Narrative as Identity:
Perspectives from Iraqi Women Refugees’ Oral History Project
Dr. Laura Hamblin and Hala Al-Sarraf
Dispossession and Displacement: Forced Migration in the Middle East and North Africa (British Academy Occasional Paper) eds. Dawn Chatty and Bill Finlayson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.
The humanitarian crisis of more than four million Iraqi refugees has only recently been highlighted in Western media. Sixty percent of all Iraqis are women, yet women have had little to no say concerning the Iraq War. We have been gathering oral histories specifically of Iraqi women refugees, recording the interviews on HDV (to be compiled in a documentary), and creating transcripts of the interviews to be archived as historical documents, thus giving ear to the women refugees’ issues, concerns and hopes. In our paper, we look at how narrative is a means of the construction of identity for Iraqi women refugees. The challenges the women face are affected by their lived experiences in Iraq and Jordan, which are then overlaid with the identity of self as a refugee. Specifically, we highlight four aspects of identity that the women we’ve interviewed as being challenged ad changing: 1) class and socioeconomic status, 2) religious identification, 3) gender roles, and 4) child rearing. We believe that Iraqi women refugees’ oral histories are an important part of understanding who theses refugees are so that the West can better assume responsibility for and to their situations.
Our research consists of collecting oral histories of Iraqi women refugees who are now living in Amman, Jordan. To date we have collected seventy interviews, and are creating transcripts of the interviews to be archived as historical documents, thus giving ear to the women refugees’ issues, concerns, and hopes. From the narratives, we analyze different aspects of the refugees’ experience and identity including current legal options, class and socioeconomic status, religious identification, changes in gender roles, and child rearing. In this paper we look at the identity of the Iraqi women refugees as revealed through their personal narratives. As we began working on this paper, we immediately recognized that we (as an American academic and as an Iraqi scholar and public health policy maker) have rather different ideas about what identity is and how identity is created.
From an Iraqi perspective, a new Iraqi identity is currently struggling to merge in light of the changes following the American invasion of 2003. The thirty-five years of Baath rule enhanced and reinforced the Iraqi identity as an Arab identity. In alignment with this policy, Iraqis allowed Arabs of other nations to come to Iraq and enjoy privileges of free education, work opportunities, housing, etc. Most Iraqis accepted such sharing of Iraqi benefits with other Arabs as part of their “Arab Nationalism responsibility.” With the fall of the regime, the interim government has emphasized Iraqi identity as being separated from other Arab nations by introducing the concepts a system based on sectarian and ethnic power sharing. Iraqis found themselves grouping under different umbrellas of Shiite, Sunni, Arab, Kurds, Assyrian, Sabean, Christian, etc. When conflict pushed Iraqis from their homes and country, their new struggle for identity became even more complicated among their host country’s perceptions of old and new Iraqis. Iraqi women refugees are Arabs who cannot now enjoy the same privileges the Arabs of other nationalities had in Baathist Iraq, and they still do not accept their sectarian differences as the main criteria by which they identify themselves. From an Iraqi perspective, the current Iraqi identity is yet to emerge based on outcomes of the conflict.
From a Western, postmodern perspective, identity is understood simultaneously a factor of one’s cultural, social, familial, and individual sense of self. According to identity and social identity theory, one’s social identity is based on a person’s knowledge that she belongs to a social category or group that holds a common social identification; individuals place themselves (or are placed) in a structured society in relationship to other contrasting categories (Stets and Burke, 2000). When different roles are imposed or negotiated, disruptive effects can and do occur. When a woman lives as a refugee, the understanding and significance of her individual and social identity shifts. All of the women we’ve interviewed expressed the sense that their identity is challenged as their life circumstances demand of them that they somehow accommodate the dramatic changes they experience. The war itself has highlighted both the similarities and the differences of their identity and experiences, and although there are shared aspects of the women’s identities, each woman’s oral history exemplifies how her identity is unique—and is sacred in its uniqueness. From this perspective, identity emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual’s experiences and the way in which narrative is actually a process from which identity is created.
