Iraqi students protest uniforms in universities

Iraqi universities have imposed conservative uniforms on students as a result of a push from Islamic parties, but students are protesting the decision.

REUTERS/Kareem Raheem (IRAQ).

By Adnan Abu Zeed

Nov 16, 2016

BAGHDAD — On Oct. 28, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research made a decision to impose uniforms on university campuses in Iraq. The media reported that the uniform's specifications are “conservative,” since female students are required to wear a “loose, below-the-knee skirt and shoes with heels that are no more than 5 centimeters [2 inches] high, while pants are strictly prohibited for female students.”

However, the vast uproar raised by the uniform requirements prompted the ministry to issue a clarification Oct. 30, stressing that “uniform rules should be strictly applied, but each university administration can determine the specifications of its uniform.” As a result, universities displayed written instructions at the entrances to many colleges and institutes.

Rusul Salah, a student at the University of Babylon, told Al-Monitor, “These instructions existed long before the Ministry of Higher Education made the decision to impose a uniform. Some individuals affiliated with conservative parties incited the university’s administration to adopt conservative uniforms and prevent students from imitating how students in Western countries dress.”

Salah’s belief that the call for conservative uniforms existed in the past is true. In March 2014, activists and university students criticized the Ministry of Education and the administration of the University of Kufa for imposing strict measures against “students wearing accessories,” describing the decision as “personal interpretation.” In December 2014, students organized protests to reject the ministry's resolution out of a belief that uniforms restricted their freedom.

Once universities decided to impose uniforms, many were pleased, like Shaima Fatlawi, a member of the Education Committee of Dhi Qar’s provincial council who told the media in April 2015, “The Ministry of Education has agreed to a proposed law preventing makeup in girls' schools.”

Meanwhile, the University of Wasit immediately responded to the ministry’s decision and implemented security measures on Nov. 3 to make sure students abided by the new specifications of the conservative uniform.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, cleric Hussein al-Asadi welcomed the decision, saying, “Imposing conservative uniforms is a foregone conclusion to the growing religious awareness in the community. The students themselves want to adhere to Islamic values. Those who are protesting the decision are a minority influenced by Western values.”

However, the director of the information office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq, Jawad al-Shammari, told Al-Monitor, “Imposing a conservative uniform on university students is the result of pressure exercised by conservative and influential parties and religious forces that seek to disseminate their ideologies in society."

He said, "Any interference in the citizen's personal choices is a violation of human rights. The Ministry of Education should determine the uniform’s specifications instead of leaving it up to the universities and educational institutions to decide to avoid chaos and for all universities to have the same uniform.”

Meanwhile, speaking about the benefits of this decision, Mohammed Majeed Ibrahimi, an assistant professor at Sumer University in southern Iraq, told Al-Monitor, “The uniform is designed to show conservatism but not in the sense of Islamic conservatism by wearing veils. It gives university students beauty and elegance, and bridges the economic and social gap between them. It cannot be seen as a violation of personal freedom because universities are public places with specific customs and traditions.” But university students continue to reject this decision, which they consider an interference in their personal lives.

Many expressed their opposition to the decision in posts and comments on social networks. They described the measures as similar to those implemented by the Taliban in the Afghan city of Kandahar, which was transformed into a medieval town as a result of the Taliban’s extremism.

Risan Sheikh Dler, a member of the parliamentary Women's Committee, also rejected uniforms in universities. In an Oct. 30 press statement, she criticized the Ministry of Education’s decision, saying, “It is not appropriate for the nature of Iraqi society, which is characterized by the diversity of cultures.”

However, Firdaus al-Awadi, a member of the parliamentary Education Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Parliament’s Education Committee supports the ministry’s decision because we believe it would be useful for society. It should be rigorously applied because it eliminates all signs of inequality among students and puts an end to the flashy and extravagant appearances prevailing around university campuses.”

Awadi stressed that “the Education Committee supports implementing the decision in public and private institutes alike,” noting that those objecting to the decision want to create chaos in universities and impose customs that are in no way related to the nature of Iraqi society.”

In spite of the democratic system in the country and the personal freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, religious forces and parties continue to intervene in the personal choices of citizens, both in terms of the food and drinks they consume and the clothes they wear. Such forces use different pretexts for their interventions, such as preserving religious values, respecting social traditions and eliminating corruption from society.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi legislature has neglected to address more important issues, such as upgrading the scientific level, updating the educational curriculum, improving teaching techniques in universities, eliminating illiteracy and spreading the culture of tolerance and equality in society.