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Aug 25, 2004 6:54 pm

Poetry and the Women Question in Iraq

Among Iraqis of a certain generation, poetry was, and still is, considered the window to the soul. Poetry expressed the majestic and the sublime, along with the ridiculous and the ordinary. At one point, from the 1920’s to the 1940’s, it was the vehicle of anti-colonialism; many poets took on the British occupation in their verse and expressed feelings of nationalism that were still quiescent and unarticulated by the masses. After the colonial moment had passed (and Iraqis thought it would never come again!) and the era of the nation-state arrived, poetry either fell back on adulatory, pro-government verse (a strong component of pre-modern Arab poetry in general) or became the medium of expression of avant-garde poets, expressing bitter, violent and sexually charged themes. Such, for instance, was the poetry of Mudhaffar Al-Nawab, one of Iraq’s most important contemporary poets. He not only took on the Baathist regime in Iraq but also skewered all the Arab regimes in power in direct and uncompromising terms.

All good Iraqi poetry is characterized by a fierce individualism, and more often than not, a principled agenda. Even those alienated poets in the fifties and sixties that hated the city because it symbolized corruption, excess, aloofness and distance wanted to save it, and so save themselves in the process. What is astonishing, however, is how pervasive the reformist impulse was, even in the early years, and how poetry became the vehicle par excellence to establish an Iraqi social mandate based on social and economic equality as well as national independence. Such, for instance, was the progressive agenda espoused by the two leading Iraqi poets of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Jamil Sidqi Al-Zahawi(d.1936) and Ma’ruf Al-Rusafi (d.1945). The former was the scion of an established Kurdish family settled in Baghdad, and a poet and philosopher, the latter was a journalist and editor who retreated to Fallujah out of poverty and because it was less expensive than Baghdad. While their supposed rivalry has attracted a lot of attention in Iraqi literature, they had similar views on some of the most urgent matters of the day.

One of those matters concerned the unresolved status of Iraqi women in the early Iraqi state. The question of Iraq women’s emancipation joined two issues together: the lifting of the hijab, or veil, and women’s education. Both were resisted fiercely, especially in the rural areas. A friend of the family told me the story of how he forcibly desegregated his village school by enrolling his sister in it so that when the villagers saw that the village notable’s sister was going to school, they shed their prejudices and began to send theirs to school too. But the hijab, or veil issue was far more protracted and difficult a question; everything was involved, from modesty to family honor to religious principles. Typically, the charge to grant women the right to throw off the veil was carried out by men writing in newspaper columns, with Al-Zahawi and al-Rusafi leading the fight.

Al-Zahawi wrote several poems under his own name, each one of them advising women to cast away the veil because it was a social ill. In one poem, he counseled “the daughters of Iraq” to tear off and burn their hijab because life required a revolution, and the hijab was a false guardian. Al-Rusafi, meanwhile was bluntly telling women that the hijab imprisoned them, and they needed their liberty. In the end, it was only after several years of trying that the veil came off women’s heads, but it was a slow process. That process has now been reversed, with thousands of Iraqi women going back to the veil from the 1990’s onwards, so that women whose mothers and grandmothers went out bareheaded in the forties, fifties and sixties have now re-adopted the head covering considered so restricting by poets of the Iraqi Enlightenment.

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Hala Fattah - 8/26/2004

Hi Jonathan,
But have these traditions really died out? In Iraq,for instance, there's all this extemporaneous poetry being made up about Sadr's revolt but I wonder how good it is. In Japan, did social movements ever throw up poets like Al-Zahawi and al-Rusafi, or was poetry confined to the elite,as you say? In Iraq, even bad poetry is given legitimacy; its not only a mark of a literate gentlemen but a social skill, necessary to living in society. Of course, the more Westernized you become, the less you show off your poetry, because writing and reciting poetry is a fringe activity in European/North American societies.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/26/2004

I love poetry, not in a traditional literary sense, but because of the ways it fits in our social lives. When I teach Japanese history I always spend some time on the poetic tradition, one of the few areas in which elite culture interests this social historian: poetry was a medium of personal communication, almost invariably extemporaneous and highly context-sensitive; it was also public performative, with competitions and extemporaneous composition being highly valued social skill.

In the modern age, Japanese poetry remains popular, which is interesting in its own right, but is largely considered personal, natural, and apolitical.

But there has been a tradition of political poetry (Kipling's "White Man's Burden" being probably the single best known example), and poetry as a form of public discourse, particularly in the modern non-West.

I think we should revive these traditions. I really do.

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