Iraq’s Fractured Identity: An Essay

This article was originally published on September 17, 2020.

The social structures in Iraq have greatly fragmented the sense of national identity in many ways, after all of the invasions, foreign intervention, terrorism, and constant tumult in Iraq over the past few decades.

Firstly, women suffer from a lack of identity in Iraq. In 2019, 85% of Iraqi women over 15 years old were unemployed, and those who were employed faced “harassment and intimidation in the workplace… don’t receive the same salaries as men for equal work… because they are generally expected to remain responsible for life at home.” (Boghani). Additionally, Iraq’s fertility rate is 3.39 children per woman, which is moderately high. High fertility rates signal “lack of access to contraceptives and generally lower levels of female education.” (Nargund). In Iraq, 44% of the female population over 15 years old is literate, while 56.2 of the male population is literate. In a survey of 80 Iraqi girls, conducted by the UN in 2010, it was said “parents, particularly fathers, play a major role in whether the girls can attend school or not… The girls refer to a range of reasons why families do not support girls attending school. These include… early marriage and the need to help at home.” (GIRLS EDUCATION IN IRAQ 2010). This internalized misogyny oppresses women and strips them of their individuality and identity, resigning them to the title of mothers and wives, rather than independent females. This all increases the equality gap between women and men, fragmenting Iraq’s national identity.

Furthermore, Iraq has been plagued by constant rebellion and war over the last decades, significantly destroying the social structures and lives of the Iraqi people. One major ongoing cultural and militant conflict is between the Kurdish and the Arabs. As of 1987, Iraq’s most recent population estimate, the ethnic groups were “Arab 75-80%, Kurdish 15-20%, other 5%”. (The World Factbook). The two groups have been fighting constantly since the First Iraqi-Kurdish War in 1961, due to the Kurds’ desire for independence from Iraq. This has splintered the idea of Iraqi nationalism and identity. The Kurdish minority, as a result of the strong nationalism among themselves and the consequent desire for a nation, is constantly attacked and discriminated against by the Arab Iraqis and the government. For example, the Saddam Hussein administration launched the Anfal Campaign, a brutal genocide that killed at least 182,000 Kurds. However, these events ironically strengthen Kurdish morale, a sense of belonging, and collective identity, while weakening the overall sense of national identity, dividing the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs people even more. However, as the Arabs continue trying to demolish the Kurdish people, the Kurdish are forced to fight for their identity, to preserve it.

Additionally, the rule of dictator Saddam Hussein shattered the sense of national identity further, as it furthered the divide between the Sunnis and Shias, two sects of Islam. As of 2015, 95-98% of Iraqis were Muslims, and of those, the Shia majority made up 64-69%, while the Sunni minority made up 29-34%. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni, so he appointed Sunnis to power, ignoring and oppressing the Shiites. He was eventually executed for killing 148 Shiite males in Dujail, where he was victim to an assassination attempt, although his timeline of violence against Shiites has dated back to 1974 and “by the standards of his brutal rule, the Dujail killings were a relatively minor crime.” (List of Saddam’s Crimes is Long). Oppressing the Shia majority by openly favoring the Sunni minority eventually led to major consequences and damage to the national identity as a whole.

Following Saddam’s deposition and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was a lot of bad blood between the Sunnis and Shias, which perpetuated religious extremism and violence between the two groups, dividing the nation even further. After the power vacuum present in post-invasion Iraq failed to be successfully filled by the United States, outsider extremist groups like ISIS, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda began fueling the fire that had been ignited by the Shia’s desire to have their religious identity represented in the government, and the Sunnis’ desire to retaliate. However, currently, as more foreign groups and countries enter the battlefield, the Iraqi nationalism and sense of identity continue to be diminished by outside organizations and governments seeking only to further their individual agendas, harming innocent Iraqis who are caught in the crossfire, destroying the people who make up the identity of Iraq itself.

Works Cited:

“Anfal Campaign and Kurdish Genocide.” Kurdistan Regional Government, Kurdistan Regional Government, Representation in the United States,

Bahray, Louay. “Iraq: The Search for National Identity.” Middle East Policy Council, Middle East Policy Council,

Boghani, Priyanka. “How Conflict in Iraq Has Made Women and Girls More Vulnerable.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 12 Nov. 2019,

Cockburn, Andrew. “Iraq’s Oppressed Majority.”, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Dec. 2003,

Cornish, Chloe, and Laura Pitel. “A 100-Year Struggle: the Kurdish Fight for Land and Identity.” Subscribe to Read | Financial Times, Financial Times, 8 Oct. 2019,

“GIRLS EDUCATION IN IRAQ 2010 – Iraq.” ReliefWeb, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Foreign Affairs, 1 Sept. 2010,

“List of Saddam’s Crimes Is Long.” ABC News, ABC News Internet Ventures, 27 Feb. 2008,

Martin, Patrick. “Explainer: Shia-Sunni Divide and Iraq’s Deadly Sectarian War.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, Inc., 25 June 2014,—shia-divide-explained/article19337058/.

“The Middle East’s Cold War, Explained.” YouTube, Google, 17 July 2017,

Nargund, Geeta. “Declining Birth Rate in Developed Countries: A Radical Policy Re-Think Is Required.” US National Library of Medicine | National Institutes of Health, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2009,

“The World Factbook: Iraq.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 2020,