An Iraqi professor on a Gender Studies international stage

Yorva Tsiakara

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Professor of Gender Studies at SOAS University of London, author of two books, co-founder of Act Together: Women’s Action on Iraq, Nadje Al-Ali, talks to young writer Yorva Tsiakara about the way Iraqi women have inspired not only her career path but also her life.

Born to a German mother, Professor Nadje Al-Ali spent the first 18 years of her life in Germany. Despite her Iraqi father and her parents getting engaged in Baghdad in 1966, she didn’t learn Arabic as a child as bilingualism was not encouraged in the 60s and 70s in Germany. Although she was unable to speak the language, her determination to create a career inspired by the Iraqi women illustrates a strong will so common to her country women. She admits that this iron will has also helped her juggle a career and family life, although she freely shares that a helpful partner, who supports the household – as well being equally involved the raising of their daughter – has been key to her success on an international stage.

So where did her academic career start?

After completing a Bachelor’s degree in the Middle East Studies Department at the University of Arizona, in Tuscon Professor Al-Ali (call me Nadje!) moved on to Cairo.

“In 1989 I moved to Egypt for five years and got my MA at the American University of Cairo”. Her dissertation was based on ’the impact of the Iran-Iraq war on women in Iraq‘.

A year on this led her to taking a trip to Iraq.

On her third day in Iraq she realized her choice of subject had been naiive:

“I couldn’t write pretending that everything was fine and that women were equal in Iraq; however if I told the truth I was risking putting my family’s security.”

So, she changed the subject of her dissertation and focused on Egyptian literature instead. In 1994 she moved to London, starting on her PhD at SOAS, where she is teaching now. Professor Deniz Kandiyoti, who was working on Women and Gender relations in the Middle East, was her prime reason for choosing SOAS at the time.

In 1997 she travelled to Iraq again and shares;

“It was so shocking to see how much the country had changed because of the sanctions.”

While getting back in touch with her extended family, she couldn’t help but to think what it would be like to be in their shoes. Nadje felt humbled by their attitude:

“I think I would feel envious and resentful, but instead, I felt as if they were genuinely happy for me and curious about my life”.

From that moment on, activism based on Iraqi womanhood, started to run alongside her academic work.

Act Together: Women against sanctions on Iraq emerged from new contacts she pursued from within the Iraqi community on her return to London. Feeling despair about the impact of economic sanctions on Iraqi society in general and women in particular, she soon initiated Act Together with some Iraqi friends based in London.. This was a women only organisation because;

“We felt that it was more difficult for men to come together beyond their party affiliations and that somehow as women, it was easier for us to overcome partisan differences ”.

For a long time, the main purpose of this group was to educate people in Britain and other countries in the West about the Iraqi society, particularly in terms of women bring affected by the sanctions.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and a series of political reforms in Iraq, they changed their name to ‘Act TogetherWomen’s Action on Iraq’. The focus shifted slightly allowing them to reach out to the emerging women’s organizations. Her activism didn’t stop there. She also got involved in Women in Black, a global network, through which women were campaigning for peace with justice.

And what about her writing?

Then, as a newly minted PhD she got her first job at the University of Sussex. Looking at issues around Bosnia, she realised she wanted to appeal to a broader readership, to maximize the impact of her work. She subsequently wrote the book ’Iraqi Women: Untold stories from 1948 to present‘ – which is now on the reading list of many courses at universities (London, Zed Books). Published in 2007 it was translated into Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and Spanish.Nadje Al Ali Soas in nina-iraq

Two years later, she co-authored the What kind of liberation, along with Nicola Pratt. This is now considered to be a follow up of her first book. She also published a book called ‘We are Iraqis’. The next in the ‘series’ is a book she is planning now, one about love in Iraq. (So, dear readers, be prepared to learn about how romantic love has changed in Iraq and its diaspora!)

As we know, her links to SOAS didn’t come to an end after the completion of her PhD of course. Since 2007 Nadje has been the professor of Gender Studies there.

“I am really enjoying supervising and teaching students interested in gender issues with reference to the Middle East or people who work on women’s rights.”

However, her dream is one day to teach at Baghdad University.

“I hope in my lifetime I will be able to give a lecture in Baghdad University, maybe even teach for a semester or a year.”

Nadje believes that if you take away all the things that are specific to Iraq (i.e. sectarian violence and lack of rule of law) the challenges Iraqi women face in terms of juggling childcare and responsibilities are very similar to the ones women face the world over. Within this wider viewpoint also she shares that she does see rays of hope:

“In the Kurdish region,, we do see more of a rule of law, a functioning state and an improving infrastructure. This is coupled with a number of improvements in terms of women’s rights.. We are seeing better educational standards and more involvement in the labor force for example.”

However, she stresses that everywhere in Iraq sees problems with gender-based violence. In the rest of Iraq, the situation is extremely challenging and difficult for women due to the violence and lawlessness. Of course, the worst situation is in the areas controlled by ISIS.

Any final thoughts?

With family links in Iraq, and having studied its people, Professor Al-Ali, still believes in the power of the Iraqi women. Their resilience and character holds her enthralled.

“Despite multiple long-term hardships and challenges, Iraqi women do not appear as just ‘victims’ but as individuals who endure and cope; it is they who are trying to hold together their families as well as their society.”

The hope she sees for Iraq doesn’t come from the male politicians, but from the Iraqi women.

This blog was originally published here.

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