Education Iraq

“With Education You Can Face Every Struggle”: Gendered Higher Education in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan – Part One: Living in Darkness

In patriarchal communities, women’s dependency on men can lead to their being trapped in unhappy marriages and social settings. Education is a tool of empowerment for women, and those who nourish patriarchal systems view girls’ and women’s education with suspicion. “With Education You Can Face Every Struggle” is a three-part series that highlights the voices of Iraqi women seeking out, struggling for, and succeeding in higher education.

In order to hear the voices of educated and uneducated women in Iraq, we collected 74 interviews, 37 from women with higher education and 34 from women without higher education, including women who had never attended school at all. The interview process was part of a historical methods course at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, during the spring semester of 2019, in which we trained undergraduate students at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) to conduct and transcribe two-hour oral history interviews[i] The interviewees consisted of women from all over Iraq, including Iraqi Kurdistan. All of the women’s names are pseudonyms, and in several cases, upon request, identifying details have been altered as well. The age of the women is their age at the time of the interview.

Part One: Living in Darkness

“If they didn’t allow us to go to school we would agree and not say anything. This is why they have made us blind in society; we uneducated people feel like we are dead.”

The opening quotation comes from Sara M., 52 years old, who is speaking of men in her generation who did not allow girls, herself included, to have an education. Sara, born in Sulaimani and remaining there all her life, goes on to say that, “if I got a second chance in life, I would start with education. I would believe in myself that I could achieve a higher education diploma.” Her words represent several themes about gendered higher education in Iraq: the patriarchal society, the importance of education and the feelings of loss associated with being uneducated, and the confidence of women in their potential.

When asked to explain their feelings about not having had a higher education, almost all of the interviewees, who ranged from having had no education at all to having completed high school but no more, expressed strong and definite responses. Tara O., 22, born in Rania and still living there, said, “I really feel upset. I wish I could have a chance to get higher education and graduate from the department that I dream of. I really feel jealous of those who graduate.” Ruqaya R., 30, from Basra, who finished third grade and no more, describes not having education as “miserable. I passed through a difficult psychological condition.” Nina J., 25, from Sulaimani, goes farther: “To be honest, I feel inferior and this feeling has decreased my self-esteem a lot […] and the way I consider myself as an individual in this society.”

In parallel, the women who experienced higher education were asked to speculate on what their lives would have been like had they not had the chance to go to college. Lina S., 25, whose words we have taken as the title of this piece, and who is completing her master’s degree in Sulaimani, believes that, “without education you just live in darkness and cannot improve.” Lavin R., 24, from Rania, who completed her degree in electrical engineering, hardly wanted to think of life without an education, but when urged, said:

“I imagine that I would stay at home and become a depressed person and a negative person. My daily life would repeat over and over again, and it would force me to marry immediately, and after that I would have a child and raise it. I believe that I would have a nasty life. Always, every day, wake up and raise and feed your children. Now, I am happy and I feel my existence.”

Shahla H., born in 1960, from Chwarta, forced to leave school at ninth grade, poignantly played out Lavin’s speculations:

“When I was a student I was learning new stuff each day and I believe that I was on the right path in my life. Now, I am  at home most of the time, and I stopped learning stuff as I’m busy feeding my children and taking care of them. You cannot improve your abilities within four walls. It is like a prison; it is like a man who is feeding his sheep. A man with sheep just knows about what to do in order to keep and feed his animals. Same works for me.”

Never having attended any sort of school, Najat F., born in 1970 in a village in the Sangaw area, experienced Shahla’s metaphor literally. She was an orphan, living with her aunt and uncle in a village that had no school, nor were there schools in any of the nearby villages. “I was working as a shepherd and taking care of my uncle’s herd.” At 13 years old, she was sold into marriage for 2500 dinars (a little less than $2 US in 1983 rates). Her groom fathered her two daughters before being recruited into the Anfal campaign (the campaign of genocide against the Kurds), from which he never returned. Najat then remarried; this marriage turned out to be so bad that she says that, “I can say that my life at the peak of disaster was better than my life now. As we say in Kurdish,” she goes on to say, “my neck has been hanged by the rope.”

Shaima H., born in 1981 in Khanaqin, who now lives in a women’s shelter after being divorced from her physically abusive husband (her cousin, to whom she was married when she was 16 or 17), was also prevented from attending even primary school because of the lack of a school in proximity. “The childhood of me and my sisters was very rough…. There wasn’t any facility or school in our village.” Shaima goes on to say that “it was a tradition in the village that, whenever a girl would grow up, they would start putting her under labor to work in agriculture.”

