C.Zainab, then 15 years old and coming home late at night as a child in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, feared that each day might be the last time she could go to school. Living in a conservative district in Basra province, where women alone at night are frowned upon, Zainab’s family was not happy about it. They were also concerned for her safety.
His school, like many in Iraq, was forced to divide and rotate students into morning, afternoon and night shifts, as there were not enough buildings available to accommodate all the students at one time.
The late hours of the night sparked arguments with her family, but her parents’ faith in education, despite their illiteracy, meant that Zainab was able to complete her education, though not in Iraq, as her family later left for Jordan, escaping from conflict and instability.
“I was an intelligent and hard-working student. But both in Iraq and Jordan, I was always afraid that I would have to give up,” says Zainab.
Other girls have not been so lucky. Unicef estimates that around 3.2 million school-age Iraqi children are out of school.
It is a far cry from the vision outlined by President George W. Bush in March 2004, a year after the US-led invasion of Iraq. At the time, a new future of liberation and education for women and girls had been part of the moral justification for the invasion.
“For women and girls, liberation has a special meaning. Some of these girls are attending school for the first time. It’s hard to imagine for people in the United States. Many girls can now go to school,” Bush said in 2004, referring to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The education system had already been affected by a decade of sanctions and the three wars fought during the Baathist era. In 2004, a study published by the Iraqi Ministry of Education and Unicef found that the education system lacked the basic elements needed to provide children with a proper education, especially girls, whose enrollment was lower than that of boys. in all grades.
It has not improved in the last two decades. Only 6% of the state budget has been allocated to education despite its importance for economic growth. For girls, education opens up new possibilities through career development or entrepreneurship, as well as the potential for them to create more economic opportunities for others.
Girls are also at higher risk of dropping out of school as they progress through education, with one in 14 girls in Iraq between the ages of 15 and 19 giving birth, according to estimates by the charity Save the Children.
In 2017, Iraq had the lowest female literacy rate (79.9%) in the region, below the world average of 83.3%. This is despite article 34 of the Iraqi constitution, which stipulates that primary education must be free and compulsory for all children.
International aid and investment are not the only problem, however, according to alumni from before and after the invasion who spoke to The Guardian and Jummar, an independent Iraqi media platform.
The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 did not mean that existing laws changed overnight. This includes a 1969 penal code that allows parents and teachers to “discipline children.”
The Ministry of Education has stipulated that the headscarf should not be compulsory in schools. However, the 2005 Iraqi constitution establishes that Islam is the official state religion and should be the “fundamental source” of legislation.
From time to time, female students and some teachers share their experiences online using hashtags that highlight their oppression, such as “#terrorismoeducativo” and “#notothecompulsoryveil”.
Alumnae have also spoken about the role of “communicators of the message”: women affiliated with political parties or religious institutions who spread Islamic notions and urge younger female students to wear the hijab.
Hadil, a teacher at one of Baghdad’s primary schools, has been prevented from using modern teaching methods in class, such as playing music and songs, and was even assaulted and blackmailed by a student’s family because she reminded her of a child. to wear a coat in winter.
“I was in big trouble and the teacher protection laws didn’t protect me. It’s just ink on paper,” says Hadil. “Teachers may also find themselves under pressure to pass some students, affecting the already deteriorating quality of education.” The post-2003 culture of corruption and nepotism enabled by the political class has encouraged these practices to spread to all institutions, she says, including schools.
“Educational institutions are connected to and run by religious institutions. That’s why, in the primary school where I work, I ask the children to say ‘long live Iraq’ when I walk into class, instead of ‘long live Islam’, which is what they normally have to say,” says Hadil.
“I still try to make a difference. It is one small attempt in the face of a whole system of outdated laws and customs, while worn-out institutions destroy us all, students and teachers,” she says.