suffering of Iraqi women academics was part of that, in fact it was worse than that of their fellow male colleagues. This was mainly because of the behavior of the occupying forces, lack of law and order and the extreme conservative attitude of the new rulers, who issued laws and regulations which belittled the status of women in general.
This paper will discuss the challenges facing women academics in the universities, both juniors and the seniors, as a result of the occupation and the sectarian policy that overwhelmed all of Iraq. The paper will also discuss the effects of those challenges on the scientific level of the university graduates. The paper will mainly concentrate on the occupation period, 2003 till now, for two reasons: first is to explore the position of Iraqi women academics under such circumstances after eight years of occupation of Iraq; the second is that all the literature written about the situation of Iraqi women academics before 2003 agreed that their situation during peace, wars and even international sanctions were better than the period of the occupation and sectarian policies.
The hypothesis of the paper will depend on discussing two points of view; the first one which says that the position of women academics in the universities was enhanced as a result of the progress of Iraqi women in general, especially in the field of political participation. They believed that women academics took good positions in the universities, and they could express themselves as they want as they have an important role in developing woman's role in the society.
Yet the second view tries to explain the situation of Iraqi women academics under the occupation, their sufferings and lack of confidence, instability, and differentiations. This view believes that women academics are not more than a classic instrument in teaching. They also do not have any say, positive or negative, in the events taking place in the universities or n the country in general.
Finally the paper will also try to give recommendations to re-right the role of Iraqi women academics in the universities. Of course the paper will depend on the writer's experience as Iraqi women academics from the University of Baghdad, as well as on some interviews made by the writer and others made by other colleagues with women academics from different colleges in Baghdad.
Representatives of the first view say the status of women in Iraq was improved following the occupation, which they call liberation. Women began to exercise their rights in a democratic atmosphere, they also claim. They refer to the participation of women in the political process, women getting 25% representation in the legislative (as members of parliament) and the executive (as members of the political parties and the cabinet), as prove of this improvement. This achievement, according to their opinion, spread to the other fields of life like economy, education and even social live. As some of those who believed in this view were from the academic field, these ideas were spread in the universities through them. Although academics representing this point of view have moved to political live, yet most of them have been kept links with their academic institutions. Another category of those representing this view were those who established civil society organizations, sponsored by known and unknown sources, have also depended on academics in their activities, (example the Women Leading Foundation). Both categories involved women academics in their activities, like conferences, (local and international), workshops, seminars and lectures. These activities gave most of those involved in them the impression that the status of women academics has been improved, and so is their role in the society. An example of this improvement was the establishment, for the first time in the university, of a Women Research Unit in the College of Girls' Education, university of Baghdad. (I was told by one of my colleagues in the collage of Political Science that this unit is very far away from the women studies as a gender, as an international issue or even as local issue. It does not look at the sufferings of the Iraqi women. She also informed me that this unit is a very small one, consisting of two small rooms for the whole staff, and their activities have not relation to the sufferings and position of Iraqi women. Their activities are simply symbolic to prove their existence and say that they deserve the salaries they are getting). Women academics also found a possibility to work in different places at the same time. On top of their official position in the universities, they were able to find part time jobs in private research centre, as well as some consultancy opportunities in the new independent commissions, like the Commission of Integrity and Independent High Electoral Commission or even in some minister's office.
Holders of this view regarded the increase in academics' salaries and the freedom to teach and discuss democracy and human rights issues in all the facilities as well as the subjects related to women affairs and gender as example of the new development in the position of women academics. On top of that they looked at the possibility of cooperation between the Iraqi universities and other international universities as an opportunity that gave them a new hope to develop their skills and positions in the future. Add to that they regarded the 2005 decision to employ all the holder of the M.A and PH.D degrees in the higher education system as a very good chance for women to join the Academic life and practice their specialization, as well as a good step for decreasing unemployment especially among young women holding higher degrees, who could not find the opportunity to work before this decision.
Consequently, they concluded that all these measure and developments made women academics feel that their status was improved and made their degrees worthwhile.
On the contrary, holders of the second view, in which the writer also believed, think that the occupation was harmful to the statutes of women in Iraq in general, and academics in particular. Women academics began, since 2003, to face too many challenges, some of them endangered their lives and that of their families, and others affected their academic future. Women and girls told the Human Rights Watch organization that insecurity and fear of rape and abduction kept them in their homes out of school, and away from work.
To start with the most dangerous and intimidating result of the occupation on women academics in Iraqi universities was the wave of assassinations that hit the members of the teaching staff in different universities and the Iraqi distinguished scientists. In 2004 there were 19112 (in 2002 the number was 21117) teaching staff, holders of M.A. and PhD degrees, 56% male (10107) and 44% female. Around 470-500 member staff were assassinated between 2003-2011, women academics were not excluded from this phenomenon. However the consequences for women and girls were worse due to concerns of family "honor", which is predicated on the moral standing and behavior of female members of the family. On top of that Iraq witnessed the biggest brain drain in its history and this did not exclude women academics as well.
