Two Iraqi women

BAGHDAD (WOMENSENEWS)–The women approach in ones and twos–deliberately formless shapes with bright bits of clothing peeking out from behind black abeyas. They converge on the Ansari mosque, located in a dusty side street of the Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriya.

The occasion is something that would have been completely unthinkable in Iraq just a year ago–religious education classes for Shiitewomen.

“If anyone tried this, the mosque would have been closed down and the people involved would have been made to pay–and their families,” said Mahdi Salem, caretaker of the Ansari mosque. “It would have been considered an act of revolution.”

Now, the women of Iraq’s Shiite majority have unprecedented access to religious education. But some fear this newfound freedom could be laying the foundation for further restriction of their rights.

For years, Iraqi Shiite women have kept to the shadows under a pair of constraining influences–the inherent conservatism of the culture and the underground nature of all Shiite religious activity under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime. Hussein’s power base depended heavily on Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority. But Shiites–whose differences with Sunni Islam date back to disputes over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammed as leader of the Muslim community–are the acknowledged majority in the country. The current violence, often targeted at Shiite shrines and worshippers, is at least partially blamed on Sunni extremists unwilling to give up their hold on power.

After Hussein’s fall last year, Iraq’s Shiites began asserting their presence throughout the country. The holy cities of Karbala and Najaf now overflow with religious tourists from Iran and elsewhere. The opposition of powerful Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani–and his ability to marshal massive peaceful demonstrations–is largely credited with killing the original U.S.-backed plan for transferring power to Iraqi hands. Al-Sistani’s influence also gave him de-facto veto power over the country’s recently approved interim constitution.

‘Thirsty for Knowledge’

In Ansari, and other neighborhood mosques around Baghdad and across the country, the newfound Shiite freedom is being felt in other ways. The women’s religious classes started in January and have steadily gained students and momentum.

Inside the mosque, about 30 students of varying ages gather on the carpeted floor, eagerly taking notes and asking questions as teacher Senaa Hadi, 43, conducts a lecture on the five pillars of Islam: belief in one God with Muhammed as the last prophet, prayer, fasting, alms and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Hadi’s powerful classroom voice rings off the walls, as the students diligently take notes, consult handouts and shout out answers to questions. The level of attention among the students is one that would make almost any college professor envious.

“The women of Iraq were thirsty for knowledge,” Hadi said. “It was like a volcano waiting to explode.”

For the students, it’s a welcome chance for in-depth study of a subject that plays such a central role in their lives.

“It’s so much better now. There were classes before, but it was very limited,” said Zahra Jameel, 18, referring to the underground lessons which took place under Saddam. “Here we can ask questions; it’s a much deeper experience.”

Previously, any sort of women’s religious education took place informally in the home, either within families or in secretive underground classes under constant fear of infiltration by government informants.

“It was only for the most trusted people,” Hadi said. “Anyone we had any question about, we didn’t let in.”

The Hussein government had no specific opposition to women’s education–merely an overall desire to tightly control all aspects of religious life for Iraq’s oppressed Shiite majority. Islamic seminaries for men were permitted under tight supervision, religious leaders worked within strict lines, even the operating hours of Shiite mosques were regulated.

After the fall of the Baath government last April, Shiite religious activists moved cautiously–perhaps for fear of reprisals from the remnants of the regime. It wasn’t until the start of this year that the Ansari mosque felt safe in hanging a sign outside advertising women’s classes.

“Fear was still planted in our hearts,” said Salem, the mosque caretaker.

Mosque officials drove around Hurriya with a loudspeaker announcing the classes and Salem went door to door in the neighborhood encouraging regulars to send their wives and daughters.

Classes Preach Conservative View for Women

Now the twice-weekly classes draw a healthy crowd ranging in age from teenagers to grandmothers. Some students bring young daughters in tow. The classes–either naturally or due to the presence of a male observer–tend to focus on rather dry, philosophical aspects of Islam such as the sources of Fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence.

No remotely personal questions are asked. The most personal topic covered is whether a satellite television might be a potentially corrupting influence in the home.

“It depends on how the family uses it,” Hadi says “There are a lot of respectable channels that can help raise believing children.”

At one point, the discussion turns away from legal definitions of adulthood towards specific physical signs of puberty for boys and girls. The male reporter is politely shooed away for 10 minutes.

Afterwards, Hadi, who also teaches at another area mosque, says she tries to keep things on an academic level. But practical details tend to pop up.

“I do try to use examples from everyday life,” she said. “I try to explain in simple terms. It depends on the person asking and their education level.”

Hadi, who grew up in a deeply religious family and whose brother spent 23 years in jail for membership in the Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, said that a number of religious foundations sponsored by Islamic charities have been funding and organizing the women’s classes. She estimated that classes are running in 100 Baghdad mosques.

And while there’s certainly a natural air of women’s empowerment about the endeavor, the classes also preach a very conservative view of women’s behavior and role in society. Standing outside the mosque after class, Hadi proclaims that it’s a sin for a woman to wear pants. Traditional Shiite female garb involves an enveloping black cloak.

“Anything that shows the contours of a woman’s body in front of men is haram,” she says, as several students nod approval.

Some women’s activists admit to a little leeriness over just what kinds of ideologies are filling the obvious void in resurgent Shiite religious life. There’s a lingering fear that the newfound Shiite freedoms will only lead to the creation of another form of societal prison for women.

“The Shiites of Iraq are in a hurry. That’s understandable,” said Safia al-Souheil, a Shiite activist, leader of the Beni Tamim tribe, and nominee for assistant foreign minister.

“But there’s a danger there . . . At the same time, it has to be balanced with other things–a culture of human rights, of women’s rights.”

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Women’s eNews. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and The Economist.

For more information:

The Brookings Institution–
“Post-Saddam Iraq: The Shiite Factor”: