Teaching Human Rights under Saddam's Regime.

I think it is time to take you back to the days when I taught at the Baghdad University School of Law; the school I have studied art since 1987 where I earned my B.A., M.A and PhD. However, I started teaching at the Baghdad University School of Law in 2001. I taught International Law, and Constitutional Law. I offered my courses in Arabic and English.

At that time, I was the only female professor among 45. Later in 2002, another female professor was appointed. 

One day, the Chairman asked me to offer a course at the graduate level in English. He said “offer them something, anything!”

I went back home that day thinking of what to offer them. Looking at my bookshelf I decided to offer them human rights! The idea sounded a bit crazy. You see, there was one way to offer Human Rights in Iraq, which is to say that the Iraqi government .i.e. Saddam’s regime respected human rights.

I could not adhere to that teaching philosophy. I knew Iraq had a long history of systematic human rights abuses. Abuses included: mass executions and disappearances, arresting people without a warrant, torture, rape, oppressing basic freedoms, and I did not want to lie to my students by telling them Iraq respects Human Rights. So, how would I teach human rights in an environment that violated human rights on a daily basis? What would I tell the students?

Well, I decided to tell them the truth in a way that will keep my head over my shoulders. I prepared my lecture and went to my class. I did not lecture at the students; it was how professors teach in Iraq and many Middle Eastern countries.
I started my lecture by asking them; “what do they think human rights are?” Everyone one kept silent.

Some students thought I was crazy or a troublemaker, so they decided to keep quiet. I said, “fine maybe next class we come up with an answer, but I would leave you with this case study to think about:
“The City decided to shut down your business. Thus as a businessman you come to your work in the morning and you found a note saying; “We the city closed your business and you will not be allowed to reopen.” Can the city do that? What would it take to reopen?”

I like case studies. I think it is the best way to illustrate a topic. Some of my students owned shops or worked in a family business where they experienced similar situations.

The next lecture I felt that the students were excited. They wanted to see what solution, which I would propose. I depended upon my experience as an attorney, where I would pressure the city to provide a reason for its decision then challenge their rationale or prove it to be wrong.

When I presented my suggested solution the students started talking about their different experiences. Some said they moved to other locations, some said they offered a bribe to the officer. However, starting all over again was difficult, or the officer became greedy and asked for more. 

This small step has been just the beginning. In my class, the students and I discussed topics such as  freedom of speech or the right to comment. In fact I offered a course entitled the Right to Comment, discussing many case studies.
I think I need to tell you how I kept my head over my shoulders. I made sure to mention this sentence in each and every lecture"this is what happened under the apartheid regime in South Africa."

After the class, many students followed me to my car saying; "we concerned about you, please take care."

I guess the regime considered me a minor player, especially that the regime was focusing on the international political front and the threats posed by the U.S.

At one point my students wanted to see the House of the Lords in UK after we discussed it in a lecture. However, the School of Law lacked any technology equipments. So, my students and I devised a plan. I would bring my PC and prepare a PowerPoint, one student would bring a projector and another would bring a small generator (electricity was not stable.) So it was. We had fun, real fun.

What I have learned from this story is the small steps matter, and they can make all the difference.


Bryony said…
Thanks for posting your story - it's hard for me to know what to say, there are so many things I've always taken for granted in my own country. I'm glad your students had the opportunity to talk about human rights and think of a better future, and that there are people like you brave enough to take the personal risk to do so. Do you know if there are any more female professors teaching in the School of Law now? I hope so!
Mishkat said…
Dear Bryony,
Thank you for your kind note. I know we exchanged notes on Facebook. However, I would like to leave a comment here too. Two female professors were appointed later. They were brave and talented.

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