Zahra Ali became involved in politics while growing up in France in the midst of two historical milestones – the mobilization against the Iraq war in 2003 and the banning of the Islamic headscarf a year later.

As a teenager living in Rennes, Ali had founded a feminist organization that included both non-Muslim and Muslim women just as the headscarf ban went into effect. “My position was that women should be free to dress as they like, and even though this was advocated in the name of French secularism, it was a very racist law,” she said.

Zahra Ali joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers-Newark in August.

One of the major influences on Ali was her family’s Iraqi heritage, which led her to a lifelong exploration of the lives of Iraqi women. Although her parents had been forced to flee Iraq as political exiles during Saddam Hussein’s regime, they wanted to return to their homeland and moved back in 2003. But three years later, tragedy struck when Ali’s father was killed in the civil war.

As her interest in feminism and Muslim women grew, Ali herself moved to Iraq while working on her Ph.D. in sociology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales in Paris. She received two research grants – from the French Institute of the Near East and from the Académie Française – to study women’s political activism in contemporary Iraq.

The result of her work is her book, Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation, which will be published by Cambridge University Press next year. The book is an ethnographical and historical study of Iraqi women and their loss of social and political rights since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

During the 1960s, Iraqi women’s rights were viewed as the most progressive within the Arab world, Ali said. But after 13 years of sanctions imposed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S.-led coalition bombings of the country, women suffered from shortages of staples and earned poverty-level wages.

“Iraq was a very advanced country in terms of social rights,” Ali said. “We had an excellent welfare system, an excellent educational system and an excellent child care system. Women were in a good position with their personal rights of marriage and divorce.”

Following the U.S. invasion in 2003, however, women’s social and political rights continued to decline, Ali said. Because of the power vacuum that developed after the fall of the regime, sectarian armed groups took control and conservative social and religious forces limited women’s rights. Practices such as child marriages and the pressure to conform to strict dress codes proliferated.

“What you had is a huge portion of the society that was involved in one way or another in armed conflict,” Ali said. “When you walk in Baghdad, you had every 100 meters an armed soldier and that limited your ability to move around in the city.”

This year, Ali completed another book, Pluriversalisme Décolonial, an edited volume she coauthored with Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun, a professor at the University of Paris, which draws on Lain American and Caribbean philosophies and concepts of racialization.

Last August, Ali joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers-Newark. She will also teach in the peace and conflict studies program within the department.

Ali said she enjoys teaching at Rutgers because of the social and ethnic diversity of the students and the grounding of the university in Newark. “Rutgers is very committed to recruiting people who are engaged in the social world and don’t only live in an academic bubble,” she said. “That is clearly the reason why I came to Rutgers.”

Read more Faculty Voices