Current Legal Options for Iraqi Refugees
Because Jordan did not sign the 1947 United Nations compact, the people who come to reside in Jordan are not recognized as “refugees” and hence are not afforded the rights and privileges accorded. Instead, Iraqis coming to Jordan are received as “temporary visitors” or “guests” and may stay for three months, after which they are expected to leave or become residents of Jordan. However, one may become a resident only by depositing 50,000 JDs in a frozen Jordanian bank account, or by investing 75,000 JDs in a Jordanian company. Of course, for the majority of the refugees, such sums of money are impossible to acquire; hence, the majority of Iraqis lose their legal status after the allotted three-months guest stay. Of the women we interviewed, only four are actually legal residents. Once one has lost legal residence, she is charged a fee of 1.5 JD per day of illegal stay. In order to become a legal resident again, such acquired fees are expected to be paid. Those who are illegal residents live with the continual anxiety of either being confronted by the Jordanian Immigration Police with the possibility of being deported or of an Iraqi official visiting Jordan and putting additional pressure on the Jordanian government to ensure the refugees’ return to Iraq.
Lately, the Jordanian government issued a resolution that allows Iraqis who have stayed beyond the legal permissible period (average of three months) to leave the country without paying penalties. Once an Iraqi refugee has left Jordan, she must submit a visa request to reenter Jordan. Those who do not wish to return to Iraq are allowed to pay 50% of the penalty that would correct their legal status in Jordan and give them an additional three months of legal residency in Jordan. With these criteria in place, we find the following equations:
540 days average duration of illegal stay in Jordan
x $1.5 JD penalty/day
$810 JD penalty/person
$810 JD penalty/person
– $405 JD payment of 50% of penalty to correct person’s status
$405 JD amount of penalty still owed after correcting illegal status
In other words, a family of four members would have to pay $1,620.00 JD to gain three months of secured legal status. This correction of legal status only covers an additional three-month stay, after which the daily $1.5 JD fee begins to accrue again. To most of the refugees, this option is untenable—they likely see the offering as illogically allowing them to pay $405 JD to waive what would otherwise be a $135 JD fee. Additionally, the majority of the women have the dream of resettling in a third country, and when one is accepted to a third country, all of their accrued fines are waived. So for most of the refugees, maintaining an illegal status is really the only viable financial option they can see for themselves.
We begin with this information on the women’s legal status to highlight the legal pressures which overlay all of the women’s experience. For this paper, we focus on four aspects of identity that the women we’ve interviewed have expressed as being challenged and changing: 1) class and socioeconomic statue, 2) religious identification, 3) gender roles, and 4) child rearing. Of course, these four categories are not separate but overlapping categories.
Class and Socioeconomic Status
To have legal status as a refugee in Jordan, one must register with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Without legal status, Iraqis cannot find legal employment. For a very few number of refugees, the Jordanian government has granted special resident permits due to the refugees’political connections.
About half of the women we interviewed worked outside of the home while they were living in Iraq, employed in the following positions and fields: principal, seamstress, nursery school teacher, medical doctor, veterinary doctor, industrial engineer, special education teacher, chemist, textile engineer, university professor of religion, attorney, and CARITAS worker. Only one of the women was working in her professional discipline while in Amman (Sahar Al-Aseel, anchorwoman at Babelyia TV station). Of the women who were employed, one, who was an employee in the Ministry of Education while in Iraq, is now selling cigarettes on the sidewalk; another, who was an engineer in Iraq, is now selling homemade food; and a third, a former math teacher, is selling cosmetics in a make-up shop in East Amman.
When we asked how the women supported themselves, the answers varied from selling gold and possessions, to having family members from abroad give a little, to receiving charity, to selling handiwork, to peeling cigarettes on the street, to working illegally. None of the women actually spoke of working as prostitutes, but there were a number of cases in which proposition was mentioned or insinuated. Many of the children of the women we interviewed were working.
