Sara Pursley, Familiar Futures: Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq (Stanford University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sara Pursley (SP): The book comes out of my dissertation, which I had originally planned to write on Iraqi communist women and the struggle over the Iraqi Personal Status Law of 1959, one of the signature legal reforms of the government that came to power after the 1958 revolution. The law had been framed in the scholarship as a factor behind the coalition of Arab nationalists and Shi‘i and Sunni ulama that led to the success of the first Ba‘th coup of 1963 and the end of Iraq’s “revolutionary era.” So, it had been seen on some level as fairly important. Yet, few historians had devoted more than a sentence or two to its content and the substance of the debates around it. The connection between a struggle over women’s rights and the rise of the Ba‘th to power seemed to me like a more significant historical problem than could be addressed in a few sentences. Originally, then, you could say I was engaged in the debate over what many historians have understood as the “failure” of the 1958 revolution. In some ways, that remained a driving motivation.

When I got into the archives, I encountered a somewhat different problem. I was steeped in the gender history of the region, one of the richest subfields of Middle East studies. But I think it had not really occurred to me that most of this work focused on the late-nineteenth century through the interwar period, and its central questions and approaches might be less useful for the 1950s. When I started reading material on the debates over the personal status law, one thing that struck me was how everybody on all sides of the dispute were framing their arguments in the language of national economic development. Whatever position was being taken on the personal status law, in other words, was posited as the one most conducive to the nation’s future economic development. These arguments, and the interventions they nurtured, were different from the middle-class nationalist discourses of feminine domesticity that had been the focus of most historical scholarship on gender in the region. One difference was that the targets of the reforms were assumed to be lower-class women and families, both rural and urban, and not just those of the middle class. From here I became interested in the longer history of economic development in Iraq, especially in relation to reforms of family and intimate life. 

Meanwhile, as I was grappling with the ubiquity of arguments about economic development to these debates, I was reading two theoretical works on temporality, Reinhart Koselleck’s Futures Past and Lee Edelman’s No Future. These works helped me think through one of the most troubling aspects of the development discourse I was looking at: that it seemed to often work in a way contrary to its own self-declared yearning for change, by promoting in practice the temporal deferral of demands for change, in the name of stability. Probably most critically, Edelman’s argument about “reproductive futurism” as a political imaginary gave me an analytical framework for thinking about how attempts to reform family life in Iraq, in the name of the child’s and the nation’s future, were often projects to demobilize and depoliticize various forms of resistance in the present, deferring both political and economic change to a future that was always receding.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SP: Gender, economic development, and temporality are three primary themes. It is one of the only works by a historian to use gender as an analytical tool in the study of modern Iraq. It is also one of the only critical works on the cultural and social history of economic development projects in Iraq, though I think we may soon see a wave of studies in this area. The book engages with a number of scholarly subfields, but I think one of its contributions is to bring different literatures into conversation with each other in non-typical ways. For example, by bringing gender analysis and theories of time into the history of development, I was able to raise questions about certain commonly repeated arguments in critical development studies of the postwar era.

Another important subtheme is the role of American expertise in shaping interventions in Iraqi family life from the 1930s to the 1950s. One chapter looks at a well-known commission of American educational specialists who came to Iraq in 1932 and wrote a report, the Monroe Report, that shaped educational reforms as well as decades-long debates in Iraq over the goals and direction of the school system. I show how the Monroe Report merged Deweyan pragmatist theories of pedagogy—or “learning by doing”—with theories of “adapted education” and “industrial education” drawn from segregated schooling projects in the southern United States, to push for an education system based on rural/urban difference and male/female difference.

Another chapter explores uses of US agrarian reform theory on a land settlement project in the 1950s. I show how attachment to a US-derived model of isolated “family farms” contributed to social and ecological catastrophe on this settlement, which prioritized political stability above sustainable agricultural productivity. It is a very literal and material example of how projects to reform family life in the name of a distant and ever-receding future—which took the form of “home economics” interventions into the intimate lives of settler families—took precedence over the creation of livable presents and near futures for the targets of such interventions.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SP: The book has a clearer focus on economic development than the dissertation did, and it situates Iraq within the global history of development starting in the interwar period, while the dissertation focused mainly on the postwar years. I argue that interwar Iraq was an overdetermined space for the coming together of three previously distinct understandings of “development”: the nineteenth-century colonial concept of “economic development” as the extraction of a colonized territory’s natural resources; the emerging nationalist conception of the development of the nation in linear-historical time; and biopsychological theories of the development of the human through particular delimited stages. Iraq’s vast oil and agricultural resources, on the one hand, and its position in the League of Nations mandate system, on the other, make it an extremely productive location for examining the increasing convergence of these three concepts of development after World War I.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SP: I hope it will be of interest to scholars and students of modern Middle East history, and I also like to think it speaks to those engaged with gender studies and postcolonial studies globally, including the scholarship critical of postwar economic development projects. Probably my biggest hope, though, is that it will impact how future scholars write the history of Iraq. I hope to see more theoretically engaged work that really brings the study of the country into globally current scholarly conversations across a range of themes that I touch on, including gender, development, violence, temporality, revolution, Islamic and secular political imaginaries, and the rise of the United States as a superpower.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SP: I am working on two articles for edited volumes, one on British approaches to personal status law in mandate Iraq and the other on problems in the English-language scholarly accounts of the 1920 Iraqi revolt against the mandate. I became interested in the mandate period and in Iraq’s formation as a state toward the end of writing the first book, an interest that resulted in chapter one of the book, which I wrote last, and in a spin-off article in Jadaliyya on the creation of Iraq’s borders. I am starting to think I should follow this interest through to a book-length project.

I have plans for another book—which may now be the third rather than the second—on how US agrarian reform theory shaped land settlement projects in Iraq and Jordan in the postwar era.