Women academics married to academics suffered even more because any threat to their partners (husbands) meant that they had to leave their jobs with their husbands. Thus the universities suffered double loss in such cases. Despite the loss of their jobs in such cases, women academics of this category were regarded lucky if compared to those who lost their husbands in one assassination attempt, because in all cases of this kind the wife academic was threatened to leave the university following the murder of their husbands. One academic wife from al-Anbar university (west of Iraq) said that" (al-Qaeda organisation) in Iraq kidnapped my husband. He was released after a while. After this terrible experience he left to Jordan and I remained with my family. During that time I was subjected to many threats, one of them was to kidnap my daughter who was six months of age. I was terrified and decided to leave my job and join my husband in Jordan, where I could not find a job, so was the situation of my husband".
The insecure situation resulted in dividing the universities along sectarian lines. Each university fell under the influence of one militia. Women academics and female students were forced, especially in 2003-2008, to wear hijab. In fact the universities imposed on women academics and female students the style of clothes they should wear, no trousers, no jeans no short sleeves etc. Of course women academics were suffering from these interferences even in their living areas, along with all the women. One academic electrical engineer female in the Technology University in Baghdad said "I had to wear hijab in very difficult circumstances because the (rules of the Iraqi streets) forced me to do so. I suffered a lot in my area because I was not wearing hijab, even taxis refused to stop for me because I was not wearing one. Therefore I had to wear it not because I believed in it but because I feared for my life if I didn't."
Although the obligation to wear hijab were eased in the last two years in the universities, something that women academics felt, the first thing the new minister of higher education, did in February 2011 was to visit a senior religious leader who instructed him to separate male from female students as well as imposing (new ethical) rules on universities, as the religious leader called them. Women academics fear that imposing such rules will be a step backward in academic life. The minister, (who is a leading member of a religious and conservative political party- al-Dawa Islamic Party ) denied the explanation of the visit, but did not deny the visit itself. He gave his own explanation by saying "there are values, ethical and social disciplines that are rooted in the Iraqi society, these disciplines are Islamic ones and the Iraqi society believes in them. These rules cannot be imposed by the administration or by the authority, but the people should be educated about them. The university is the institution that could shoulder this educational mission". In other words he defined the job of his ministry as to educate people about students' separation and wearing hijab.
Then there was the policy of the conservative parties which controlled the university campus. Most of these parties are religious and performed their religious events in the university. Women academics had to take part in these events; otherwise they would put themselves in an awkward position. Of course these events affected students' attendance to the lectures. In the meantime women academics could not discuss with the student such activities; if they did they will be threatened.
On top of that the challenge of the sectarian policy has been institutionalized in the higher education system, starting from the appointment of the minister, (in the last government formation (2006) the ministry was from Sunni's quota while in the new government formation (2010) the ministry is from Shia's quota. This of course was done on a sectarian (quota) basis. Even the appointments of heads of universities were according to this quota system. In due time this challenge was extended to make differentiations between women academics according to their sects, in employment, grants, teaching, conferences abroad, workshops and training. For example all heads of universities and the overwhelming majority of deans were men. Also there is no woman in the high posts of the universities. In the few exceptions, when women were chosen as deans or head of departments, this was mostly done on either sectarian basis or sectarian quota, not according to scientific qualifications. As one female academic said (We had a vacant position for head of department. This position was given to a male junior lecturer who had very limited experience, while there were more senior women academics, full professors or senior lecturers, which were more qualified for the post. The university did not distinguish between the academic (scientific) posts, like head of departments, and administrative posts).
The Iraqi universities did not become independent as we wished; the domination of one party (the Baath) was replaced by the domination of too many parties. After the invasion universities echoed the policies of the ruling and influential new political parties. It is an irony that for example in the college of Political Science women academics were, (and still are) always hesitant to open discussion in subjects related to political issues between the students because of their blind attachment to the new sectarian parties. Any open discussion would mean a division and strong disputes which could easily get violent, and could be relayed to the parties they belonged to; tutors, in particular the female, would feel helpless in solving these sharp divisions, as well as living in fear of the students reactions. Thus the teaching method remained old fashioned and classic especially among women academics, because they feared that such methods would not be acceptable to the students and the university administration. Of course this challenge became a problematic issue when the members of parliament were given the right to join the higher studies programmes, exempted from the normal conditions of acceptance, (such as age, degrees and scientific qualifications). This move deprived some young, intelligent and qualified graduates from joining these programmes. On top of that those parliament members needed special arrangements (security) to attend their courses, as member of academic staff in the university said.
