Violence and Discrimination against Women of Religious Minority Backgrounds in Iraq
By Amy Quinn-Graham
Amy Quinn-Graham is a PhD student at the University of Leeds, where she’s associated with the Centre for Religion and Public Life. She was recently involved in researching and editing a set of papers on violence and discrimination against women from religious minorities in Iraq. In this blog post, she shares the key findings. You can access the full report Violence and Discrimination against Women of Religious Minority Backgrounds in Iraq here.
In December 2022, the Coalition for Religious Equalities and Inclusive Development (CREID) released a series of papers exploring the vulnerabilities facing women from religious minorities in Iraq. These papers were a culmination of two years’ work supporting activists from religious minority backgrounds to carry out participatory research within their communities, capturing the voices and lived experiences of those usually invisibilised and marginalised within development discourse and interventions.
Iraq has a rich tapestry of religious and ethnic minorities, yet religious inequalities are acute. When these inequalities intersect with gender, class, geography and socioeconomic exclusion, violence and discrimination are common experiences. The violence and discrimination facing women from religious minority backgrounds is unique in its gendered nature compared to that facing men from the same communities, especially where this discrimination is part of the functioning of the religious minority community itself. Similarly, the violence and discrimination experienced by women from religious minority backgrounds is complicated by their religious (and often ethnic) identity in a way that the violence and discrimination facing women from the religious majority isn’t. While the various women’s movements in Iraq have historically mobilised across religious and ethnic lines, Al-Ali (2008) acknowledges that this has not included focusing on the specific issues facing women who live at the intersection of gender discrimination and religious inequalities. These papers highlight this important and under-researched ‘blind spot’ (Tadros, 2020) and further shed light on the complexity of the power dynamics that shape the lives of religious minorities in Iraq. Thus, in the CREID research, we aimed to further examine these issues.
The research was carried out by activists from seven different communities - two Yezidi communities (one of Yezidi survivors of ISIS enslavement living in displacement camps), Sabean-Mandaean, Shabak, Christian Chaldean Catholic and Orthodox, Kakai, and Assyrian women and men. Activists transformed into peer researchers and facilitated focus group discussions (FGDs) which most often began with a participatory ranking exercise where participants were asked to identify the challenges and threats they face in their day to day life. They then ranked these challenges and threats from the most severe and widespread to the least. These peer-researchers then used question prompts to encourage discussion on each of the issues raised, with a particular focus on capturing the lived experiences of the participants. While the number of participants was too small to make generalisations (348 across all seven groups), the participatory nature of the research, led by trusted individuals with the same ethno-religious background as the participants, meant that participants revealed experiences they wouldn’t have shared in larger, community-wide surveys.
The data generated in the FGDs are compelling, provide deep insight, and are oftentimes harrowing to read. They also reveal the extent of shared experience between women from different religious minority backgrounds in the context of Iraq, due to the intersection of their gender and religious marginality. For example, the wearing of the hijab or head covering is not a requirement in the majority of the religious minority groups who took part in the research, which means that when women from these backgrounds enter public spaces they are instantly identifiable as non-Muslim in a way that men from their communities aren’t (although this was also the case for Kakai men who have distinctive moustaches). Many of the women spoke about how this puts them in a vulnerable position, and they find themselves targets of verbal – and often physical – harassment. This leads to them reducing the time they spend outside of the home and contributes to their communities encouraging restrictions on their movement.
Education was the most significant challenge raised by the women across the FGDs. Many of the women described experiencing discrimination within educational spaces that made learning difficult, even leading some to leave institutions. Some described how their choice of subject was limited by customs and traditions within their communities that dictated what was suitable for girls and women to study. This restricted them to certain colleges and universities that in many cases were far from their homes and only reachable by a journey they didn’t feel comfortable making, due to the harassment they’d experience along the way. Ultimately, this meant they were unable to access their education.
Examples like this demonstrate the complexity of the discrimination and vulnerability faced by these women and how fundamental themes like safety, security, customs and traditions, and freedom of movement overlap, influencing and shaping other areas of life. Other themes such as unemployment reflect difficulties the whole country is facing, however the experiences shared highlight the unique role religious identity plays in further decreasing already limited opportunities in a context where religious inequalities are so prevalent.
Ultimately, one of the benefits and principles of participatory research is its strength in shaping advocacy efforts (Lenette, 2022), and each peer-researcher used the voices and lived experiences of women (and men) from their religious minority communities to construct recommendations for the improvement of their community’s conditions and reality. As a whole, this powerful volume of papers provides development practitioners and inter- and trans-national women’s and feminist movements with an opportunity to reflect on their work and consider how to integrate the lived experiences of those at the intersection of gender, religious marginality and socioeconomic exclusion.
Al-Ali, N. 2008. Iraqi Women and Gender Relations: Redefining Difference. British Journal of Middle East Studies. 39(3), pp.409-419.
Lenette, C. 2022. Participatory Action Research: Ethics and Decolonization. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tadros, M. 2020. Introduction. In: Tadros, M. ed. Violence and Discrimination against Women of Religious Minority Backgrounds in Pakistan. [Online]. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies. [Accessed: 6 January 2023].