US Global Expansion and the Gendering of Iraqi Education, 1921-1958

My paper looks at struggles between British authorities, Arab nationalists, and U.S.-trained officials over female education in Iraq from the start of British Mandate rule in 1921 through Iraq’s nominal independence in 1932 to the 1958 revolution. Against the British strategy of divide-and-rule, which involved the entrenchment if not outright construction of tribal “traditions” limiting female education, Arab nationalists in Iraq – who wrested control of the Ministry of Education from British authorities very early in the Mandate period – created a unifying system of national education which insisted on gender-blindness as an aspect of this unity. From 1922-1932, the Iraqi school curriculum was identical for girls and boys, a remarkable state of affairs from a comparative historical perspective. While American power in Iraq has usually been traced to the postwar period, U.S. advisors began to influence the education system as early as 1932, perhaps due to the British abdication of this area of governance. A primary criticism of these advisors was that the Iraqi school curriculum was not differentiated by sex; they recommended that female students at every level be required to take courses in modern feminine domesticity. In the 1930s, American-trained Iraqi officials took over the ministry and implemented these recommendations, invoking the “education for real life” language of American pragmatist philosophy, which soon converged with the rising ideology of the development of nations. The paper argues that the relatively late emergence of home economics in Iraq offers a fruitful context for reexamining some of our approaches to feminine domesticity in the region. It points to the limitations of the national(ist) framework in which the phenomenon is often studied, and to the importance of tracing points of convergence and divergence between the “civilizing missions” of European colonialism and the emerging theories and practices of development/underdevelopment that paralleled the global processes of decolonization. It is thus a productive lens through which to explore the transition from European colonial rule to the postwar “age of development” and U.S. global hegemony.

Sara Pursley is Doctoral Candidate, Middle Eastern History, CUNY Graduate Center and Managing Editor, International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES). She is the author of: “Building the Nation through the Production of Difference: The Gendering of Education in Iraq, 1928-58,” in Writing the History of Iraq: Historiographical and Political Challenges, ed. Riccardo Bocco, Hamit Bozarslan, Peter Sluglett, and Jordi Tejel (London: World Scientific Publishing Co. and Imperial College Press, forthcoming) ; “Women, Gender and Revolutionary Movements: Iraq” in Encyclopedia of Women and Islam: Volume II: Family, Law and Politics (Brill, 2005) ; “Women, Gender and National Insignia, Signs and Monuments: Arab States” in Encyclopedia of Women and Islam: Volume II: Family, Law and Politics (Brill, 2005) co-authored with Beth Baron.