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Spotlight Iraq
Promoting gender equality through artistic interventions in post conflict environments

Spotlight Iraq
Goethe-Institut Iraq / Hella Mewis

For many who grew up under totalitarian regimes, it is readily apparent how the arts are widely used as propaganda to manipulate the masses in intra- and interstate conflict. Art is often employed in the service of influencing people and mobilising them to the advantage of totalitarian rulers. In similar fashion, art can be even more powerful in countering and defying such manipulative tactics. This is why cultural products such as film, theatre, music, novels and poetry are powerful tools in organising and influencing communities exploited and otherwise affected by decades of dictatorship. Art can create new spaces for thinking, productivity and creativity and is generally a vital tool in raising awareness and countering centuries-old norms related to sex and gender.

By Houzan Mahmoud

While art does not have the magic formula to resolve conflict or avert violence in and of itself, it can serve as an important platform to create dialogue, form new understandings, shape realities, and raise awareness on various issues affecting society. It can likewise contribute to more harmonious gender relations by challenging the status quo. Touching upon issues related to love, life and personal freedoms, Kurdish-German artist Sawat Ghalib, one of the beneficiaries of Spotlight Iraq, explores the issue of freedom within the context of traditional society in his short film, A Kiss in Baghdad, which relates the story of two young people who struggle to enjoy a moment of freedom together.
Drawing attention to and encouraging questions in relation to deadly violence against women in society is more relevant than ever. Violence against women, specifically so-called “honour killing”, is a deadly phenomenon in Iraq. The Road to Mosul, a feature film by Baghdad based filmmaker Yahya Allaq and also supported by Spotlight Iraq, centres around a young boy who plots to kill his own mother because of rumours that she married an ISIS fighter. Yahya believes that film has the power to change lives, and he wishes to change perceptions of honour and shame through his work.
As artists, self-awareness and a sense of responsibility to challenge ascribed roles are important ways of resisting antiquated and harmful norms and forming a new societal consciousness. Door of the East, Haram, a documentary by Huda Al Kadhimi from Baghdad, tells the story of three Arab women, one of whom is an Iraqi who runs away from her family and ends up in France with the hopes of finding freedom and establishing a better life. Yet even there, her dreams as a woman are not realised, and she faces new obstacles. Considering the many layers of sex-based violence, women often end up trapped in the cycle of abuse, from which not even a change in location is a saviour. Such endeavours encourage debate on issues regarding the causes and roots of women’s oppression as a world-wide epidemic.
Throughout Iraq, the roles of women in society have been rigidly fixed and normalised to the point that they represent an inescapable fate. It is important that artists, especially male artists, challenge patriarchy and masculinity by breaking stereotypical gender norms and relations.

Muhamed Sherwani, another filmmaker from Erbil in Kurdistan, devoted his short film, also funded by Spotlight Iraq, to the plight of women whose husbands were martyred in the fight against ISIS. His short film, I Will Wait, details the daily struggles of a young widow working and looking after her child while still awaiting her husband’s return, as she finds it hard to let go.

Sherko Abbas and Hemin Hamid’s work on the transformations of the Erbil Citadel and Sulaymaniyah’s Red Prison likewise challenges undertakings that serve certain interests and ignore others. Sherkos project is particularly important in shedding light on the disappearance of female prisoners from Saddam’s era. He has collected testimonies and memories for his documentary, Paper Puppet Testimony, which is critical of the parties behind the restoration and transformation of this prison into a museum. He believes that it erases the entire history of the women, possibly, he speculates, due to issues of honour and shame. Hemin worked with 800 families who were relocated from the citadel due to its transformation into a museum. He says that this was not a fair process, as the memories of its true inhabitants were not taken into consideration Ameen Muqdad has a similar aim to challenge the erasure of women from public spaces. Originally from Baghdad, he now runs music workshops in Mosul. When ISIS attacked, he was trapped in Mosul, and his only comfort was his music. After the fall of ISIS, he decided to run workshops to teach music to a class with an equal number of male and female participants. His goal is to stage a concert in public as a message to counter the gender apartheid that ISIS imposed on the city and the legacy it left, which is still felt.

It is clear that the artists and activists of the region are concerned more than ever with gender equality and the status of women. The long absence of women from public spaces and artistic endeavours is deeply felt. Both male and female artists are eager to work on transforming societal perceptions for the better by including more women in their work, or dedicating their art to women.

The aftermath of conflicts isn’t only about human casualties or death tolls, but also about new problems and the patterns of violence wars leave behind. Especially affected are women, who are often the first victims of all conflicts. This is why the role of funders such as the Goethe-Institute with Spotlight Iraq is vital in supporting art that promotes gender equality, challenges stereotypes, sexism and old norms, and breaks down boundaries in the way of harmonious relations between the sexes.
Iraq and Kurdistan are still recovering from decades of violence, dictatorship, and terrorism. Art and culture have the power to bring people together and engage them in meaningful ways, leaving long-lasting effects on communities in terms coexistence, gender justice and peace.