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“I will shut the school and break your skull”, tribal violence facing Iraq’s teachers

“I will shut the school and break your skull”, tribal violence facing Iraq’s teachers

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Life Marginalized Groups

Tuesday 31 January 202303:28 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

بندقية عشائرية في ظهر معلّمي العراق... "سأغلق المدرسة وأكسر رأسك ورأس مديرتك"

Zahraa the school teacher will never forget the day that saw father's "brutal" murder, after she gave a failing mark to one of the students she taught the Arabic language in fifth grade primary school, marking it with red pen ink on his notebook. Unfortunately, incidents such as this one are not an uncommon occurrence in some areas in Iraq, as dozens of her fellow teachers are subjected to serious threats along with tribal and partisan pressure on a regular basis.

The Arabic language teacher, who works at a school located in the tribal-governed Nahrawan district on the eastern outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, that is controlled by one of the largest armed Shiite militias, tells her heartbreaking story that made her hate the teaching profession.

“I’m the reason my father was killed”

About four hours after Zahraa, 24, returned home from work and took her daily nap, she suddenly heard her mother screaming loudly and slapping her face in horror and anguish over the misfortune that befell them; Zahraa al-Najjar's father had been brutally shot dead inside his workshop by the parent of the student she teaches along with his two cousins, “in revenge”, the teacher explains.

She adds, "The sight of my mother and I standing there for an hour, along with some of the people of the area who had gathered around his body as he lay on the ground in a growing pool of his blood, before he was taken by ambulance to the hospital, made me feel extremely guilty and lead to my strong hatred for the teaching profession."

Anyone who assaults a teacher or professor shall be punished with imprisonment for a period that does not exceed 3 years or a fine of not less than two million and not more than 10 million Iraqi dinars

Zahraa tells Raseef22 that her father's murder made her lose her desire to continue teaching. But over time, she tried to wrest the despair that had taken root inside her, especially after the killers were arrested and imprisoned.

The Arabic language teacher points out that "most of my fellow teachers are exposed daily to severe pressure and veiled threats of death by clans and parties. They fear for themselves from being killed or persecuted, and there are those who succumbed to their demands after being threatened and decided to grant a passing grade to some students who failed more than two subjects in the final exams, for fear of losing their life.”

Tribal threats and pursuit

Sarah (who asked that her real name not be revealed for fear of retaliation), tells the story of being tribally threatened and forced to pay 12 million Iraqi dinars ($9,000 US dollars) after the art teacher kicked out one of her students from her lesson and punished him for causing trouble to others in the classroom and throwing oil paint on their clothes.

"I feel both fear and frustration at the same time, ever since I was threatened by phone by the father of one of my students in the fourth grade, shouting loudly through the phone: 'I will close down the school and shatter your skull and that of your old principal, and I will sue you tribally because you have abused my son and harmed him psychologically and physically', and he hung up the phone in my face.”

Sarah tells Raseef22 that just a week after the incident, fear and panic had crept into the rest of the teaching staff in her school, and they began to blame her for what had happened, as if she were the one who had done something wrong. This forced her and her family to sit with the clan of the student's father, and pay the blood money as a tribal arbitration.

The art teacher recounts that she contacted the Ministry of Education, to which she is officially affiliated with as a teacher, more than once, but the latter told her to solve her problem by mutual consent with the child's parents, because it is "afraid of interfering with tribal customs.”

In 2018, the Iraqi Council of Representatives voted on the Teacher Protection Law, the first point of which stipulated "the protection of teachers and professors from attacks, tribal claims and extortion, as a result of or because of their official job duties," in Article 1. However it is worth noting that this law is not activated.

On the other hand, the official spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Education, Kareem al-Sayed, said that "the ministry has a clear position and has many decisions and directives in this regard, and we have many experiences and conducted a number of interventions to protect educational staff and school campuses and demand the activation of laws to protect the school environment."

My life depends on the sons of parties

Ahmad al-Hasnawi, a physics teacher who lives in Najaf province, about 150 kilometers from the capital Baghdad, says, "Shiite religious parties play a dangerous role in influencing teaching staff and threatening teachers for some parents they are affiliated with."

“Most of my fellow teachers are subjected daily to pressure and death threats by clans and parties, and there are those who succumbed to their demands after being threatened and decided to grant a passing grade to some failing students”

Al-Hasnawi, a physics professor, was threatened with permanent dismissal from the teaching staff by an influential member of the Sadrist movement, which is led by prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Sadrist movement is considered one of the most important Shiite ideological parties controlling the province. It has a wide popular base and three armed military wings: the Mahdi Army, the Peace Brigades, and the Promised Day Brigades. The movement faces charges of killing civil activists and influential religious figures, including the assassination of the son of religious authority Jawad al-Khoei, less than a year after the end of the regime of former President Saddam Hussein.

