Reflections on “The Eighth Conference of the General Federation of Iraqi Women: Facts and Snapshots.”

In my recent article in the Journal of Women’s History, “Baʿathist State Feminism: The General Federation of Iraqi Women in the Global 1970s,” I highlight a number of Arabic-language primary sources produced by the women’s arm of the Iraqi Ba‘ath Party in the 1970s, paying special attention to a pamphlet commemorating and summarizing “The Eighth Conference of the General Federation of Iraqi Women: Facts and Snapshots.” Despite being a conference organized by and for Iraqi women, what I found perhaps most striking was the emphasis on the prominent role of Saddam Hussein, one of the few men in attendance.[1]

The text of the pamphlet begins with “excerpts from Comrade Saddam Hussein,” from a speech entitled “The liberation of women is a necessity for the revolutionary and socialist transformation of society: Affirming the importance of liberating women for the advancement of development programs.”[2] The summary begins:

The value of the speech made by Mr. Saddam Hussein, vice president of the Revolutionary Command Council, is of great importance not only to the conference, but also to the whole issue of women. He pointed in it to the issue of liberating women … And said that this issue is no longer just a matter of principle and moral importance, but has become a necessary process, an issue of economic necessity for the advancement of development programs and the total revolutionary and socialist transformation of society [emphasis added].

Mr. Saddam Hussein added that the liberation of women of near parity between men and women is no longer an issue connected to women alone, but the issue of liberating women has become a necessary process for the liberation of men and a necessary process for the liberation of all of society.

In his speech, Mr. Saddam Hussein pointed to the situation of women before the revolution … And said that women were exploited and persecuted from two sides, while men were exploited and persecuted from just one … [the ancien régime’s political power]. But the exploitation and persecution befalling women … also came from the family structure itself.

Mr. Saddam Hussein emphasized that this picture reveals to us the form and extent of efforts required for the party ideologically, in policy for the state, and in intellectual guidance and ideological development … in order for women’s liberation to take its natural, inherent path.[3]

After summarizing the opening session, the first section of the pamphlet is titled “For the development of leadership cadres.”[4] The section, entitled “Essential treatment,” focuses on leadership and administrative changes,[5] and overall the pamphlet highlights the growing importance of branches beyond Baghdad.[6] It concludes with reflections from women representing branches outside of Baghdad.[7]

As suggested in my article, this pamphlet reflects a peak of the GFIW’s public activism — coinciding with the start of Saddam Hussein’s rise to singular power. The article also draws on technical reports and working papers produced in that period, reflecting a shift in aims and goals of the organization in the mid 1970s. Over the course of the decade, the GFIW went from criticizing the government for unfulfilled promises, to trumpeting limited progress already achieved. The GFIW also increasingly sought and relied upon the personal support and intervention of Saddam Hussein, whose attention and priorities increasingly shifted elsewhere.

For example, a 1976 study from the GFIW’s Secretariat of Studies and Research on “The Role of Rural Women in Agricultural Collectives” takes a critical stance toward the lack of progress in fulfilling the Ba’ath party’s stated goals from the Eighth National Conference held in 1974.[8]  While outlining a series of causes for these failures, the report focuses above all else on the government’s failure to employ substantial numbers of women in most of its ministries, coupled with a failure to promote women to positions of ministerial leadership.

The following table (pictured below) breaks down the ministries by number of workers and ranks them by the percentage of female employees:

The report notes that the overall percentage of female employees was 12.5 percent, based on a 1972 survey.

To be fair, a number of the ministries with the highest number of total workers lead the list with the highest percentages. Yet the top six — Interior, Education, Health, Social Work, Planning, and Higher Education, which all had women in the 20 percent range — also perhaps correlate with sexist stereotypes of acceptable professions for women, and may have held minimal long-term prospects for promotion.

