Barefoot in Baghdad, Manal M. Omar

The full title of this book is Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity—My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos. Naturally, I was intrigued. In this book, Author Manal M. Omar tells the story of her experience working for the NGO Women for Women International, a humanitarian organization that “helped female survivors of war rebuild their lives” (7). The book is both a memoir and a history of the US occupation in Iraq as it affected Iraqi women. The best parts of the book were the introduction—the only time the author truly delves into the meaning of “identity” and “self”—and the excerpts concerning the direct impact of Omar’s work in Iraq. It was fascinating to read about the situations Omar confronted and the women she met, especially her descriptions of how she implemented and oversaw the opening of women’s centers and training programs for Iraqi women.

In the introduction, Omar begins a discussion of identity that I wish was carried throughout the book, but is mostly confined to this brief intro. Omar explains that her identity has always been multifarious, a fact which has both helped and hindered her in different ways:

“By the time I was in high school, I had learned to embrace and love all parts of my joint identity with the fervor only a teenager could feel. I was an Arab and an American. I was a Palestinian and a Southerner. I was a Muslim and a woman. As I grew, I accepted that the emphasis on each facet of my identity would shift with the phases of the moon. Growing up in a world struggling to understand multiculturalism, I saw this ability to move among my many identities as my own secret superpower.” (xvii)

From the start, the author presents her multiple identities as an asset to her life’s work, rather than a hindrance. In fact, it was her ability to shift identity that allowed her to so appreciate the Iraqi condition: “The mosaic of identities inside Iraq was not hypocritical or schizophrenic; it was what made the country powerful” (xix). From the very beginning, Omar presents her personal array of selves as merely a microcosm for the similar multiplicity of identity she found in 21st century Iraq. Of her dedication to helping Iraqi women, she explains, “I lost sight of where my horizons ended and theirs began” (xxi). As a Muslin-American (“an oxymoron according to some”), Omar had an advantage in Iraq by visually blending in but verbally standing out. Her perfect English shocked the border police and soldiers, who saw only her headscarf and dark skin. Her aversion to war led other expatriates to label her as “un-American” while her American passport made it difficult for Iraqis to trust her. She found herself constantly caught amid shifting selves, having to emphasize different aspects depending on the situation at hand.

Omar’s description of the vulnerable women she meets is riveting, if only because their crimes seem so strange to a “Western” reader. Most of the transgressions committed by the women for whom Omar must locate a home fall under the heading of “honor crimes” such as “betraying their fathers and spending time away from their families without chaperones” (149). For behaviors like these, the women are unable to return home for fear of being murdered by their male relatives. Women who have been kidnapped, raped, or tricked into prostitution are equivalent to untouchables and can find shelter almost nowhere.

It was somewhat disconcerting that the author never expressed any anger or regret about the codes of honor she encountered. Having been raised in a Muslim household, she admits to being incapable of making important decisions without the permission of her father. When she falls in love with a coworker, they cannot date. They can only become engaged after permission from Omar’s parents. These customs are second-nature to Omar and she rarely pushes back against the injustices she encounters in Iraq in the name of Islam. This lack of anger toward rules and restrictions that seem intrinsically oppressive to me sometimes lends a surrealism to the book, which seems to accept the invocation of Islamic law against women’s rights as inevitable.

Some light is shed on this seeming disconnect when Omar explains how delicate the situation became when Western feminists attacked Islam at the same time as promoting secular, pro-women’s rights legislation. “Iraqi women wanted to protect their rights,” rights Omar, “but they did not want to lose their Islamic identity” (121). Many women were forced to choose between defending their religious and cultural history on one side and fighting for their rights as women on the other. Omar explains her own personal relationship to this conflict:

“This was a struggle I had faced my entire life. The balance between my Islamic beliefs and my identity with the Western concepts of democracy and freedom was a trapeze act. For Iraqi women these values were being presented as mutually exclusive. Women were being told they could only make one choice.” (121)

Omar’s sense of cultural sensitivity infuses her writing with a nuanced understanding of the conflicts faced by Iraqi women. Reading about Islamic-Iraqi women from the perspective of an Islamic-American woman was a new and compelling experience. I would definitely recommend this book.


About Madeleine Gyory

Madeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
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One Response to Barefoot in Baghdad, Manal M. Omar

  1. cathy casriel says:

    How interesting it is that she is working for a women’s rights org, yet still follows such strict patriarchal customs without resentment, seemingly. Maybe she has a particularly wonderful father, from whom she feels love and respect, and so she experiences his decisions as supportive and affirming, because he is usually in accord with her. This is hard for me to imagine, given my experience with a patriarchal father who was loving, but unreasonable from my modern, American, liberated point of view.
    When I worked in a battered women’s shelter, there was a Muslim woman from Africa whose husband (a maniacal batterer) had written to her brothers and father to come visit them in America. When they came, they helped the husband beat her, all for imagined crimes. She was one of the most intelligent and gentle souls I met there. I couldn’t believe an entire culture embraced this idea of males attacking the females, even their own kin.
    But so it is. There was also a movie called Yul about a Turkish prisoner who is released for a visit to his home, where he goes to kill his wife, because he has heard she has a lover. Nobody discusses how the woman is supposed to survive without a breadwinner when she can’t work and he has abandoned her or done something stupid and gone to prison.
    I think it would have to be another, different kind of book if she discussed her layered identity more fully. It sounds as if she would not be ready, or equipped to do that quite yet. I wonder if you could collect accounts of multi-layered women’s identity stories, and compare and analyze their unique, but in some ways overlapping adaptations to having these layers.
    I just read a book by a Chinese born woman called A Tiger’s Heart. I think you would like it. Her identity was very wrapped up in class – she was born to a dirt poor peasant family and followed her aspirations to rise in affluence. I think you should factor in class to the layers of identity when you analyze women’s narratives about their lives. And then, of course, there’s the whole purity vs. sexual thing, which played a big role in A Tiger’s Heart. I can’t imagine a woman’s honest account of her life that doesn’t discuss the conflicts over that issue, but I look forward to someday reading one. Maybe you will write it!

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