It is essential to enable girls to pursue their education through the secondary level.

Primary education, at least, usually leads to literacy, but a 2018 World Bank report finds that while primary schooling is necessary, it is not sufficient. Having a primary education is not largely different, in terms of some indicators, from having no education at all. Only secondary education anchors the gains of primary education. The report concludes that “it is essential to enable girls to pursue their education through the secondary level and to ensure that learning occurs in order to reap the benefits from more education.”[i]

A number of factors prevent girls and women in Iraq from obtaining primary, secondary, and higher education. Beritan S. says: “We always say in our Kurdish saying: ‘Stretch your legs to the length of the blanket!’” Sima R., 23, a planning engineer from Erbil, sees many reasons why women do not finish even a basic education. “The most important ones are financial issues, bad treatment by the society, and lack of support from the government and family.” Kazhan A., 22, from Sulaimani, who earned a bachelor’s degree in geology, echoes this: “Having support from society is as important as support from the family. The process of education will be very difficult if the ideologies of society are against education for women.” As an example of this scenario, Nazira A., 59, from Halabja, studied until the fifth grade but was taken out of school, along with her sister, by her brother. Her parents begged her brother to change his mind, but he threatened suicide if his sisters returned to school. Nazira, asked about her advice for the newest generation in Iraq, says: “I truly beg parents not to differentiate between their daughters and sons: girls and boys are the same; women should be free as well.”

Some interviewees’ families believed that a little education was good for girls, but only a little. In the case of Noor A., 47, born in Baghdad and currently living in Babel, for example, her mother died in a car accident, and her step-mother insisted that Noor and her sisters quit school and get married. Both her father and stepmother believed that a ninth grade education was “more than enough.” Khuncha K., 24, from Rania, who finished the 11th grade, confirms this: “In our society [it is believed that] women should serve their relatives, husbands, and children. They should work inside their houses.” Kazi O., from Sulaimani, who preferred not to state her age, pursuing a master’s in engineering, also experienced this outlook, even though she has moved beyond its restrictions. She says that “when Kurdish women want to postpone their marriage, people gossip. Once married, she is expected to have children.” After that, she continues, “there is no time” for education, and “men in this society are not educated in a way to help their wives when they are busy because they think it is shameful.” Rania K., 33, from Sulaimani, a university lecturer, adds her perspective on men who do not help their wives: “I can say that they are affected by the community and the culture, which is masculinity. Most of the men want to help and share duties with their wives but they are afraid of the community and gossip.” Barzy D., 25, currently studying dentistry, remembers that her mother completed sixth grade, but then “her family didn’t allow her to complete her education because they didn’t think it was necessary for her because she would ultimately get married and a man can support her… They married her off at 18 years old.”

The idea that a woman’s place is in the home is even stronger in the rural areas in Iraq, which are in many ways different worlds from the cities (and this rural-urban split is not particular to Iraq). Sana A., from Kirkuk (she preferred not to reveal her age), who completed the fifth grade, observes that “people say women’s place is in the house; even if she studies, her place will be in the house. So there is not any reason for women to complete education, especially in villages and rural areas.” Rozh Y., 25, from Sulaimani, points out that “especially in the rural areas, women are all housewives, and they expect their daughters to be housewives too”; Sima R, the planning engineer mentioned above, also notes that “in the rural areas it is mostly believed that the women should work at home.”

If her family did not support her and create a good and helpful environment for her to study and continue going to school, a woman would not be able to get a higher education.

Rural or urban, it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the family and extended family in any Iraqi’s life. This is especially true in terms of girls’ education. Lina, mentioned above, pursuing a master’s degree, says that “the family is the number one effective factor for every woman to be able to complete her education. If her family did not support her and create a good and helpful environment for her to study and continue going to school without depression, anxiety, and uncertainty, a woman would not be able to finish education and get a higher education.”

