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”. Factions associated with the current governing alliance – the Shia Coordination Framework – including the Virtue Party, State of Law Coalition and the Fatah Alliance – have been the most vocal in these debates. In the past, some women lawmakers have tried to push for the legislation, but at the cost of threats and intimidation. In 2019, when Haifa Al-Amin, a member of parliament from the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), called for the adoption of the domestic violence law, she faced an angry mob of Virtue Party supporters, calling for her execution and for the burning of the ICP’s headquarters.
In the current parliament, only a few women legislators have tried to push for the law to be voted on and have so far failed to put it on the agenda. While gender concerns everyone and the onus to promote and protect human rights should not be put solely on the backs of women, this nevertheless begs the question: why despite their substantial presence in parliament, have women member of parliament not mounted a concerted effort to help protect women against domestic violence and oppose the backlash against “gender”? One answer is that Iraq’s mainstream political parties are gatekeepers when it comes to the candidates selected to run for election. That is why, only those women who have pre-existing connections to local and national elites and are likely to toe the party line are nominated in the first place. Due to the low status afforded to women within society and rigid expectations about how women should behave, it is often more dangerous for them to go against the agendas of those who helped them gain power than it is for men in the position, with transgressions on their part likely to be punished more severely.
Because of the dominance of the establishment political parties in parliamentary politics, very few of the women in parliament are independent or from opposition parties – and thus more likely to challenge regressive policies. In the 2021 elections, only 16.4 percent of the 946 women who ran for election did not have a party affiliation. Of those who won seats, five were independent and a further seven were from reformist parties such as Imtidad, New Generation and Isharaqat Kanoon. Furthermore, the grip on Iraqi politics the mainstream parties have been able to maintain, despite being increasingly unpopular, has also helped undermine any efforts to bring reformist and independent forces together. After the exit of the Sadrist bloc in 2022 and the redistribution of its seats to the remaining forces in parliament, the proportion of independent legislators and those who are members of alternative parties rose to 26 percent. But the disunity in this group has made it impossible to push for more progressive legislation.
It has also allowed mainstream parties to usher in a series of socially conservative measures in a desperate attempt to win more popularity among conservative elements in society and maintain their grip on power. These efforts have only intensified as Iraq has drawn closer to the provincial elections scheduled to take place at the end of the year. To challenge the backsliding on women’s rights in Iraq, and human rights more broadly, Iraqi women – and men – need more alternative routes into politics that do not involve the networks of the dominant post-2003 parties. And those would open up only if the mainstream parties’ grip on power is loosened from below.