They broke the restrictions and defied social norms. Many Iraqi women were compelled to engage in professions that were usually monopolized by men. Working in difficult professions is for them the only way to earn a living. Some of them work in brick factories on the outskirts of Baghdad and others in many professions such as working in car repair shops.
In the brick factories in the Nahrawan area, south of Baghdad, dozens of women, girls and even children are working, most of them are forced to do so as a result of the harsh life conditions, the tragedies of wars and also because thousands of Iraqi households have lost the men on the battlefield, as they usually are the ones bringing in salaries.
A woman equals a thousand man
Umm Abdullah is a fifty years old factory worker from Al-Nahrawan. She works from five in the morning until seven in the evening, for less than five dollars a day while keeping up with difficult working conditions. She started working there after losing her husband and breadwinner in a war during the Saddam Hussein era. Unless she works in this place, she can no longer provide food for her seven children. Umm Abdullah says that she came from Al-Diwaniyah Governorate to the Nahrawan area in Baghdad in search of work and that she had to force her children to leave school and join her in this difficult activity in order to support the family in earning their daily living.
Most of the brick factories in the outskirts of Iraqi cities, especially in the southern parts of Baghdad, lack safety and health conditions and do not have modern machines to enhance the working condition of the employees. Work often depends on primitive means of transportation and production. So, the factory owners regularly resort to cheap labor such as rural or uneducated women, widows or children.
Umm Qassem, who has been working for months in the Nahrawan factory, suffered a broken leg after a row of bricks fell on her. She also says that a number of her co-workers suffered many injuries to the head, hands and legs due to the absence of safety procedures in an unsafe working environment.
Female car mechanics in Iraq
Iraqi women have also recently been involved in other professions such as car mechanics. Professions such as this one are known to be for men, but the absence of job opportunities led many women to search for new job opportunities amid harsh social and economic conditions in the country.
At 36 years old, Umm Reda is the first female car mechanic in Iraq. She says that she gained experience in car repair from her father and has been working with him since she was young. After his death, she started managing his workshop.
Despite having two university degrees, Umm Reda did not get any opportunity to be employed in the government sector. Therefore, she had no choice but to work in a car repair shop. She says that she dreams of opening a large workshop, of training women in this sector and to repair cars owned by other women who are afraid to go to the industrial centers run by men.
Iraqi labor law and women
According to legal expert Tariq Harb, Iraqi law started focusing on regulating women’s work following the entrance of women on the labor market.
This interest in women labor is not restricted to man-made legislation, but was rather inspired by an international trend. Since its inception after World War I, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization has adopted several agreements aimed at protecting working women. The most important of these agreements is Convention No. 3 of 1919 and the subsequent articles, which regulates the legal working age to seventeen years old. It also regulates women’s work by determining their wages, and protecting maternity rights.
Mr. Harb said that the Iraqi Labor Law No. 37 of 2015 focused on the case of prohibiting the employment of women in some stressful or harmful work.
Accordingly, the Iraqi legislators have taken into account the physical capabilities of working women in order to determine the legislation as well as preventing their employment in stressful or harmful jobs that could lead to some accidents, occupational hazards as well as bad psychological and moral conditions. Yet, the reality is that thousands of Iraqi women work in difficult conditions without any implementation of the regulation by government authorities.
Women pushed into the labor market
The wars that Iraq went through and the difficult economic conditions forced many changes on Iraqi society. This includes forcing women to enter harsh labor activities such as construction work.
Social researcher Ali Jawad said that a number of Iraqi women prefer to work in difficult professions as a taxi driver, in industrial complexes or in brick factories. Jawad pointed out that women working in these fields did not wait for the government to pay attention to their social and economic condition and took on themselves to make a living instead of waiting for the government. The social researcher stressed the need for the government to preserve the rights of women who engage in difficult professions.
“The government should provide care and social protection in the future by involving the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The Ministry should conduct regular field surveys and inspection visits to women’s workplaces and enhance their working conditions by compelling their employers to abide by the international standards. They should also enforce laws regulating work contracts in order to prevent the expulsion of employees by unscrupulous employers.”, the expert stated.
According to Dr. Nada Al-Abedy, a researcher in medical affairs, women carry a great burden in Iraqi society. This is especially true, she says, for those who work in hard professions and have double responsibilities on top of caring for their children when their daily labor is over.
Mrs. Al-Abedy pointed out that the scarcity of job opportunities for women in Iraq has pushed many of them to practice exhausting activities that also lead to exposure and loss of their privacy.
Hard Professions and Social Impact
Al-Abedy warned that the social effects of hard professions for women can significantly affect their families. She criticized the absence of the government in securing the economic needs of women and demanded the development of programs and plans to provide job opportunities that would suit the social status and physical abilities of women. These programs should also limit women’s entry in harsh professions due to their dangerous repercussions.
Thousands of Iraqi women suffer from the difficulty of providing a source of living for their loved ones. In order to make ends meet, many endure the most difficult jobs. Women in the countryside are the most vulnerable to abuse as greedy employers often see them as a cheap means of production.
Iraq’s labor reality makes international and local organizations concerned with the protection of women’s rights. Many are requesting these organizations to put pressure on governmental authorities to protect Iraqi working women from this bitter reality. Iraqi labour unions in Baghdad and other cities around the country have been active since 2003 in demanding amendments to the laws that regulate work. Elite women from three labor unions and a number of female media professionals and civil activists have conducted a dialogue seminar on the rights of working women in cooperation with the Labor Solidarity Center “Iraq Program”. The panel discussed the rights of working women with the participation of several trade unions.