Women both with and without higher education made very clear the effect their family had on their education, for better or worse. Maryam S., 50, from Baghdad, earned a B.A. in English literature and translation and remembers that, “my family was number one to support me to study and finish my higher education,” and that they allowed her to choose her major and her university. They also supported her financially, buying her books for her studies. Zaina Y., 27, from Baghdad, who has a degree in telecom engineering, stressed the importance of her family’s emotional support. Her siblings “always pushed me to continue forward.” Also, her parents had both completed their higher education. Her father and brother both had engineering degrees, “so I just had a passion for that because of them.” Kazhan A., who was mentioned above as having a degree in geology, says that “one of the main reasons I went through school with good energy was having support from my family. If a girl can have support from her family then the chances that she will finish high school are very high.” And in the case of Diana S, 23, who lives in Baghdad, her father was against her education, and “my mother was the only supporter in this conflict. My brothers also encouraged me. But my mother did all that she could to make me what I am today.” And today, Diana has a degree in psychology. Her mother is Noor A., whose family believed that a ninth grade education was more than enough for a girl.

Sima R., the graduate in planning engineering, remembers that whenever she was tired or discouraged in high school, “my dad would come and he would tell me ‘you can do it, you can achieve what you want, I totally trust you; you will be great.’ Even when I went to university, it was the same.” He told her: “you are very smart, you are special, you will be in the top.” She went on to say that “this is very important; this can also make a person say ‘I am.’”

This sort of support and the role models such as educated parents that Zaina Y. mentioned are very important; Tre D., 26, from Sulaimani, believes that “non-educated people will have a ripple effect because when the parents are not educated the children most probably will not be educated and so on.” Some of the cases back up this belief. Lava K., 22, from Sulaimani, who finished the 11th grade but did not complete the 12th, explains that, “I’ve come from a family that have not studied at all and I think there was no one to look up to and think ‘Oh, that person has a degree.’” Beritan S., 32, from Kirkuk, who provides the proverb about stretching one’s legs to the length of the blanket, struggled to finish high school. She speculates that, “if my sisters, friends, brothers’ wives or other women had higher education… of course I would be sad or dissatisfied with that because I would feel that I am incomplete or lacking something… But when I look around I see there are many people like me and they are living their life like there is nothing wrong going on. I just feel normal like them.”

But uneducated parents do not necessarily doom their girls to be uneducated—quite the opposite, in the case of Shatw K. 22, from Sulaimani, who finished college and is currently studying dentistry: “My father did not have an education and he is illiterate which he always regrets because he knows how important education is, so he always wanted us kids to complete school. For this, he wanted to marry a girl who is educated and not illiterate because this is how he wanted to raise his kids, with the help of his wife.” Barzy D., who mentioned (above) that her mother was not allowed to finish her basic education, says that her mother “would always tell me to prioritize my education.” And when she entered college, “it was like a dream” for her mother.

Being illiterate is like being blind; having education and literacy is a key to all doors in life.

Najat F., the orphan who had never attended any sort of school, says that she regrets her lack of education and not only cannot read or write but “even if you give me all the money in the world I cannot dial my own number on the cellphone. I wish I was able to dial and know numbers.” But her older daughter graduated from college, and she advises young women “to go and maintain their educational journey because it is the only thing that will last for them.” Aftaw D., 77, from Sulaimani, who never attended school but completed an adult literacy program, adds to this: “I advise every family to let their daughters go to school. Being illiterate is like being blind; having education and literacy is a key to all doors in life.”

Marriage, in many cases, is the end of education for girls and young women, if their education had not ended already.

Despite various struggles, Beritan S. (mentioned above, from Kirkuk) finished high school, after many attempts, when she was 22, an age which her family thought was suitable for marriage, not college. Marriage, in many cases, is the end of education for girls and young women, if their education had not ended already. Nadia H., 19, from Babel, had dreams of using her love of biology to become a doctor. Instead, her parents forced her to quit school before the 10th grade and marry when she was 16 years old. “This thing was not my will, but I was not the type of person who would reject her parents’ word.” She tried to continue her studies, but found herself, with encouragement from her husband, failing her classes. “All my desires were in my husband’s hand.” With the birth of her first child, she gave up and dropped out of school. Chiman A, 26, from Sulaimani, whose circumstances were more fortunate and who has a law degree, warns: “don’t gather all your hope in a male.”

The material conditions of women in Iraq today, she estimates, are worse than they have been at any point since the Iran–Iraq War.

