Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Is media Westernizing Iraqi gender culture?

Keele Sociology PhD student, Hamdi Malik, discusses media, gender, and identity in post-Saddam Iraq...

Photo courtesy of Ghassan Malik
I recently submitted my PhD thesis, which investigates media and gender in post-Saddam Iraq. Since the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq has been in the news frequently. Terrorist attacks on soft targets such as street markets, the Islamic State’s occupation of vast swathes of the country, and the refugee crisis, are the main stories that are featured in the media.  Sometimes Iraq is also on the news when discussing energy markets. During these years, academic debate has also mainly focused on these ‘mega issues’, such as questions related to the way the US and its allies set to invade the country in 2003 or the legality of this war. The invasion was a grand event, for sure. It changed the face of Iraqi society and started a new era for the country. But, the regime change that was dubbed ‘liberation’ did not bring stability and prosperity, as was promised. As a result of the war, many aspects of social life in Iraq changed for the worse. The aftermath was a chaos that disturbed the very fabric of society. A rise in different forms of violence, the degradation of an already damaged infrastructure, the intensification of sectarian divisions, etcetera, are all widely viewed as a direct result of this ‘liberation’. Thus, it is understandable that media and academia focus their attention on these aspects of Iraqi society.
For me, however, this was not enough. My personal curiosity as well as my media activities turned me into a person who closely follows social, political and economic developments of Iraq. In the midst of all the blood and destruction, I could sense other important developments. These were developments that seemed important to me, yet did not attract much academic attention. For example, the re-emergence of a large middle class stratum that almost vanished as a result of harsh economic sanctions in the 90s was surely an important development. The rise of a consumer culture as a result of liberal economic policies was an interesting one, too. The opening up of a media environment that was more open and global than before was also one of these striking developments.
Under the previous regime, Iraq had the most restricted media environment in the region; one similar to today’s North Korea. After the invasion and in a matter of months this environment was transformed dramatically and became one of the most open media environment in the whole region. I became interested in the impact this would have on Iraqi society at this point in time. Following the developments of media in Iraq, I realised that the ‘influence’ of Western media is something that Iraqis are worried about. Gender culture and family values, in particular, are viewed to be under threat from the ‘impact’ of Western media. The assumption here is that sexualised media content, and also the increasingly privatised nature of media technologies, are contributing towards the transformation of gender culture, particularly turning Iraqi women into Western women, and estranging them from their genuine Iraqi identity. Iraqi gender culture is deeply patriarchal, and operates significantly through the control of women’s sexuality in family life. Any kind of pre-marital, extra-marital and post-marital sexual contact by women will damage their male kin’s reputation and violate their honour. In order to keep their reputation and honour intact, men are expected to monitor their female kin’s sexual activities. Through this patriarchal culture, men exert influence on almost every aspect of their female kin’s lives, including the implementation of sex segregation and dress codes guided specifically through notions of modest clothing (e.g. hijab). A state of prevalent sexual double-standards gives men the right to restrict their female kin’s sexual contact to that of husbands only.
The interviewees who participated in my research believed that the media, and particularly, what is seen as sexually permissive Western media contents, encourages women to engage in sexual activities that are not compatible with Iraqi cultural values, turning them to Western women who are seen, to say the least, as not sexually prudent. The internet is also seen as a negative force, allowing women to bypass the restrictions set by men and to establish sexual contact not compatible with the local gender culture. In addition, the opening up of the media has also given a more public voice to pro-equality narratives that are disseminated by women’s rights organisations, encouraging Iraqi women to rebel against local cultural values.
My research demonstrates that although the media provides windows of opportunities for Iraqi women to distance themselves from prevalent patriarchal rules that control their sexuality, the ‘realities’ of local life have not allowed for the Westernisation of gender relations in post-Saddam Iraq. Iraqi men tend to restrict their female kin’s access to media through strategies such as banning access to some media technologies, and censoring what women are allowed to watch and also through constant monitoring of their female kin’s media activity. The research also found that due to resistance to these restrictions from some women, and also the ubiquitous nature of modern media, these strategies are not always successful, resulting in domestic conflict and violence against women. However, it is important to bear in mind that this is not a simple and binary structure, where men as a group of people supress women, using brute force. Rather, this is a hegemonic structure, i.e. there is a degree of complicity among women themselves when it comes to views about sexuality, the contemporary media, and approval of men’s rights to determine for their female kin. This happens partly due to the fact that Iraqi patriarchy is supported by patriarchal sites such as culture, where religious and tribal values and codes promote this dominant gender culture. Through cultural values that are deeply respected by Iraqi people (including women), patriarchy is sustained. This is one of the reasons why the Iraqi patriarchy is so resistant.
Events, such as the regime change in Iraq in 2003, have the effect of bringing change to many aspects of a society in a very short period of time. However, to transform old, established, and deeply ingrained cultural values and practises usually takes much longer. This is not to say that Iraqi patriarchy will never change and that an open media environment cannot play a role in shaping such transformation. But in order for such a change to happen, many other social structures need to be transformed along the way, too.

Hamdi Malik has recently submitted his PhD thesis entitled: Media, Gender and Domestic Relations in Post-Saddam Iraq

No comments: