“With Education You Can Face Every Struggle”: Gendered Higher Education in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan – Part Two: Beyond Knowledge

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 Two: Beyond Knowledge

“I think life without education is like a room without a light because for me all the joy, fullness, all the things I have, are from education.” – Hero A., 35, Sulaimani

Part One of this series on women and education in Iraq focused on the consequences of a lack of education for women in Iraq. Here, we explore the benefits of education, especially higher education. As Ms. Hero suggests in our opening quotation, education brings light to the lives of women who would otherwise live in darkness.

Over 100 years ago, Mary Wooley, the President of Mount Holyoke College, argued that the experience of college “reveals a girl to herself, and therein often lies its greatest influence. She learns her own possibilities and limitations and gains a sane and reasonable confidence in her ability to do what is required of her.”[i]  Many of the interviewees’ experiences bear this out. “So what has education brought into my life?” Nazanin M., a college graduate from Sulaimani, who prefers not to give her age, continues: “Well, education has opened my mind in many ways, not only for my career but also for my understanding of life and how I can deal with people and be confident.” 

Violence does not end for women in post-conflict situations; rather, gender based violence is constant, and in fact can be aggravated by backlash in the lawless situations that follow conflict.

Sima R., the planning engineer mentioned in the first part of this series, states that “the ideology of society can affect the future of women.” The gendered fabric of society is determined by the degree to which women are able to participate meaningfully in political, economic, and intellectual communities. A woman is likely to learn these skills through her experience of higher education. This is true in any community, and there are special circumstances in Iraq and Kurdistan. Nadje Al-Ali summarizes the thirty years prior to 2005 in terms of changing gender ideologies, specifically during and after the regime of Saddam Hussein and the impact of war and economic sanctions.[ii] The background of impoverishment and conservatism affected women in every way. Ali points out that violence does not end for women in post-conflict situations; rather, gender based violence is constant, and in fact can be aggravated by backlash in the lawless situations that follow conflict.[iii]  Ali goes on to point out that Iraqi women have been absent from the reconstruction process, and that the component of women’s rights in the process of reconstruction is viewed as suspiciously western.[iv] Women, especially poor and rural women, are disproportionately affected by economic sanctions and the breakdown of food distribution, as well as by the deterioration of the basic infrastructure services.[v] For our purposes, the deterioration of education is particularly alarming. Ali writes that as a result of the 1990 sanctions…

“…there has also been a sharp decrease in access to all sectors of education for girls and young women because many families have not been able to afford sending all children to school.”

“Illiteracy drastically reduced in the 1970s and 1980s, [but then] rose steadily after the Iran-Iraq war and grew between 1985 and 1995 from 8% to 45%. The drop-out rate for girls in primary education reached 35% according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women Report of 2004 (UNIFEM, 2004). According to UNICEF, 55% of women aged 15-49 are illiterate.[vi]

It takes a coalition of sectors to bring about gender equity, and this larger will is lacking.

Yasmin Husein Al-Jawaheri concurs that devaluation of Iraqi womens’ roles resulted from the international sanctions of the 1990s.[vii] Women were forced to find a measure of security in marriage, not through education, and, as both a result and reflection of this development, the view of women as weak and dependent became stronger.[viii] While there has been improvement since Al-Ali and Al-Jawaheri’s reports, the road ahead to gender equity is long. Choman Hardi discusses some of the advances in Kurdistan-Iraq, but observes that it takes a coalition of sectors to bring about gender equity, and this larger will is lacking.[ix]  This sort of coalition building involves a great deal of communication skills.

Learning how to communicate with one’s society—with both women and men—is rarely taught as a formal skill, but rather is learned beginning with one’s family upbringing. From her parents, Aftaw D. (mentioned previously) learned communication – or, rather, silence. Having had so little education as to be illiterate, she was excluded from the wider community. “I felt very bad,” she says, especially when her friends were in school, because she was left out. “I was one of the people that liked school very much but my father did not let me go to school. I could not speak in front of my father because my father was very violent and abusive and even my mother could not talk to him.” Fatima F., 49, from Baghdad, whose educational experience was very different from Aftaw‘s, says that higher education allows one to meet people “from all over, not just your own social circle, so “you know more about the culture of your country.”