A review article by Jacqueline Ismael suggests that the rights and freedoms of women in Iraq have been greatly restricted as a result of invasion and occupation. The material conditions of women in Iraq today, she estimates, are worse than they have been at any point since the Iran–Iraq War. Child marriage and men’s guardianship over their wives is part of a situation of oppression that is as bad for women now as it was before the 1959 revolution.[ii]

Nadia H.’s husband’s resistance to his bride’s education and her dreams of becoming a doctor was passive; Mena I.’s family, and then her marital family, actively stood in the way of her education: “from the beginning, my father, grandfather, and my uncles didn’t let me finish school.” Knowing that she would be removed from school in the sixth grade, she said that on that first day, “I went to school, and I prayed my grandfather would die so I can reach the sixth grade.” She thought that if her grandfather were to die, her father would be more supportive. Neither she nor her sisters were allowed to finish sixth grade, despite a delegation of four teachers coming to their home and making a case for her staying at school: “One day,” they told her father, “you will regret your action.” Mena went on a hunger strike for one week (“I wanted to punish my family by not eating”) but then gave up. She eventually married her cousin, whose family held the same beliefs about women and education, when she was 17. Mena I., now 46, is from Rania. Iman J., also 46 years old, from Baghdad, who went to school until the sixth grade, suggests that women in the youngest generation refuse to “allow society to influence their decisions, especially when it comes to completing education. Women having an education counts as a weapon in a society such as ours.”

Time spent in school, even when brief, corresponds with happy memories for most of the interviewees. Nadia H., mentioned above, remembers her school days as “days of freedom.” In none of the interviews was it the woman’s choice to leave school. Even with a supportive family network, however, other circumstances can prevent education, especially in a politically unstable environment.

Rezan C., 35, who now lives in the UK, was happy attending school in Kirkuk, her native city, which she remembers as a cosmopolitan city, full of diversity. War forced her family to flee to Sulaimani, to which she never adjusted. When it was time to register for the new school year, “my family had become dependent on me doing housework and undertaking other responsibilities. I didn’t mind too much at the time, but now when I look back on it, it does upset me.” Ruqaya R., mentioned above as feeling miserable to have completed only third grade, but says that she left school because “our economic situation was not good. My father was far [away] and not with us. My mother could not make money for us alone,” after which “I married, then my husband didn’t allow me.”

Razaw D., 44, from Sulaimani, had two brothers killed in the Iran-Iraq war, after which her mother developed a mental illness. She did not finish fifth grade, and she decided to support her siblings’ education instead, though one sister refused to go to school and a brother left after seventh grade. “Thankfully, one of my sisters finished school successfully and became a teacher.” Sara M. had similar circumstances. She completed fourth grade, but because of her mother’s bad health—her father had died—she became the second mother to her younger siblings. “I spent all days of my life taking care of my family, housekeeping, cooking, doing laundry, and grocery shopping, to make my family’s life easier and to help my siblings finish their education. I also helped my mother with her sickness.”

Asked by the interviewer if it was mostly war or marriage that prevented her from continuing her path in education, she insists that it was war.

Asha A., 48, from Baghdad, was in the fourth grade when the Iran-Iraq War began in 1980, her first war. “We were kids and understood nothing of it. Planes started to bomb our cities. We started to hide as we learned the alarm sirens [indicated that] a bombing plane is approaching.” She and her family fled to Najaf “because they said that Iran does not bomb holy places” and stayed there for a month. When they returned to Baghdad, Asha completed fifth and sixth grade “while the war was ongoing. Many people died in this period.” She attended secondary school, which she remembers fondly, perhaps nostalgically, and finished high school. She had done well and would have continued with higher education, but then U.S. forces began bombing Iraq as Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. “It was not any normal bombing like the one we know from the war with Iran. We again had to leave our home and flee,” this time to Diyala, where they hid in a house. “I suffered a lot from this war. I have no idea how we got through it. I left my studies; afterward, my ambition died. I could not handle the fact that we keep stopping and continuing school so I stayed home. I had goals and wished to complete my education but war stopped me.” Asha married and had children, and gave up on education. “I had no one to help me take care of the kids and the society in Iraq got worse. People changed from the war. People got tired. It never crossed my mind to continue studying.” Asked by the interviewer if it was mostly war or marriage that prevented her from continuing her path in education, she insists that it was war. “Marriage was not it, it was the situation that we lived in that gave us this push back. We had one war after another. Join school, then stop, and it kept on like this, we had no security and the future seemed opaque. I kept saying that maybe the present will change into the better somehow, but it never did.”

