Dr. Naziha Al-Dulaimi: Pioneer of Women’s Movement in Iraq

By Salam Ali

Dr. Naziha al-Dulaimi, was a pioneer of the Iraqi women’s movement and a prominent figure in the patriotic struggle for freedom, independence, democracy and social progress in Iraq for more than half a century. She was a co-founder and the first president of Iraqi Women’s League, the first woman minister in Iraq’s modern history, and the first woman cabinet minister in the Arab world.

She was born in 1923 in Baghdad, the eldest of six siblings, in a middle-income family. She entered the Royal College of Medicine in 1941, where she was one of the few female students. During that time, she joined the “Women’s Society for Combating Fascism and Nazism”.

Later on, she was actively involved with other members of the Society in transforming it into the “Association of Iraqi Women” in 1945, and became a member of its executive committee. Their goal was to fight against British colonialism and Zionism in conjunction with the demand for women’s rights. In 1947, she joined the Iraqi Communist Party. She had by then finished her studies and graduated as a doctor.

Through her work in clinics in Baghdad and other provinces, in southern and northern Iraq, she learned about people’s suffering, especially the conditions of women and their social and health problems, living under outdated customs and traditions. She was harassed by the monarchic security police because she sympathized with the poor and cared for them free of charge at her clinic.

Dr. Dulaimi helped to set up centres to eradicate illiteracy among poor and working women. She also helped to produce a journal entitled “Women’s Emancipation”. It dealt with women’s issues, raising awareness of their rights and freedom. She wrote on various topics, such as “Iraqi Women’s Health”, exposing the plight of rural women and the poverty and lack of education they were suffering. This experience led her later on to write a booklet entitled “The Iraqi Woman.”

The signing of a new Anglo-Iraqi Treaty in Portsmouth on 15 January 1948, after secret negotiations between the Iraqi government and Britain, led to the eruption of “al-Wathba” (the Leap). It was the most formidable popular uprising in the history of the monarchy.

Dr. Dulaimi was an active participant in the mass demonstrations, distributing leaflets and working with democratic women activists to mobilise the people. Bloody repression and the killing of hundreds of demonstrators failed to quell people’s anger, the prime minister fled for his life and a new government was forced to reject the colonialist Portsmouth Treaty.

On 10 March 1952, Dr. Dulaimi led a group of women activists to set up Iraqi Women’s League (initially under the name of the “League for Defending Iraqi Women’s Rights”). Among the objectives of this organisation, which was forced to work clandestinely, were: struggling for national sovereignty, national democratic liberation, world peace, defending Iraqi women’s rights and children welfare.

In 1953, she attended the World Congress of Women that was held in Copenhagen. In appreciation of its role and achievements, the Iraqi Women’s League became a permanent member of the General Secretariat of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). Dr. Dulaimi was elected to the Federation’s assembly and executive, and later became a vice-president, remaining in this position until 1979. She became a prominent women figure on an international level, as well as in the Arab world and “Third World”.

During the 1950s, Dr. Dulaimi was an active participant in the Iraqi Peace Movement, and was a member of the preparatory committee for the Peace Partisans (Ansar al-Salam) conference that was held in Baghdad on 25 July 1954. She was also a member of the World Peace Council.

After the 14th July 1958 Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy, Iraqi Women’s League received official recognition. Under the leadership of Dr. Dulaimi, its membership rose to 42,000 (out of a total population at the time of 8 million).

The League achieved many gains for Iraqi women, in particular the progressive Personal Status Law No.188 (1959), on the status of women. Its president, Dr. Dulaimi, was instrumental in the formulation of the law, based on a draft put forward by the League. It protected women from the tyranny of arranged marriages at an early age and amended other provisions to do with marriage and the family.

Dr. Dulaimi was appointed Minister of Municipalities in 1959. She was the first woman cabinet minister in Iraq’s modern history and the whole of the Arab world. As a minister, she set about clearing some of Baghdad’s slum areas, creating the first public housing projects.

After the CIA-backed fascist coup d’etat on 8 February 1963, the League’s offices were closed and thousands of its members arrested and tortured.

Dr. Dulaimi was sentenced to death in absentia, later commuted to life of hard labour. While in forced exile, she played a prominent role in the leadership of the “Committee for the Defence of the Iraqi People,” set up in Prague after the coup. The Committee was headed by the famous Iraqi poet Mohammed Mehdi al-Jawaheri.

Following the bloody onslaught by the Baath dictatorial regime against democratic forces in the late 1970s, Dr Dulaimi was forced again into exile. She continued to be actively involved in the activities of Iraqi Women’s League abroad. In 1987, she headed the League’s delegation to the Conference of the Women’s International Democratic Federation held in Moscow. She chaired the Peace and Solidarity Commission and participated in discussions on the topic of international conflicts and wars.

Even during the 1990s, when she was old and frail, Dr. Dulaimi did not cease her work in the women’s movement. The last important event which she attended was a seminar by the League on the situation of Iraqi women, held in 1999 in Cologne, Germany.

She participated in preparations for the 5th Congress of the Iraqi Women’s League, but before it was convened in March 2002 she suffered a stroke that effectively paralyzed her. On 9 October 2007, Dr. Naziha al-Dulaimi passed away in Germany. Her memory will live forever in the hearts of the Iraqi people.

Salam Ali is a Liberation member

Find out more about Dr. Naziha Al-Dulaimi: BBC radio programme interviewing Mubejel Baban, a friend and former colleague of Dr Al-Dulaimi – and from her nephew, Dr Layth Al-Delaimy. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/w3cszmqf

This is the latest in a series of articles Liberation is running to raise awareness of people, in history or active today, more or less well known who have made a significant contribution to popular struggles for freedom, against imperialism and for peace, social justice and human rights in the Global South. Who is your Liberation Hero?

The views expressed in the articles published on this website do not necessarily represent those of Liberation.

Support our work – donate, become a member, affiliate your local organisation’s branch or volunteer 

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap