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Aug 19, 2005

Girls of the Constitution


Given that the deadline for a new Iraqi constitution expired almost a week ago, I was again looking at posters showing support for the document.

What I found -- which I didn't notice before -- is that most of the images on the newswires feature young women or girls.  An almost identical version of the shot above, for example (with two women instead of one), accompanied a "Constitution update" in the NYT on Wednesday.



In response to the constitution poster I offered on Monday, I was pleased to see the level of intelligence in the comment thread regarding the interests of women in Iraq.  Sidestepping a "typically American" or stereotypical "feminist model," the discussion/debate centered around the definition of women's rights in a social, cultural and psychological climate that is, in many ways, more than a world away. 

When it comes to political images, however, they are dependent on conventions and stereotypes and typically aim to exploit them.  As such, I am confused about the visual politics of these posters.  These are my questions:

1.  Looking at these images from "over here," is it accurate to assume these posters are dominated by (secular) images of young Iraqi females? 

2.  Is it possible that the newswires are highlighting these types of posters (or photographers are drawn to them) because this is what sells in the West? 

3.  Is it possible the Iraqi government is producing these types of images to try and placate those who dictate the terms of their political and economic structure, and are now applying a heavy hand in shaping/shoving through a constitution?

4.  Are these images inspired by Shiite interests wishing to minimize lectures and criticism -- particularly from Bush women (on and off the payroll) -- over women's rights?

5.  Is it possible the PR apparatus behind the campaign is actually Western (which was the case in the Presidential election, with a London firm handling the splashy, big budget Allawi campaign)?


6.  Could I be looking for a political angle that just isn't there? In other words, are the pictures and the pattern "just natural sugar and spice?"

(Although I'm not putting her forth as an authority, I am also writing to Najma -- the author of the popular blog, A Star From Mosul -- who has previously weighed in on the BAG, and does happen to be a young woman on the scene -- to see if she'll comment in the thread.)

(image 1: Karim Sahib/AFP. August 16, 2005. In YahooNews. image 2: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP.  August 7, 2005. Baghdad. In YahooNews.  Image 3: Namir Noor-Eldeen/Reuters.  July 24, 2005.  In YahooNews.)


In respnse to Q#5 - For the first time after seeing these posters so much in the media, and the BAG, I wondered how they were printed - a traditional press? Doesn't look like that. It looks like these all came from over sized laser or inkjet printers. If that is true it seems they have an outsider flavor. Those types of printers are in constant need of parts/cartriges and electricity to keep them running, + a fat hard drive to manage the size of those images. Print shops in a time of peace are challenged to keep these machines up to par.

It would be interesting to know what types of printing are available to Iraqi's these days.

The big smile in the top image is so nice to see.

Dont forget that until recent, Iraq had a secular government with women in some important positions of power.

Past and future Iraq, as it relates to women...

Billions of dollars went missing in Iraq. Perhaps some have been used in a US covert ops to promote the constitutional process?

But, I suppose women are being represented because they are less threatening. In men, images of women evoke affection for daughters, sisters, wives, mothers. In women, these images evoke identity. Put a man or boy in those images, and you've just defined a tribal group.

I agree with mugatea that it was nice to see the big smile in the first picture.

Mobilizing Iraqi Women to Go Backward?

Maybe these posters are the work that results from the $10 million granted to NGOs as part of the Dept. of State's Iraqi Women's Democracy Initiative?

Re: #1. They look secular and Western to me. Especially after reading the following article from the LA Times:

Fighting to Preserve Women's Rights in Iraq:

"Today, few Iraqi women would dare to wear such an outfit. Most cover their arms to the wrist. Only wisps of hair stray from their head scarves. Skirts are often nearly ankle-length."

Who produced these posters and to whom do they appeal? Darn good question.

"Even women's rights activists acknowledge that the vast majority of Iraqi women, especially those living outside Baghdad, know little about the constitutional debate. If asked, the activists say, those women would probably have few objections to the substitution of Sharia for civil law. Especially in the Shiite-dominated south, women have tended to look to their faith, their clerics and their tribes for support and protection in the face of Hussein's cruelties and the loss of their men during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s ... For them, Sharia offered certainty in an uncertain time."

If this is true, then it is hard to believe that a photo of a very attractive, scarfless young woman wouldn't appeal to the many women who prefer the protection of cloth and custom.

Interesting tidbit: A young U.S. servicewoman stationed in Iraq last year told me that when she learned Muslim men were supposed to look at women with a "veil of modesty" in their eyes, she felt deeply moved by the beauty of that idea. Esp. given the crude behavior she experienced and witnessed by her fellow U.S. servicemen.

Doesn't that first poster fly against the idea of a "veil of modesty?" Is this another example of Western ignorance of Muslim culture?