In 2009 the Prime minister closed down al-Mustansriya University because of sectarian violence .Abed Thiab al-Ajili, then minister of higher education, as well as administrators and professors at the university said in an interview that it was commonly believed that violence continued there because of ties between some of the officials in Mr. Maliki's Shiite party, Dawa, and the Students League, that dominated the university. The university administrators shielded the League from prosecution. "Political parties are causing most of the problems in the universities," the minister said. League members were seen marching through campus wearing black masks and waving bright yellow flags. Sana'a al-Tamimi, who teaches educational psychology, said that, in 2008, shortly after she was named an assistant dean, Students League members came to her campus office and threatened to kill her if she did not quit. She resigned after 20 days.
If we were to look deeply at some decisions taken by the Ministry of Higher Education in 2005 to appoint all holders of higher degrees, explained as a policy to increase working opportunities, and to decrease the percentage of unemployment, we will find that the results were not as expected. To start with, the very high number of those appointed in a very short time was another form of disguised unemployment, as most of the newly appointed did not have the skill or the qualification needed. In the meantime, the sudden increase in the number of academic staff became a burden on the academic institutions. More important was the fact that a lot of the new comers were backed by the political parties the belonged to and thus had opportunities, not to speak about influence, more than the old and experienced members of staff. They were soon to be very important elements in their institutions following the departure of most of professional academics because of the security situation.
According to that and in such an atmosphere no one should expect the universities to be the institutions that provided the state with able and qualified experts. The standard of teaching was lower than before because of the migration of most senior members of staff. The vast majority of those who teach now are either juniors or recent graduates of the Iraqi universities. They have no second international language and little knowledge of the development of their field of knowledge internationally. Some European and American universities offered some fellowships to members of staff and students to follow their studies abroad, but most of academics female who applied had failed to qualify for three major reasons: first are the Iraqi traditions which do not tolerate the idea of women living abroad alone. Second is the issuing of a visa for those who are chosen to travel, as most immigration offices in the west fear that whoever is granted a visa will seek asylum and will not return to Iraq, and the third is the poor command or knowledge of a foreign language.
All the faculties, especially the science ones, are short of equipments, laboratories, materials and financial abilities to furnish them with what they need. "Not a single penny was spent since 2003 on satisfying the needs of these faculties", as one head of a Physics department said. This caused the closure of many faculties and courses for higher studies, he added. The academic staffs of the universities were not provided with the opportunity to develop their skills. They had to manage with their own skills which they developed under the many wars, sanctions and the occupation. A female senior lecturer member of a college of science declared that she was due to be promoted to the rank of professor in 2008, for that "I had to submit new original researches depending on experiments in laboratories, but I was, and still is, unable to do so because of the ill equipped laboratories and lack of materials to conduct new experiments". Another female member in the same college said that she and her colleagues are unable to participate in any conference, local or foreign, with their own researches because they did not have the facilities to write new and original researches. She added that she and a colleague of her have been working for two years hoping to come up with a useful research for participating in future conferences. Normally such a research could have taken few months had they had the right facilities. "I only attended some conferences to listen". It is worthy to mention that some critics saw in the new Iraqi constitution another impediment in the way of scientific researches, especially postgraduate researches. Article (9) first (E) of the constitution stated that:"The Iraqi Government shall respect and implement Iraq's international obligations regarding the non-proliferation, non-development, nonproduction, and non-use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and shall prohibit associated equipment, materiel, technologies, and delivery systems for use in the development, manufacture, production, and use of such weapons". Critics saw in this article an obstacle in the way of Ph.D. and M.A. science students, especially in chemical and nuclear engineering, as any use of chemical, biological or nuclear materials could be regarded as breach of the constitution.
The interference of the Ministry of the Higher Education in academic rules continued, as the case of the failing students shows for example. For the first time in the Iraqi education history, or in any education system elsewhere, the failing students were given the right to sit three or four times their final examinations and until they passed. This only resulted in producing weak graduates and disrespected academics staff. As one professor in medical college said " I applied for pension earlier than I should because I couldn't continue serving in a college that has students who are more powerful than the teaching staff, and where postgraduate students insist on passing their exams whether we like it or not. In some cases failing students in the final exams have obtained their degrees despite the objections of the teaching staff. If such a thing is happening in medical college one could imagine what is happening in other fields of knowledge such humanities. That is why I retired and left my job and the country altogether". More harming perhaps was the Prime Minister decision to exempt those who produced forged higher degrees from any punishment, despite the fact that they have acquired high positions through these forged degrees.
