Najla Muhammad, 34, is a biologist who graduated from one of the best universities in the capital. Unfortunately, however, rising unemployment has forced her to seek work as a housekeeper in order to support her family.
“I didn’t have a choice. My family was going to starve if I didn’t find a better job,” says Najla. “For years I worked in a scientific laboratory in Baghdad, but they couldn’t pay all their employees. I was left with three children and a mother to look after.”
Najla now works as a housekeeper to make ends meet, receiving between US $100 and US $120 dollars a month. Her husband, meanwhile, holds a degree in economics but has been unemployed for nearly a year and has few prospects for work.
National unemployment figures have risen ever since the occupation of the country by US-led forces three years ago. Local NGOs say this has led to increasing numbers of female professionals being driven to search for work as domestic servants.
“In most cases, they seek work as housekeepers,” says Mayada Zuhair, vice-president of the Women’s Rights Association of Iraq. “But you can also find doctors working as hairdressers, dentists working as chefs and engineers working in Laundromats. They’re desperate, and with poverty increasing, the situation could get much worse.”
The unemployment predicament
Up to half of the national population is currently unemployed in Iraq, where women represent almost 60 percent of the total populace. “For women, the [unemployment] figure is almost 70 percent, meaning that many of them must search for low-status jobs,” says Zuhair.
Precise unemployment figures have been difficult to peg down. In 2005, the Ministry of Planning cited 30 percent, while the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs put it at 48 percent. According to the Washington-based Brookings Institute’s 2005 Iraq Index, the figure is somewhere between 28 and 40 percent.
“I’ve been searching for work since I lost my job in 2003, so I decided to work as a housekeeper,” says Suha Abdel-Kareem, 30, an engineering graduate from Baghdad. “Since then, I’ve been cleaning houses and washing clothes – even though I studied for four years to become an engineer. But I had to support my children after I became widowed.”
While government officials say the problem affects everyone, some activists insist that gender discrimination has made the situation particularly difficult for women. “If they have to choose between a man and a woman, they’ll choose the man, especially for important positions,” says female politician and activist Maysoon al-Damaluji. “If there were quotas in place and gender discrimination was illegal, maybe fewer women would be unemployed today.”
Many women also complain that domestic work can often be degrading, especially for someone holding a college degree. “I was forced to do things I never imagined doing, like cleaning children’s vomit or wee,” says Hiba Jumeili, 28, an architect who works as a housekeeper. “And when I refused, my employer would slap me. So I had to just shut up and do it because my children needed food.”
In some cases, female professionals have reacted aggressively when asked by employers to do something seen as being beneath their station. “It’s hard for them to work as housekeepers after years of study,” says Zuhair. “Sometimes they can’t accept being treated badly.”
According to Jenan Mubarak, director general of the Iraqi Centre for Women's Rehabilitation and Employment, “discrimination and harassment” are commonplace for many women holding jobs as domestic servants.
To make matters worse, the experience of doing domestic work is particularly painful for many educated women as because it is traditionally looked down upon. “Many of my friends treat me differently because I’m working as a housekeeper,” Jumeili says. “Some stopped coming to visit me because I’m no longer on the same social level they are.”