Anyone trying to create a scholarly centre for gender and violence studies in Iraq is unlikely to have an easy time of it.
It is an environment, acknowledged Nazand Begikhani, senior research Fellow at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Gender and Violence Research, “where working on women’s issues is not always welcomed”.
A recent challenge arose in December, she said, when a group of Iraqi religious leaders launched an attack on women’s rights groups and academics who use the term “gender”, saying it carried “perverse” connotations of “Western” ills such as homosexuality.
Such events, Dr Begikhani said, have thrown into sharp relief the existence of two forces operating in the region: a conservative one backed by Islamic parties and a progressive group advocating human rights. “There is no doubt that the conservative/extremist force is stronger and more dominant,” she said.
Nonetheless, she remains optimistic. “Despite the many difficulties women are facing in this part of the world, there is an appreciation of knowledge and education. That is the ground on which I am working.”
Dr Begikhani’s is just one of 34 projects bringing together UK and Iraqi academics, in fields ranging from peace-building and engineering to nursing and forensic medicine, which make up the Iraq strand of Development Partnerships in Higher Education (DelPHE).
Set up in 2009, this is part of the wider DelPHE programme, funded by the Department for International Development and managed by the British Council.
The fundamental goals of the initiative are “to strengthen the capacity of [long-isolated] Iraqi higher education institutions to deliver professional skills to support Iraq’s development” and “to support Iraqi higher education institutions to engage with practitioners in the wider world on im¬proved practice in higher education teaching, learning and research”. Within this context, one of its explicit aims is “improving opportunities for women”.
There is no overall blueprint governing the individual projects, but all are due to be completed by March 2012. Most bring together a single UK institution with one or more Iraqi universities. Some have involved groups of UK academics travelling to the safer areas of Iraq, which can be essential in disciplines such as climate science and environmental studies. But many other meetings, seminars and workshops are taking place in the UK or countries such as Jordan and Turkey.
Like Dr Begikhani, Peter Catterall, lecturer in history and public policy at Queen Mary, University of London, is addressing a delicate and intractable policy area.
In partnership with Queen’s University Belfast and the Ministry of Higher Education in Kurdistan, he is helping to develop a social science research centre and master’s courses in conflict and security studies.
Academic study of conflict tends to put particular disputes in context and within a comparative perspective. When it is taught within conflict zones, Dr Catterall said, such approaches can also “help liberate people from a sense of victimhood and unrealistically one-sided pet solutions. We need to look at why ethnicity has become a focus for identity and how we can build civic identities that currently have no purchasing power.”
Thirty years ago, according to the British Council, Iraq had one of the best tertiary education systems in the Middle East. Even today, despite major setbacks, its abundant natural resources and young population mean that it has huge potential.
If one of the keys to realising this is investment in intellectual capital, the DelPHE programme should help to remove at least a few of the obstacles.