More harming was the interference of the Prime Minister's office in allocating scholarships to postgraduate students. In 2009 the Iraqi PM while on a state visit to the USA signed "a five-year, $1 billion higher education plan to boost the nation's science and technology workforce while promoting knowledge-based sustainable development… The PM signed an implementation agreement to establish an American Universities Iraq Consortium. The agreement to manage the plan was signed by al-Maliki, on behalf of the Iraqi government's committee for education development, and Stephen Moseley, President of the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development. The plan will be implemented in two phases: the first with a scholarship initiative to send up to 10,000 Iraqi students abroad each year over the next five years. The students will undertake two-year technical degrees as well as bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees at universities in Australia, Canada, Britain and the US. Under a $54 million pilot programme, 500 students will go to the US for the 2009-2010 academic year. The degrees include engineering, health, science and technology as well as education. The second phase of the plan involves an overhaul of the entire Iraq education system from K-12 to higher education. The focus will be on rebuilding university infrastructure, including new laboratories and establishing internet connections".
This plan may look positive as it will provide Iraqi students and society with opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge, but the fact remains that this plan, although very belated, was started in a wrong way. Instead of giving the Ministry of Higher Education the right to manage this plan, it was left the PM office directly to do that. Thus not only this decision was a direct interference in the duties of the Ministry of Higher Education but also meant that the ministry has lost its independence and the right to do what is regarded as its responsibilities. However this could change again following the appointment of a new minister of HE who comes from the same party of the prime minister, the latter may transfer this duty to the new minister to show his support, or he may ask the new minister to reside over the committee in the PM's office to follow up this plan. Whatever the case previous experience tells us that quota and sectarian basis will be what qualifies candidates for these scholarships.
The role of different NGOs which are established and sponsored by the occupying forces heavily involved themselves in academic life, however they were not active in enhancing the role of academics inside the society, they were rather organizations used by the Americans to spread their own ideologies and to improve the image of the occupation inside the universities, especially among young students. For this objective they used young academics to infiltrate the academic institutions. This in turn created a group of Iraqi academics who became totally attached and subordinated to the occupying administration.
Finally, one has to admit that the most harming challenge for academic live in Iraq is the continuous attempts to make the Iraqi academic institutions as horns for propaganda for the governing parties. A fair number of female academics participating in the new political process felt that their role and influence was minimal in affecting any change in favour of Iraqi academia or women's rights in general.
The results of all these pervious challenges are
1- Women academics are living insecure, subjected to differentiations and intimidated by the general situation that was imposed on Iraq following the occupation.
2- The duties and responsibilities of women academics were increased, in fact they became more than a burden, especially when her father, husband, brother or sons were threatened or disappeared for one reason or another. They had to take care of their families as well as performing academic duties. In the end the other duties affected their academic performance.
3- Women academics were, and in fact still are, hesitant to introduce new methods in teaching. Thus most of them act like an instrument to copy the information and paste them whether in research or in teaching, as long as it is safer and more convenient to the university status.
4- Gender differentiation is more acute in Iraq today than at any time before. Also the sectarian affiliations are more powerful than the scientific degrees, the experience and expertise women academics could hold.
5- Despite the fact that the universities are continuing to give degrees to the students but we have to admit that this scientific degree is not up to (approved by)the Arab or international level.
1- Women academics should have the right to be part of the scholarships programme. This programme should be organized by the Iraqi specialists in higher education for developing the women academics skills and teaching programmes.
2- Women academics should be given the chance to participate in the national and international conferences to represent their universities in a formal way.
3- Well qualified, strong and respectable staff surely affects the level of the students. This requires women academics to be given the right to deal with their teaching ways and have to be encouraged to find new methodology in teaching by being introduced to modern theories in this field.
4- Women academics should be allowed to take part in the decision making circles of the ministry of higher education and in any matter concerning the higher education policy of system. The first step in this direction should be appointing women academics as consultants to the PM and minister, as well as appointing them to high posts in the universities and the colleges.
5- The Iraqi government should not forget that the women academics constitute an important percentage in the working power in the higher system. This percentage is key figure in developing this sector which should not be ignored or marginalised.
6- International organizations dealing with Iraqi academics in exile have to put into considerations that any help to Iraqi women academics in exile, especially those who are living as refugees, is important for them to maintain their careers. They should also know they exiled or refugee women academics are in bad need to keep their training in the fields they are specialized in. On top od that they should be introduced to the new and modern teaching methodology so they could implement them once they return to their country. Also these organizations should introduce female projects and involve Iraqi female academics in the different international universities.
SAWSAN AL ASSAF Ph.D. Lecturer in Political Science, University of Baghdad. She was a visiting fellow to various Arab and European universities, and lectured at LSE, NUI, the Irish Centre for Human Rights, Galway, Republic of Ireland, the International Centre for Future Strategic Studies, Cairo and the Centre for Gender Studies, Un of London. She is a founding member of the International Committee for Solidarity with Iraqi Academics (Qatar), and a member of Arab Association for Political Science (Cairo). She published two books and many articles and research in her field.