Middle East

As Iraq Backslides on Gender Equality, Where Are Its Women MPs?

by Taif Alkhudary

Woman wearing an Iraqi flag veil, mural in the Al-Saadoun underpass. Source: traveladventures.org

In early August, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission issued a directive banning the use of the term ‘gender’ in all public communications. It also recommended the replacement of the word ‘homosexuality’ with ‘sexual deviance’.

The decision came on the back of an organised disinformation campaign in Iraqi media outlets largely owned or controlled by the dominant post-2003 political parties. The campaign linked the use of the term ‘gender’ in Iraq with the ‘proliferation’ of homosexuality, the ‘promotion’ of transgender identities, ‘moral decay’ and the violation of religious and national values.

The ban has already had negative consequences on the work of academics in universities and staff at humanitarian organisations. Some professors teaching gender studies have had to suspend their courses, while NGO workers engaged in ‘gender programming’ within the development sector have been warned to avoid using the term in their work.

Moreover, it has led to a proposal within parliament to amend the anti-prostitution law to include a section criminalising homosexuality with penalties including death.

The backlash against the use of the term ‘gender’ and the deliberate distortion of its meaning is not unique to Iraq. Conservative actors from across the world have attacked the word as part of a pushback against gender equality gains.

But in Iraq, the ‘anti-gender’ campaign also reflects growing efforts by mainstream parties to shrink Iraq’s civic space in an attempt to reverse their own declining popularity. In recent years, they have instrumentalised broad and vague laws to target anyone – from activists to apolitical social media influencers – deemed to have violated ‘public morals’.

This comes at a time when women legislators hold almost 30 percent of parliamentary seats for the first time since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. But while holding a position of power, these women have been largely silent or even encouraged some of these policies.

Even women legislators, members of the Parliamentary Committee on Women, Children and Family, have not spoken up, including when the Communications and Media Commission issued its ban on ‘gender’.

Perhaps their silence is unsurprising given that those who have tried to counter the disinformation circulating about the meaning of the term have been viciously attacked in the media. For example, leading Iraqi feminist activist Hanaa Edwar has been subjected to insults and misogynistic slurs; she has been called the ‘mother of homosexuality’ in Iraq and labelled a foreign agent who ‘set the groundwork for planting homosexuality and moral depravity’ in the country.

The past two years have also seen a string of much-publicised killings of women, which have reignited the public debate about the urgent need for a domestic violence law. Since 2015, drafts of such legislation have been vehemently opposed in parliament on the grounds that it would violate Islam, go against ‘national values’ and would be ‘incompatible with Iraqi culture’.

This piece was first published by Al Jazeera under the title: ‘As Iraq backslides on gender equality, where are its women Mps?‘. It is also part of the research project ‘Gendered Networks of Power: The parliamentary quota and women’s substantive political representation in Iraq‘, funded by a grant from the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.

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