Oops. It should read -- "If this is true, then it is hard to believe that a photo of a very attractive, scarfless young woman WOULD appeal ..."

I take issue with the implication of the The LA Times quote: "Today, few Iraqi women would dare to wear such an outfit. Most cover their arms to the wrist. Only wisps of hair stray from their head scarves. Skirts are often nearly ankle-length."

Well, that may be *today*. But last year, blogger Riverbend complained bitterly about feeling like she was forced into wearing long-sleeved shirts and less revealing skirts--just because of the current restrictive climate. She has said repeatedly that many Iraqi women do NOT want a retreat to Islamic restrictons, such as in dress, after being so modern for so long. They do NOT want to be restricted to traveling little and only in the presence of male relatives. Many would like to be return to their work or their university studies. Maybe the oldeest generation feels more comfortable in headscarves, but the younger generation is not necessarily so conservative. I feel we are being sold an inaccurate image by the Western press.

So maybe the young women being pictured in posters are being used to evoke hope in returning to more independent, modern ways. The third picture above seems to have a group of children and young people, which for me evokes a hope for the future. Oh, the happy possibilities of one's future!

Another thought: if the images show modern, self-directed young women, maybe that implies that the country also has a chance of directing their own future.

I'd assume that this advertising campaign is sponsored by the U.S. government. They always focus a lot on girls and women.

[Actually, I have four young boys, and they complain that in books and movies, it's usually the girls who are smarter, stronger, etc. When they read "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", they exclaimed that it nice to finally see a boy win something! I told them it was because the story was old, and if it were written today, it might be a girl. ;) ]

The sign with the young woman (in the top picture) says something like "The Iraqi constitution is our chance to build a better life". Her idea of a "better life" probably doesn't include the hijab.

And we are being given an inaccurate picture about women in Iraq, because the women that are quoted are usually "women's rights" activists, etc., and not representative of average Iraqi women. Remember that a majority of women and men voted for religious parties, not the secular ones.

Interesting that the top posters also use the blue and gold theme. (The gold square in the corner says "Iraqi constitution",I think.)

At least they're not in English, though. In Kuwait, a lot of the signs for the women's right to vote were in English, too. A sure sign - as if we didn't know - that the whole issue had more to do with Western public opinion than the actual desires of Kuwaitis - women or men.

I imagine pics of men on the street in Baghdad need to fit the "insurgent" meme or perhaps the politician meme.

Such pictures just aren't part of the American/Western mindset.

It would get too complicated if we also had to think about Iraqi men as just "men-in-the-street" -- too humanizing, no?

Safer to stay with smiling women in such images.

Ummabdulla ~ Your comment about your boys' complaints made me smile. I'll have to ask my two boys their views on gender in the books they read. It could be that I haven't heard anything because my oldest prefers fantasy fiction with boys as the main character and my younger one prefers books with sports themes or very cute animal illustrations on the cover. :)

I agree that we are not receiving accurate reports on women in Iraq. I don't really know what to believe anymore esp. when taking into account this administration's use of propaganda. Sometimes its hard to decipher exactly who the women are being interviewed, but mostly it's just the awful lack of in-depth reporting on this war.

Could you point me to articles that you feel more accurately portray the women of Iraq today? I would love to learn more.

Kerstin, I can't remember exactly which movies they had seen recently, or which books they had read, when they were complaining about this, but all of them had involved girls who ended up being stronger/smarter/faster than boys. In the 3rd grade reading book, there was a story about a boy who couldn't shoot a basketball (he was black and his father was captain of an NBA team), and so a white girl taught him how - which did seem pretty contrived. So then my 3rd grader was doing a math problem that said something like "Sara had so many of something, and Mike had so many of something... Who had the most?", and he said, "well, I don't even have to figure it out. I'm sure the girl will have the most". And she did! LOL

The man on the top poster doesn't look much like the men I see on TV - who usually have more facial hair and look more ethnic. This man is smiling benignly, and could be an American. We don't have many, if any, Iraqis in my neighbourhood, but there are lots of Iranians, and none of them look as American as the man on the poster.

Ummabdulla ~ Lol! Well, I can tell you, it wasn't always that way. Though girls of my generation participated in sports and were told they were just as smart as the boys, we were the first generation to reap the benefits of feminism. We grew up with our mothers' saying "it's going to be different for you, so many choices we never had." And we grew up with fathers' saying "this progress is good for my daughters, but not my wife." I used to think that fatherly sentiment would look so outdated by the time I had a daughter. Guess again!

I was trying to tell whether or not the man has a moustache... Now that you mention him looking American, Stormcloud, it occurs to me that his picture looks like the kind you see on advertisements for Arab singers.

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