By using a snowball sampling, we managed to contact and interview women from a variety of religious backgrounds. Some of the connections were unexpected: we contacted Christians though Sunni Muslim referrals, Sabeans through Sunni, and Sunni through Shiite. Apparently, unlike Iraqis in contemporary Iraq, sectarian differences were not the main criteria by which the women refugees formed relationships and community. On the contrary, the women often expressed a denial of there being sectarian conflict; they particularly seemed to want the West to know that the sectarian conflict originated with the coalition’s occupation of Iraq and was not natural for Iraqis.
During Ashura (the tenth day of Mohrram, a sacred holiday for Shiites, commemorating the death of their Imam Hussein), we witnessed that both Shiites and Sunni Iraqi women refugees cooked and distributed food to those around them, including Sunni, Shiites, Jordanians, and Americans. We interpreted this as a real attempt (not a perfect attempt or one without its awkwardness, but a real attempt) to interact with one another as Iraqis and not as Sunnis, Shiites, or Christians.
In spite of their instance on solidarity, we did see manifestations of old prejudices. For example, two different women, Iptisam, a Sunni, and a Nida, s Shiite, told us that we should not distribute heaters to the Sabeans as they claimed that the Sabeans were rich and hoarded money and had more access to international support—none of which we observed. Several specific concerns were expressed to us. Some of the Christians felt that with George Bush’s rhetoric of the war being a “crusade,” that Muslims saw their Christian identity as being magnified. The Christians spoke of others seeing them in close alliance with Bush and as benefiting from the coalition, so they saw themselves as targeted with a negative stigma.
Sabeans are thought by many Iraqis to be of closer ties with Christians, so many Iraqis assumed that Sabeans were also in close alliance with the British. Because of their specific persecution, Sabeans have expressed that they deserve more assistance from the coalition. In Jordan, the Sabean faith is not recognized as a religion at all. On a Jordanian birth certificate, there are only two boxes with which to mark the family’s religion—either Muslim or Christian. The Sabean’s religious leader resettled in Sweden, so they have no one to marry or bury them in Amman. Additionally, the Sabeans require naturally flowing water to perform their religious rituals, and as such cannot practice even the basic rituals of their faith because there are no accessible rivers in Jordan.
The identity of the Shiite Muslims in Jordan is also altered. Many of the Shiites do not claim openly to be Shiites because Jordan is a Sunni country, and as Shiite they are perceived of (or they have the perception of being perceived of) as having close affiliation with Shiite Iran, which we noticed is indeed not the case—almost everyone expressed uniform resentment against the Iranians.
Changes in Gender Roles
One of the challenges we heard the women express over and over again is the difficulty of their assuming the traditionally masculine role of being responsible for the family’s income and being the head of the family. In cases where the father is not present, the children often look to the women exclusively, seeing strong female role models in the house. In one instance, when we entered a large family’s apartment, the father began telling us his story, and I stopped him saying, “I’m interested in your story, but right now I’m just taking the women’s stories.” He responded, “Well, I am a woman—I cannot work, I stay at home all day, they have turned me into a woman—so why don’t you interview me!” His comment, although met with some laughter, underlies the anxiety many of the refugees feel about the reversals in gender roles that they are faced with.
Another aspect of the women being the head of the family is seen in the fact that many women are responsible for the main income of the family. Iraqis in Jordan are not allowed to work legally; thus if an individual works, it is by taking illegal employment, which is typically at significantly lower pay rates than a legal worker would be paid and with little recourse if the employer makes unrealistic or illegal demands of them. We saw women taking illegal employment more than men because the perception (and it may be a correct perception) is that women are less frequently targeted and deported by police if they are caught working.
The shifts in gender roles cause a number of problems to arise. Most couples expressed frustration on both sides, which often resulted in an increase in domestic violence and family disturbances. We also saw a greater sense of independence on the part of the women who were working, further potentiating the stress as they become less dependent on their husbands. Many of these women seemed to be enjoying their newfound independence; in the future, these women likely may not return to the home and comfortably assume their previous domestic roles.