Higher education helped Alia A. (who does not want her age or location in Iraq revealed) live a life she is happy with because “it was a different world from the secondary and high schools.” Her husband, from whom she is now divorced, had not allowed her to communicate with anyone outside the family, “so when I saw this huge difference between the world that I had been living in and the university’s world it affected me and was really useful.” Nazmin M., from Sulaimani (she did not wish to state her age), also expressed an appreciation for an expanded worldview: “If you mix different kinds of classes together, there will be a better understanding…” Leaders of the future, she deduced, will be better off if they know people from the lower classes for, “when they make decisions, they know their point of view as well.”

Women learn new worldviews in college, and they also learn critical thinking, whether or not it is explicitly taught as a skill. Tre D., speaking about the benefits that she received from higher education beyond classroom knowledge, noticed that “when someone talks to me I listen, but I may not believe them. If I were uneducated I would repeat false statements.” Tre summarizes the benefits of the critical thinking that she learned through higher education: “I have my own thoughts.” Jamila S., 30, from Baghdad, who earned a BA in chemical engineering, says that college…

“…was an amazing experience for me, because during those four years I experienced lots of things in different aspects that contributed to building my character, and my social communication skills were enhanced massively. All of that benefitted me throughout my life due to the fact that universities are place that hold diverse communities with different ethnic groups and traditions. I had lots of friends from different religions and ethnicities and I had the chance to know more about their cultures and traditions. We were like a united small family regardless of where each one of us was coming from. All of this exposure has impacted my perception of people, and helped me to build more friendships back then that I am still proud of until this moment.”

Jamila goes on to say that “education is the major source of power in almost every aspect of my life. The first thing is the amount of information and knowledge that I got; it also gave me a degree, which, in my opinion, is the weapon, support, and the tool that I am using in order to live life and face the difficulties of life.”

The important result of a higher education is reassurance and safety.

One of the most profound results expressed about education, especially higher education, is the independence that one gains. Dilkash, 30, from Kalar, a college professor, says that the important result of a higher education is “reassurance and safety.” She goes on to explain this:

“Because I have had proper education and am a working woman, I do not have to live with the fear of one day not having someone to provide for me at the back of my mind. I can live my life feeling secure because I know that, God forbid, if anything happens to my family or husband and I am left to live without them, I could manage on my own because I have my own income. Not all women have that same feeling of security, especially those without education. They are the ones that depend most on their fathers and husbands.”

Dovetailing this is the statement of Shafiqa A., a 48-year-old college graduate from Baghdad, who believes that a woman without education…

“…would not have confidence in herself. She will feel as if someone owns her. She will always need to go back to that person for help. She would not know how to communicate or know what her rights are and how to defend them. She would not be optimistic. You will see that she always needs to go back to her father or brother and they may or may not help her. However, if she had her education, she can take care of herself; she knows her rights and duties. You will see her reading books, learning new things and being optimistic overall. Her personality will change when she is educated and people will respect her.”

Indeed, this independence is one of the perceived dangers of higher education, as Shireen K. relates. She finished high school but was not allowed by her uncles (her father had died) to attend college. “People think that girls should not study and get a degree; they say that girls should not work and become financially independent.” The danger of independence, Shireen explains, is that “when girls become independent financially, they become independent to make decisions, so they will not listen to their families and husbands.” Shireen, 27, is from Rania.

Similarly, Lina S, who has a master’s degree and who was mentioned earlier, puts “reassurance and safety” as the top gains of her higher education. “Because I have had a proper education and am a working woman, I do not have to live with the fear of one day not having someone to provide for me at the back of my mind.” Women without education, she goes on to say, “are the ones that depend most on their fathers and husbands.” Iman J., who had to stop attending school after the ninth grade because her school was too far away from her home, is aware of this loss of independence: “I could have been a teacher like the other women my age. I would not have to depend on others to provide for me.”

The process of education, and especially higher education, offers a social system beyond the family. The statement of Sawen D., 26, from Sulaimani, stands in stark contrast to that of Tanya B., who said that housework, more than anything, prevented her from finishing school. Sawen, at the time of the interview was in her final year of education to be a civil engineer, says that “education helped me to be more socialized and have friends. If I didn’t get a higher education I wouldn’t make friends.” Tanya, on the other hand, who completed ninth grade, says that “when I left school nobody asked about me or why I left school… I stayed at home all the time and did not go outside to meet new people and make friends. Therefore, I felt so lonely and bored…”.

