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Theoretical Swimming: Iraqi Student Life Under Religious Rule

As Islamic State militants impose their harsh theological rule on campuses in much of northwestern Iraq, conservative religious forces have also been increasingly holding sway in higher education throughout the rest of the country.

The depth of religious influence on Iraqi campuses varies from university to university. But stricter religious-based dress codes, curricula, events and other policies began after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Soon after, religious posters often replaced pictures of former dictator Saddam Hussein.  In recent years, the religious climate has grown even more strident.

“Over the past two years, there has been terrible intervention in dictating what students wear,” said Farah Murad, who recently graduated with a degree in Spanish from Baghdad University. “The former secular dean was removed and the new one imposed many strict rules on students, with lots of religious symposiums and ceremonies.”

“I think it is important to keep the university away from political and religious interference,” she added.

A demonstration for Engineering students at Al-Mustansiryah University (By Omaima Al Shamary)

Students said monitors at school entrances make sure faculty and staff members and students don’t wear jeans and that women’s skirts don’t hang any higher than 15 centimeters from their ankles. Some female students say they have just started wearing loose clothing to avoid lectures on attire.

Some of the latest restrictions began three years ago when a bloc of Iraqi lawmakers proposed requiring Islamic dress in universities. Instead, the Ministry of Higher Education imposed a dress code that required uniforms. “This aims to reduce class differences among the sons of rich and poor families,” said the higher education minister at the time, Ali Al-Adeeb.

Few universities opted for uniforms, however, and instead required dress codes that often reflected administrators’ religious views.

Then, in September, when announcing the changes to the dress code for the current academic year, the Higher Education Ministry’s dress code appeared to adopt a more religious tone. The ministry’s head of supervision and scientific evaluation, Nabeel Hashim Al-Araji, said in a statement that the code stressed “the importance of modesty and dignity for female students in all grades.”

Iraqi universities appear to be selectively enforcing the new dress code.

“A professor responsible for student affairs controls the uniform,” said Afra Abed Abbas, a physical education student at the University of Babylon, where women are discouraged from wearing makeup and pants under their jubbahs (long dresses) and men are expected to avoid trendy haircuts. “He checks the female students’ clothing and, if they refuse, he might curse them and withdraw their university ID card.”

The change in the academic climate is about more than clothes. Some religious supervisors in Iraqi universities frown on disc jockeys at parties and monitor students’ chatting online. Late last year, Basra University administrators suspended an engineering student, Mohammed Idan Hussein, for a month for criticizing the university’s dress code on Facebook.

The degree of religious control depends on the personalities of individual academics.

“Once they prevented a female student who did not cover her hair from entering campus, even though nothing prevents her from entering according to the law,” said Ali, a medical student at ThiQar University in Nasiriyah who requested [his or her?] last name be withheld. “But she was eventually allowed in because her father is a professor in the faculty.”

Abbas felt as if she had little recourse when dealing with religious administrators. “We used to complain to our professors but they say it is out of their hands,” said Abbas.

Some students said they didn’t experience much harassment. They dismissed religiously zealous administrators as small-minded bumpkins.

“Sadly, many of them are not from the cities but from rural areas and they want to impose their cultural values on the students,” said I’tizaz Abdulsattar, an engineering student at the University of Babylon. “In our faculty, nobody imposes these rules. Intellectual professors with strong personalities rarely pay attention to such superficial matters.”

But religious ceremonies like the Shiite holiday of Arba’een—where the faithful self-flagellate to commemorate the martyrdom of imam Al Hussein—are now common even in Al Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, the country’s flagship institution.

“Students from other sects and religions kept silent but there was a feeling that they don’t belong anymore,” said Refqa Raad, who graduated a few years ago with a philosophy degree from Al Mustansiriyah University.

Similarly, students say they are not forced to attend religious lectures, conferences and other religious academic gatherings but many say they feel like they should attend them because religious administrators would note their absence.

“There were many religious conferences at the university, ones discussing the similarities between the thought of Jesus Christ and Imam Al Hussein and so on,” said Raad.

Religion hasn’t yet permeated the curricula, said students and professors, except in biology.

Evolution is sometimes ignored, something essential for us,” said Maha Al-Daoudi, a biology student at Baghdad University. “A professor explained the theory, saying that man and chimpanzee have a mutual ancestor. But many students objected, mentioning Adam, Koranic verses and creation theory. The professor then closed the issue.”

Outside of single-sex schools, gender segregation is not widespread, though it occurs, especially in practical fields like physical education. At the University of Babylon, female physical education students take courses in swimming but can’t actually go in the water.

“Swimming classes for women are only theoretical now,” said Abbas. “We have no swimming pool at the school. There is no female-only swimming pool in Babylon. Male students go to an open swimming pool in Babylon. Both genders used to go together to [a] swimming pool in Baghdad before 2003.”

Under one interpretation of what is happening, religious administrators don’t act independently. Parents often help to enforce the academics’ strict interpretations of Islam. Students’ appeals to administrators often don’t help.

“A group of students wanted to celebrate their graduation inside the university club,” said Ali, the medical student. “They got a band but religious students cut off the electricity so they couldn’t play music. Students argued with each other, and they went to the dean. But the dean said music was not allowed after the religious students threatened to contact one of the governorate’s councilors from the Islamic Virtue Party.”

An Iraqi parliamentarian, Shirouk Al-Abayachi, a member of the three-member, secularist Civil Democratic Alliance, said the rising tide of religiosity in Iraqi schools reflects how conservative, religious figures have secured political power.

“There are no justifications for the dress code, it only indicates the centralized way of thinking,” she said. “There are too many religious symposiums at campuses. It’s an unhealthy phenomenon.”

Al-Abayachi said the rise of religion was already creating disagreements among officials with different views on Islam and leading Iraqi higher education in a bad direction. “There are conflicts especially amid the rising sectarian polarization,” she said. “The situation is going to get worse unfortunately.”

Murad, the Spanish language graduate, said she and other students occasionally staged counter rallies when she was in school to show that many students didn’t want a religious climate at Baghdad University. “If the religious domination remains the same, we cannot be anything but pessimistic,” she said. “But with the ongoing demonstrations by students and staff, things might improve.”


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