But Ahmed is fully aware of the power that the father of one of his influential students possesses when he stormed the school during school hours accompanied by heavily armed people wearing uniforms, and says that they “yelled out at the time various 'inappropriate' profanities against me while I was in the classroom and in front of my students, without me uttering a single word in response, fearing for my life from their trigger-happy attitude and quick anger."

"The child's father approached me with a weapon in his hand that I did not know the type of, and gave me a few hours to carry out his order to rescind his son’s failing grade, after he failed to get half the total average score," he tells Raseef22.

The physics teacher also recounts that he was "threatened by the same armed group with being dragged in the street and in public, if he insisted on not giving in to their request."

Article 5 of the Teacher's Law, which was previously enacted by parliament, states that "anyone who assaults a teacher during or because of the performance of his job duties shall be punished by imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or a fine of not less than two million and not more than 10 million Iraqi dinars."

“They accused me of Ba’athism and pursued me”

The phenomenon of assaults and attacks on teachers has expanded in an unprecedented manner, especially in the central and southern regions of Iraq, as a result of the dominance of tribal and clan power there

In May 2021, during the final exam period for primary school students, "I was accompanied by a five-person team sent by the Ministry of Education to supervise the conduct of the exams inside one of the exam centers located on the outskirts of Diyala Province, northeast of the capital Baghdad, and I found myself in an unforgettable situation," recounts the former educational supervisor whom we will call ‘Baydaa’ (pseudonym) for her protection.

Baydaa says that one of the teachers of the exam center questioned a student who is no more than 10 years old, about why he was half an hour late for the exam, and prevented him from entering the exam hall, so the student attacked her and began to shout loudly and threaten her by saying, "I am in Asa'ib (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq faction) and I will inform my father immediately and he will discipline you."

She goes on to tell Raseef22, "Indeed, his father came threatening and accusing us of being Ba’athists, and then he warned: ‘Beware of depriving our children of studying and education, as we were deprived by the cursed Saddam Hussein at that time’," noting that the child's father tried to pursue her more than twice, and asked about her in the Baqubah District where she lives.

Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, a radical Shiite armed faction officially formed in 2011 after it defected from the Mahdi Army permanently, is led by the leader Sheikh Qais Khazali, who is listed in terrorist and international sanctions lists. Later, many Sunnis in Salah al-Din and Diyala joined the faction, especially after it conducted battles against ISIS to liberate areas from its grasp.

Rising cases

The head of the Iraqi Teachers' Syndicate, Abbas al-Sudani, tells Raseef22 that "the phenomenon of attacks on teachers has expanded in an unprecedented manner, especially in the central and southern regions of Iraq, as a result of the dominance of tribal power and its influence on most government facilities, including the field of education."

He points out that, "Our educational and teaching cadres are subjected almost daily to intimidation and pressure, and this phenomenon worsens with the beginning of each exam period or coincides with the distribution of final results to students.”

"During the current year, we recorded around 85 cases of attacks on teaching staff only in the Dhi Qar Governorate, in addition to documenting other cases in Karbala, Baghdad, Diwaniyah, Wasit, and other governorates," he says.

"The child's father approached me with a weapon in his hand that I did not know the type of, and gave me a few hours to carry out his order to rescind his son’s failing grade, after he had failed to get half the total average score"

He concludes, "The syndicate has addressed the Supreme Judicial Council more than once to activate the law for the protection of teachers and deal firmly with those who attack educational cadres, but unfortunately our fellow teachers and colleagues resort to their clans to solve problems, and do not go to the courts in order to sentence them to prison and impose fines on the aggressor, so that he would becomes an example to others."

The encroachment of clans and parties

Jawad Owais al-Ghazali, deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Education Committee, believes that stronger and more effective laws must be enacted to curb repeated abuses of educational staff. While speaking to Raseef22, he points out to “the increasing danger of groups and people who are entrenched in partisan, tribal, and political influence, as they take advantage of their encroachment on teachers in order to achieve their cheap benefits.”

He adds, "The phenomenon of assault, breaking school doors and windows, and terrorizing students is nothing but barbaric behavior," stressing that "the Education Committee categorically rejects such uncivilized behavior.” He goes on to note that the Education Committee, in the process of preparing an "integrated" project to be sent to the Parliament in the coming days, in order to contribute to the protection of the safety and lives of educational cadres.

Although there are no official and accurate statistics on the number of teachers who are subject to clan and tribal threat in all of Iraq's provinces, their stories abound in the media and social networking sites.

Earlier, a number of teachers called on the government authorities to allow educational and teaching staff to carry weapons to protect themselves, while the Parliamentary Education Committee proposed a draft law proposing the training of teachers and professors on the use of weapons, amidst great shock and astonishment expressed by activists and bloggers on social networking sites at the time.

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