More recently, war interrupted the education of Malika T., 27, from Dyala. Malika almost managed to complete all 12 grades, despite a poor school system, lack of moral support from her family, and poverty. She had good grades in biology and wanted to study medicine, but when her father died and ISIS forces invaded Dyala, she, her siblings, and her mother were forced to flee to Kirkuk and then to Sulaimani, where not knowing Kurdish was only one of her problems. “The difficulties became more and more numerous. For example, we lived in a tent for five months before we moved into a small house that a wealthy family gave to us.” For seven years after fleeing, she helped her mother raise her brothers and sisters, encouraging them to have an education and not “to abandon their studies like me.”

War is a constant interruption in the region. Cities such as Mosul are just now rising out of the ashes of occupation by ISIS, and Kirkuk, remembered by Rezan C. as a pleasant place, is a gloomy and tense city, better avoided, after its military takeover in the wake of the disastrous referendum for Kurdish independence in 2017. Recently, a second round of protests broke out in Baghdad and left at least 50 dead and 2,000 injured. In Syria, a genocide of Kurds began after the withdrwal of support by the Trump administration. A Yazidi genocide has been going on for years.

Wars come and go; but the belief in “women’s place” will remain as long as the patriarchy is dominant. Tanya B., 49, from Sulaimani, regrets leaving school, which she was forced to do by the never-ending housework for which she was responsible: “My advice for women and girls is not to leave their education for any reason—marriage, poverty, society, or parents’ pressure. They have to work hard and fight for their limitless dreams.” Andesha K., 22, from Sulaimani, who did complete her college education in English language and literature, has similar advice for the women of the youngest generation. She encourages them to “work and work and work, never stop working, never stop studying, ask for your equality, and that is it.”

“Especially in Iraq, I want to specify this: the women need to be educated…because as you know in Iraq we are living in a special situation and we have passed through many wars.” These are the words of Layla A., 52, an OB-GYN physician practicing in Sulaimani. “Three to four wars,” she goes on to specify, “have passed in the last 30 years. People are dying every day from different reasons, so the woman may have a family and a man working to provide financial support, and sadly—for these events happen very day—some might die.” If the woman has a certificate or degree, Layla says, “she may get a job and she can support her children… So specifically in Iraq, I think a woman should be educated […] because we are exposed to different situations.”

Education is a powerful force for women in Iraq; higher education is even more powerful. The second part of this three-part series explores the consequences of higher education for women in Iraq.

[i] We thank the interviewees, as well as the AUIS students who carried out the interviews: Mr. Adam Tawfeeq, Mr. Ahmed Taha, Mr. Al Ameen Jasim Al Jabbari, Mr. Alfarooq Ahmed, Mr. Bahat Muhammed, Mr. Basman Nazar, Mr. Bawan Adil, Ms. Beritan Khalid, Ms. Dalya Othman, Ms. Danyal Rasul, Mr. Danyar M. Faraj, Mr. Dashty Rasul, Mr. Dastan Khdir, Mr. Davar Abdulla, Mr. Dekan Rahim, Ms. Evan Jaaf, Ms. Fro Kamil, Mr. Hawsar Saed, Mr. Hedi  Hamadamen, Ms. Jwan Aziz, Mr. Karmand Muhsin, Mr. Lawand Ali, Mr. Luay Kheder, Ms. Mariam Majid, Mr. Mohammed Hussein, Mr. Obai Moamin, Mr. Rand M. Salih, Ms. Raz Yadulla Qololus, Ms. Roza Aziz, Ms. Rozh Kamal, Ms. Sara Abd, Ms. Sawa Hama Salih, Ms. Sawen Amin Ali, Ms. Shireen Fakhri, Mr. Wrya Wahab, and Mr. Yihia Hamza. We also thank the Center for Gender and Development Studies Research Assistant Mr. Ali Hussein Azeez Abo-Jadya for his work on processing the transcribed interviews. The interviews were conducted in English, Arabic, and Kurdish, and sometimes a combination of two or three languages. They were all transcribed and translated into English. For the sake of consistency and easier reading, we have eliminated “fillers” such as “umm” and repeated words, and we have corrected the spelling errors and typos that resulted from transcription, as well as grammatical mistakes such as pronoun agreement that resulted from translation.
[ii] Quentin Wodon, Claudio Montenegro, Hoa Nguyen, and Adenike Onagoruwa. 2018. “Missed Opportunities: The High Cost of Not Educating Girls.” World Bank Group. Accessed 22 January 2022.
[iii] Jacqueline S. Ismael. 2014. “Iraqi Women in Conditions of War and Occupation.” Arab  Studies Quarterly 36. 3: 260-67. doi:10.13169/arabstudquar.36.3.0260. Accessed 22 January 2022.s

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