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Reviewed by:
  • Women in Iraq: Past meets Present
  • Shahrzad Mojab (bio)
Women in Iraq: Past meets Present, by Noga Efrati. 236 pages. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. $45.

Women in Iraq: Past meets Present offers rich historical evidence to help us comprehend the contradictions in the idea of women’s “liberation” under conditions of colonialism, war, occupation, or imperialist “democracy.” The study is a careful tracing of a century-long struggle by enlightened Iraqi women and men for gender equality — a struggle interrupted by colonial powers and occupation forces in alliance with Iraqi national, religious, and political actors who have continuously benefited from this union. It is the ebb and flow in the battle over women’s rights in Iraq that Efrati traces in this book. She argues that the book is “first and foremost a historical work” (p. x) and more specifically a “political history because it deals mainly with the Iraqi political elite and the women’s movement under the [British] mandate and the monarchy” (p. xii).

The five chapters are organized to delineate the discourse of constructing Iraqi women as citizens as well as women’s contestation of this process since the onset of the British occupation (1918) until the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy (1958), to the formation of the Ba‘th regime (1968) and the post-2003 occupation by American forces. However, the core of the book deals with the early 20th century. The first three chapters discuss the process of constructing women as second-class citizens. Chapter one reviews the customary law and the discourse of Tribal Criminal and Civil Disputes Regulation where women were constructed as “tribal possessions rather than a citizen of the emerging state, and their welfare was knowingly sacrificed” (p. 20). “Family Law” is the focus of chapter two, which explores how the British policy of supporting religious leaders created the condition of “subordination” of women (pp. 51–85). Chapter Three is a review of the “disenfranchisement” of women during the Hashemite period when the tension between the state discourse of modernity of ideal educated woman/mother collided with the [End Page 147] religious notion of women’s lack of competence to participate in public affairs (pp. 86–110). Chapters four and five are devoted to the struggle of Iraqi women over their rights. In Chapter four, Efrati critiques the dominant “historiographical approaches” to women’s movement in Iraq (p. 111). She claims that, in these approaches, either the activities of the state-sanctioned Iraqi Women’s Union or the underground League for the Defense of Women’s Rights have been the subject of analysis. She writes: “My main aim here is to piece together the two narratives to offer a more elaborate portrayal of the evolution of the women’s movement in Iraq, from its beginning in the early twentieth century until the end of the Hashemite period” (p. 112). Chapter five reintroduces us to the struggle of women against their construction as second-class citizens during the 1950s. This historical discourse analysis concludes that “[t]he end result for women, however, was not simply marginalization of their interests, but rather the sacrifice of their well-being and rights. Women citizens in the nascent state of Iraq thus found themselves second-class citizens. A three-pronged government gender discourse had constructed them as tribal possessions, subordinate and disenfranchised” (p. 172).

Meeting past in the present and reading present in the past is a frame of analysis to assist us in grasping the disappearance of the gendered idea of citizenship and equality in Iraq over a century. Efrati aptly uses concepts such as “disenfranchisement,” “subordination,” and “retribalization” to identify historical processes which eventually have made Iraqi women second-class citizens. She extends this analysis to the post-2003 occupation of Iraq, arguing that the consequence of the discourse on gender equality has been “retribilization” (p. 166–168) and “resubordination” (pp. 168–171) of women. Efrati states that “[u]nder the Americans who came to Iraq armed with a vision of creating a free and democratic state in which women’s rights are enshrined, women were returned to pre-1958 conditions, and the floodgates opened to a new...


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