We also speculate that if women are working at ages as young as twelve and thirteen (with the negative stigma that follows them), and if men cannot work, the traditional forms of marriage proposals and the possibilities of traditional marriages will, of necessity, alter. Of the women we interviewed, there was not even one family member who was engaged or preparing for marriage.
Of the various challenges of rearing their children that the women we’ve interviewed faced, perhaps the most pressing is in assuring that their children are educated. The enrollment of Iraqi children in public schools has fluctuated according to the Jordanian government’s discretion, with policies changing from open to closed enrollment. Initially, the government of Jordan was hopeful that the duration of Iraqi refugees’ stay would be minimal, hence not necessitating that the schools open enrollment to Iraqi children. Additionally, the schools could not accommodate the anticipated increase in students. In the fall of 2007, the public schools changed their policy and allowed Iraqi children to attend. At the beginning of the school year, only 7,000 new students had registered, making a total of 21,000 Iraqi students attending school (Hindi, “Leadline” 1). This number is out of an estimated 50,000 children or more who are of school age (Seeley 48). Added to this statistic is the fact that only three percent of the Iraqi refugees hold residency permits which are necessary for their children to attend school (WCWCR 9). As of 2007, some international Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) allowed for Iraqi children to be admitted to private schools including Christian schools. Although these programs cover books and tuition, they do not cover transportation costs.
Through our direct contact with families, we found a number of reasons as to why children were not attending schools in greater numbers. The parents may be there illegally and are afraid that the act of registering their children for school will result in the parents’ being identified and deported. The family may also have difficulty accessing the necessary official papers needed to register the children in school, as many left Iraq in a hurry without gathering the family’s governmental papers. Many families cannot afford the 20-30 JDs fee for primary or secondary education. Although UNICEF made an agreement with the Ministry of Education that it will cover the costs, some families are not aware of this offer and so have not taken advantage of it.
Another reason why the children are not attending school is that they are actually working, and the family cannot support itself without the income the children bring in. Of the children who worked, Nidal’s daughters, ages twelve and eight, work in a shoe factory; Majida’s daughters, ages twelve and thirteen, work as servers for a catering company at wedding parties—often working late into the night and then walking home alone, with men sexually taunting them along the way.
Sahar’s son Omar works at a bakery. He dropped out of school two years ago, in the 9th grade. Statistics show that once a child has missed three years of schooling, he or she rarely returns for more education (Seeley 50). The children who are not attending feel socially alienated, teased, and bored, resulting in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Such individuals, we believe, are more susceptible to fanatic ideology.
Education is not the only challenge the Iraqi women refugees we interviewed face with their children. We saw a number of teenagers, particularly young men, who embraced Western fashion and activities (to varying degrees), often to the distress of their mothers. The mothers, while wanting their sons to be traditional, conservative Iraqi teenagers, had little to no control over the boys’ attitudes and dress. For some of these women, their worst fears for their children were manifested within two years of their leaving Iraq. Additionally, the children of the Iraqi women refugees have spent a good part of their childhoods in a war-torn country; the emotional and psychological effects of such an upbringing are difficult to calculate.
Our findings and conclusions are based on the answers the women gave from the uniform questions we asked of them. We see the women’s identity as continuing to shift until their status as refugees is resolved. When we asked the women, “Where do you see yourself is five years?” only two of the seventy women see themselves as being able to return to Iraq. However, the Iraq they envision returning to is, and will be, very different from the Iraq they left. Seventy percent of the women we interviewed have applied for resettlement to a third country, but their cases are pending; some cases have been pending for more than three years.
Only one single woman has actually been resettled in the United States; she worked as an interpreter for the military, but it took four years for her application to be processed. In reality, we see the two options of either returning or resettling as being unrealistic as so few of the refugees are actually accepted into third countries and as conditions in Iraq have not improved to the point that return is possible. We predict that the majority of the women will remain in Jordan in their current dire situations, in a state of limbo. The recording and presenting of oral histories should continue. The information gathered from Iraqi women refugees can be an invaluable part of understanding who the refugees are so that the West, other Arab nations, and Iraq itself can best understand and assist with the needs of the Iraqi women refugees.
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