Monday, January 3, 2011

Remembering Layla

The first women's magazine to be published in Iraq
For a younger generation, grown use to listening to daily news of bombings in Iraq and sectarian violence, it is hard to recall a time when Baghdad was considered one of the artistic and intellectual centers of the Arab world. Especially in the early part of the 20th century, when this bustling metropolis produced some of the Middle East’s most notable writers, poets and musicians. Much of this cultural renaissance was the product of Iraq’s diverse social make-up at the time; which included Muslims, Jews, Chaldean Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Bahá'ís and Yezidis.
Even more astounding were the contributions made by women to this cultural landscape. At the time women in Iraq enjoyed a higher degree of freedom and education than some of their peers in the region.

The early beginnings of Iraq’s feminist movement can be traced back to Paulina Hassoun and her now forgotten magazine, Layla. At the time it was launched in 1923, Layla was the first women’s publication in Iraq to showcase subjects as diverse as science, art and current affairs. Published under the banner, “On the Way to the Revival of the Iraqi Woman,” the magazine also led a campaign for the liberation of women in Iraq by encouraging social and economic reforms. Its writers were not shy when it came to tackling pressing social issues such as education for girls, family health and financial independence for women.

Forward thinking for its time, the magazine also published medical research, literature, and poetry by well known Iraqi poets such as al-Rasafi and al-Zahawi. One of the most ground-breaking articles to appear in the magazine was an editorial on May 15th 1924, addressing to the “Constituent Iraqi Assembly” to grant women their rights. But despite the transformative effect it had on a generation of Iraqi and Arab women, Layla published only 20 issues; falling victim to difficult financial times. Its last issue came out on August 15th 1925, and soon after its owner Paulina Hassoun left Iraq. Despite this, today Layla points to a rich history of female activism in Iraq and the Middle East.

A studio portrait of a Iraqi woman, Baghdad 1935; Layla not only featured important contributions by Iraqi women but also chronicled women’s movements throughout the Middle East, such as Matiel Moghannam; the feminist leader and author of The Arab Women and the Palestinian Problem, who spoke at the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock during the Arab Women’s March to the holy sites on April 15, 1933; Legendary Iraqi singer Afifa Iskandar, Baghdad 1952; A group of Iraqi women shopping at a Baghdad boutique in 1963.

For decades Iraqi women enjoyed a degree of freedom in education, commerce and the arts. Two students at Baghdad University, 1960; Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, 1960; Arial view of Baghdad and the Euphrates River, 1959.
At the turn of the last century, Baghdad’s famous universities, art schools and conservatories were responsible for producing some of the Middle East’s most notable poets, writers, musicians and artists. Amongst them were a number of accomplished Iraqi women. From Left: Salima Mourad and Nazim el Ghazali performing during a concert at Baghdad’s Al Kafir Club in 1952; Iraqi singer Jawaher performing at a concert in 1952; The famous Iraqi singer Afifa Iskandar performing in the 1950’s; The product of Iraq’s once thriving Jewish community, the Al-Kuwaiti brothers were one of Iraq’s most famous musical troupes.

Students at Baghdad’s Royal Nursing School, 1920’s; A horse drawn carriage in Baghdad, 1930’s; A portrait of Dr. Najib Mahmoud and his family in the 1930’s, is a reminder of the Iraqi capital’s once vibrant middle class.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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