Bahashty A., 27, from Sulaimani, who finished high school but did not go on to college, observes that women who are educated know how to observe, rather than act as objects to be observed. She believes that “education and knowledge is the most powerful tool to change society. When you have that power you realize that you are more than what society thinks about you.” Batool H’s statement is a nice follow-up: “When I finished higher education, I felt that I am an adult, before that I felt I was a child, and not mature.” Batool, 29, from Baghdad, is now a pharmacist. Lara H., 23, a college graduate from Sulaiamani, words it a bit more strongly, saying that, without education, “you would be a person without any of the sense that God gave us. Higher education is most crucial from my perspective as it leads you to better understand and gives you methodology and awareness.” Dilpak D., from Sulaimani, who has an MBA (she did not want to reveal her age), says that “time management is one of the best skills that I learned…and I have benefitted a lot from it,” Ghid C., 22, presently living in the UK but born in Iraq (she declines to specify where) believes that in addition, the process of education offers a way to organize one’s life because of its necessary structure, which would be absent otherwise. She believes, further, that women who lack education also lack a work ethic, and that higher education teaches this and “brings you a lot of knowledge when it comes to the real world.” Gaziza O., who has a degree in computer science and isfrom Kurdistan (she did not want to reveal her specific location or her age), says that “you are in a society where you always have to struggle for a sense of agency, and an education gives you this. A career gives you a sense of agency over your own life, agency over your own body.”


Very few of the interviewees saw having an education and participating in society as being in opposition to being a wife and a mother.

It should be noted that, on the whole, very few of the interviewees saw having an education and participating in society as being in opposition to being a wife and a mother. Education is also useful for that role, in Raana K’s experience: “I am working as a primary school teacher, and some mothers come to me and tell me ‘I cannot teach my children English: I am uneducated.’” Raana, 55, is from Mosul. Niga S, 39, a college graduate from Sulaimani, has this advice: “If you don’t like to study, at least… try to read a book because in the future you will be the best mom.”

It is also worth keeping in mind that having a higher education is not necessarily the end of the story or the final victory, as the narration of Sirwa A.’s educational life shows. Sirwa overcame many obstacles in order to finish college. She was married when she was in the tenth grade, and pregnant in the eleventh, at which point she left school for three years. Her husband refused to let her continue school, so she “worked as housekeeper for him” for 13 years. They divorced after he had an affair with a neighbour (who was her best friend); she then finished school and started college. Because of her isolated upbringing and consequent marriage, she did not at first know how to deal with males as fellow students, and her brother had to help her with this social obstacle. She learned how to communicate with men and women, finished college fifth in her class, and was accepted to the College of Law, “but my daughter was in an embarrassing age—a teenager—so I rejected going to evening classes because I didn’t want her to be alone.” Sirwa then learned that she could study law in the mornings while her daughter was in tenth grade, but her admission to law school was rejected by the university administrators because, she claims, they were Shi’a Arabs and she is a Sunni Kurd.

The women in this study associated higher education with the ability to engage in critical thinking and be able to make up one’s own mind about things; have better confidence; be able to make decisions and have agency over one’s own life; not be “trapped,” “bored” or confined in a home; have economic independence; have the ability to leave an abusive marriage; and have a larger social and support network. Together, these women’s stories suggest the resilience and potential of Iraqi women across the generations. The stories make it clear that there is much work to be done in terms of women and education. Some solutions are obvious (which is not to say that they are easy to implement): there need to be more schools in rural areas, a system of safe transportation, safe school environments, and government support for attending school. Ideologically, girls’ and women’s education needs to be understood as positive for the community. A sense of gender equity that is integral to the value system will diminish the oppression of women and men who are trapped in restrictive gender roles. But how might this come about given so many challenges?  The third and final section of this series, “The Gender Problem,” addresses this question.

Previous article in this series:

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

[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.
[i] Mary E. Wooley. 1909. “Values of College Training for Women” Harper’s Bazar 38.9
 (September). Accessed 15 February 2022.
[ii] Nadia Al-Ali.. 2005. “Reconstructing Gender: Iraqi Women between Dictatorship, War, Sanction and Occupation.” Third World Quarterly 26.4/5: 739-58. Accessed 15 February 2022.
[iii] Al-Ali 741-742.
[iv] Al-Ali 742-743.
[v] Ali 743-744.
[vi] Ali 747.
[vii] Yasmin Husein Al-Jawaheri. 2005. Women in Iraq: The Gender Impact of International  Sanctions. I.B. Tauris.
[viii] Al-Jawaheri 140.
[ix] Choman Hardi. 2021. “The Women’s Movement in Kurdistan-Iraq.” The Cambridge History of the Kurds. Bozarslan, H., Gunes, G., and Yadirgi, V. (eds). Cambridge University Press, 890-891.

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