New guidelines on how the Iraqi government’s female employees should dress have caused a furore. The conservative Ministry of Women’s affairs says it is protecting female dignity while women’s rights advocates say it’s an attack on personal freedoms.
The guidelines had already been decided on late last year but when a local newspaper published details of exactly how the Iraqi government’s female employees should be dressing, controversy was bound to ensue.
The recommendations made by the Higher National Committee for the Advancement of Iraqi Women*, which is chaired by the federal Minister for Women’s Affairs, Ibtihal al-Zaidi, had been decided upon in September 2011. However details were only revealed by the Baghdad daily, Al Mada, a few days ago.
Women working for the Iraqi government wear a wide variety of clothing – everything from traditional hijab, a fitting headpiece that covers most of the head and neck but leaves the face free, to what one would consider traditional Western work clothes, including jackets, suits and pants.
According to the newspaper’s reports, “female employees of the government should wear suitable garments”. However the guidelines did not specify what constituted “suitable garments”.
The guidelines have been distributed around Iraqi government ministries and because they are so open to interpretation, each ministry will be able to come up with their own definitions of suitable dress and therefore, their own punishments for any infringements of the dress code.
NIQASH has sighted a copy of the Ministry’s statement, issued last Sunday, and the wording is as follows: “Women working in public institutions should wear suitable clothes. These should be set according to the nature of work within each institution.”
Similar guidelines had been adopted by most of the civilised world, the Ministry said, wherein it was generally recognised that clothing worn at work was going to differ from that worn out of working hours, and that it needed to suit the situation, the workplace and any national standards.
Overall though the statement did not clarify what was meant by “national standards” or “suitable clothing”. And reading between the lines, the guidelines seemed to disallow short skirts, tight pants and bright colours. Certain kinds of shoes were also banned.
“The guidelines aim at encouraging women who work in government institutions to wear modest clothes,” Hashim Khader al-Saedi, a member of the Higher National Committee for the Advancement of Iraqi Women, which formulated the guidelines, told NIQASH. “Because they are now competing among each other and wearing tight clothes that do not reflect the values of Islam.”
Iraqi government ministries controlled by religious parties - including the Ministry of Planning and the Ministry of Higher Education – apparently read the guidelines out to female employees as far back as October 2011. Other more secular ministries wanted to wait until the guidelines had been distributed officially.
Meanwhile women’s rights organisations interpreted the guidelines as another way of curtailing female freedoms. They saw the term “suitable garments” as something that might impose the veil or more conservative outfits in a way that could compromise human rights.
And the groups were basing their opinions on previous experiences with the Minister for Women Affairs, who heads the committee that formulated the guidelines. Al-Zaidi is well known for her conservatism on subjects related to feminism or women’s liberation. In the recent past, she had issued orders to separate female and male staff members claiming that this gave women more opportunity to work undistracted and more freedom to perform their prayers.
Another example is the Minister’s explicit disapproval of the creation of shelters for battered and abused women in Iraq because she felt they were against the norms and traditions of Iraqi society.
The Iraqi Women’s Network, an umbrella organization for around 18 civil society organisations working on women’s issues, said that it considered the dress code guidelines restrictive. At a meeting of Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Affairs, the Network made a verbal protest and also submitted a memo with recommendations. One of those recommendations involved the formation of a more independent ministry for women’s affairs, one that would be supervised by the general parliament rather than by the executive.
“The Ministry makes decisions that serve the interests of the Minister’s political bloc without any consideration for the rights or interests of Iraqi women,” well known human rights activist, Hanaa Edward, also a member of the Iraqi Women’s Network, told NIQASH. The fate of Iraqi women was being decided by the executive, Edward said.
In general, Edward said she was pessimistic about advancing women’s rights at a time when the responsible Minister, al-Zaidi “was socially and religiously conservative”.
Religious groups, on the other hand, seemed satisfied with the guidelines, considering them necessary for working women in Iraq. And it is only possibly to surmise this because the religious leaders involved did not make any explicit public statements in support of the guidelines.
Meanwhile the Ministry for Women’s Affairs seemed shocked at the reaction the guidelines garnered and the speed at which local media disseminated the document. The Ministry quickly issued a rejoinder, saying that the guidelines were not supposed to limit women’s freedoms and that the guidelines had been adopted by majority decision. The guidelines had been approved by representatives from all government ministries and departments, including Christian politicians in Iraq, who generally practise a less strict dress code.
The Ministry’s statement also said that the guidelines had been approved to protect the reputation of female employees, some of whom did not dress in a respectful way, in accordance with generally acceptable norms.
Al-Saedi, of the Higher National Committee, also questioned why the media was making such a big issue of the guidelines. The guidelines “only aim to preserve women’s dignity,” he said. “Making an issue out of them is just about politics.”
NIQASH tried to contact the Minister for Women’s Affairs but her phone was not answered over the past few days. Sources close to the Minister said that she felt that controversy over the guidelines was baseless and that she felt no need to respond.
Females employed by the state that NIQASH spoke with did not necessarily agree. They had their own grievances saying they resented being told what to wear especially when it came to their choice of colours or fashion. They considered the guidelines an attack against their personal freedom, they said.
Others were more outspoken, calling the Ministry for Women’s Affairs “a militia” and the “ministry of al Qaeda” because it reminded them of the strict costume imposed upon women in Iraq during times of sectarian conflict, when religious groups were fighting on, and in control of, the Iraqi streets.
INFOBOX: The Higher National Committee for the Advancement of Iraqi Women was established in the late 1990s and consists of representatives from all of the government ministries involved in women’s issues. The Higher National Committee for the Advancement of Iraqi Women is chaired by the Minister for Women’s Affairs and its recommendations are circulated to all the ministries represented on the Committee. These are then binding on the ministries involved.