Furthermore, a number of crucial ministries are considerable laggards. The percentage of women in the Petroleum Ministry was 1.9 percent. Other significant public works involving construction, housing, and transportation — where a substantial amount of oil wealth was spent — hovered around 2 percent as well. If agricultural modernization and land reform were priorities for the advancement of women, it is a major shortcoming that the Ministry of Agricultural Reform was only 1.9 percent female, the third lowest of any ministry, above only the Ministry of Municipalities and the Office of the Presidency of the Republic.[9]

This report thus shows the gap between education and employment, as does “Utilizing science and technology to achieve social change and to change the status of women,” a 1978 working paper from the GFIW-Baghdad, Secretariat of Studies and Research.[10] By this point in the late 1970s, the emphasis on education — which earlier in the 1970s had been considered a means to the advancement of women — seemed to have become the end itself to a certain extent. This is most apparent in the appendix of tables.[11]

The vast majority focus on education, such as the number of female students at various levels of the education system, in different fields of study, as well as quantifying female graduates and the composition of teaching staff. Only three of the 17 look at employment, and one chart gives a sense of the disconnect between education and employment: by 1977, despite massive increases in female education, the percentage of female employees in the work force was stuck stubbornly at half of the percentage of girls and women in schools and higher education. The percentage of female students overall was 30 percent at nearly every level of education (including higher education),[12] while the percentage of female employees in the government was given as 15.3 percent[13] — at best a marginal improvement from five years before, if the figures are fully comparable.  

The Iraqi government had accumulated substantial oil wealth after the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoed many developed economies in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The embargo boosted crude prices for the rest of the decade, stoking stagflation in oil importers and unprecedented profits for petroleum producers. Like other net exporters, Iraq used these funds to support infrastructure development, primarily housing and transportation, as well as generous public subsidies for goods, among other benefits. Oil money also funded the expansion of public sector employment.

But Iraqi women’s participation in the workforce, public or otherwise, remained a marked failure after more than a decade of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party in power, despite being a rhetorical and policy priority.

As the article argues, this failure corresponded with the increasing inability of the GFIW to make demands upon male political leaders to fulfill earlier political promises and stated policy goals.

Later on as the means of the state deteriorated drastically in the 1980s and 1990s under conditions of war and sanctions, Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government would reject women’s liberation, and the earlier ambitions of the GFIW expressed throughout the 1970s, entirely. Instead, Iraqi women were repositioned as ideological symbols of nationalist motherhood, reverting to a renewed emphasis on women’s reproductive role within the family and society as a mother of male soldiers for the nation.

Dr. Geoffrey Drew Reger

[1] The General Federation of Iraqi Women (Ittihad al-‘Amm li-Nisa al-Iraq), “The Eighth Conference of the General Federation of Iraqi Women: Facts and Snapshots [al-Mu’tamar al-thamin lil-Ittihad al-‘Amm li-Nisa al-Iraq: waqa’a wa laqatat]” ed. Falah Ghati (Baghdad, Adeeb al-Baghdadi Press, 1977).

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid [my translation from the original Arabic].

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 12.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Ibid., 29-32.

[8] General Federation of Iraqi Women, Secretariat of Studies and Research, “The Role of Rural Women in Agricultural Collectivities [Dawr al-mar’ah al-rifiyah fi al-ta’awniyat al-zura’aiyah],” technical report presented to the Second Agricultural Collectivities Conference, held in Baghdad 30 June until 4 July, 1976, 38.

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] General Federation of Iraqi Women, Baghdad, Secretariat of Studies and Research, “Utilizing science and technology to achieve social change and to change the status of women [Istakhdam al-‘ilm wa al-teknolojaya fi tahqiq al-tahawlat al-ajtlim’aiya wa fi tagheer waq’a al-mar’ah],” Working paper, presented to the National Plenary Symposium held in Baghdad, 27-29 June 1978.

[11] Ibid., 35-48.

[12] Ibid., 41 (Chart 10).

[13] Ibid., 45 (Chart 15).