J: The epilogue of the book is about the Monument to Freedom by Jawad Salim. Can you say something about that choice? 

SP: This is very well-known work of public art in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, built by the Iraqi artist Jawad Salim to commemorate the 1958 revolution. The regular protests occurring in Baghdad today take place in front of it. I originally was planning to use it as an example of the disciplinary and gendered imaginaries of linear-historical time that I criticize. But the more I returned to the work, and as I became familiar with a rich tradition of Arabic art criticism on it, I found that it can also be read as disruptive of these imaginaries. One way it does this is by invoking conceptions of time drawn from different traditions, including Ibn Khaldun’s narrative of cyclical time, which opens up ways to think about revolution as a perpetually returning phenomenon rather than a stage in a linear history that has some final end. This is an example of what I call the “fourth register” of the book’s title, Familiar Futures, in which futures are familiar because they are near or close futures, futures that might be realizable because they have some connection to the past and present, in contrast to promised but always receding futures. I think of these conceptions of time as ways to narrow what Koselleck has described as the ever-expanding gap in modern time between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation.


Excerpt from the book

From chapter three: The Gendering of School Time

IN 1932, THE YEAR IRAQ BECAME formally independent, a team of US educators from Teachers College of Columbia University toured the country on the invitation of the Hashimite monarchy. The final report this commission authored—commonly known as the Monroe Report after the commission’s director, Paul Monroe—criticized the Ministry of Education for a range of purported failings. Drawing on American pedagogical vocabularies of “learning by doing” and “adapted education,” it called for differentiating the Iraqi public school curriculum according to the different “environments” in which children lived. Two differences were of particular concern: the urban/rural difference and the male/female difference. A central critique was that the curriculum was “uniform for [all] schools, whether urban or rural, whether boys’ schools or girls’ schools, throughout the kingdom.” The report recommended that rural boys’ schools place more emphasis on agricultural education and girls’ schools on home economics, in the name of the “economic development” of Iraq’s natural resources and the “development of a national consciousness” among its youth.

Criticizing what it posited as the sex-blindness of Iraqi education, the report recommended that girls be taught “domestic science and domestic art, home-making, the proper care of children, and similar matters, subjects which now receive little or no attention in the curriculum.” It also called for an expansion of female education, especially at the primary school level.

These recommendations are made because the Commission believes that the life of a community or a people cannot be enlightened and modernized without the adequate education of its girls and women. To expect a modern school to translate scientific knowledge into the habits and customs of a people without the education of women is a vain hope. Nor can social life be modernized when the school instructs in one set of ideas and the home in another.

This passage highlights a temporal paradox that runs through the report. On the one hand, the report’s reasoning recalls Uday Singh Mehta’s description of liberal discourse as one “in which experience is always viewed and assessed from a future point. It is on account of this futural perspective that one can know, or claim to know, the experience’s future history, its process of gestation into another stage of life.” In the 1930s United States, compulsory education in domesticity was a fact of life for all female students in the public school system; for US educators advising foreign governments, it was thus a sine qua non of becoming modern anywhere. The authors of the report gave no indication that, for all they knew, compulsory home economics education for girls might just be a phase the American school system was passing through on its way toward less knowable modern futures. Rather, they asserted it as an indispensable component of what being modern meant. What made the remarkable confidence of this temporal perspective possible was that it aligned precisely with a spatial perspective; Iraq’s future was intimately familiar to the commission members as their own present.

On the other hand, the Monroe Commission was clear that Iraq’s future might and indeed should look very different from the present of the United States. As some Iraqi critics observed, the report said almost nothing about industrialization, for example, while it had a great deal to say about the importance of keeping rural Iraqis in rural areas, including by cultivating their desires for agricultural labor, “which has always been the chief means of support of the people of this ancient land.” A similar reasoning related to sexual difference is expressed in the assertion in the passage just quoted that it was through female students that public schools would “translate scientific knowledge into the habits and customs of a people.” This was not a call for girls to study the modern scientific disciplines in school, as was true of some late 19th- and early 20th-century discourses advocating the education of companionate wives for middle-class men. Rather, it was about teaching girls, especially lower-class girls, habits of living that may have derived from “scientific knowledge,” but that had already been translated by experts into practices compatible with the “habits and customs” of the people. Thus, the report discouraged overly “academic” forms of education for girls, as well as for rural boys, which might awaken unrealistic desires for change.

Some of the Monroe Report’s recommendations generated considerable controversy in the Iraqi public sphere during the first years of independence. An early charge was led by Sati‘ al-Husri, who saw striking similarities between the report and earlier British mandate policy, especially in its recommendation to reverse the expansion of secondary education. He also questioned the proposal to reorient rural boys’ schooling around agricultural education, which, he argued, deviously misidentified the central obstacles to economic development in Iraq. There were indeed echoes between the report’s recommendations and earlier British critiques of “bookish” types of education in Iraq, which had usually been invoked to argue for strictly vocational schooling for the lower classes. But the report was also shaped by American pedagogical theories that were related but not reducible to calls for vocational education.

The Monroe Report was the opening salvo in a conflict that pitted al-Husri and his cohort of ex-Ottoman Arabists in the Ministry of Education against a new generation of Iraqi educators, many of whom were trained in the United States. By the end of World War II, the latter group was perfectly poised to lead the Iraqi school system into an era marked by the expansion of American influence and by the dawning of the global “age of development” with the Bretton Woods Conference that founded the World Bank in 1944; the establishment of the United Nations and its development organizations, including UNESCO, in 1945; and President Truman’s Point Four speech promising US technical assistance to Western-aligned “developing” countries in 1949. The new Iraqi educators were supported in many of their proposals by US commissions and international development teams that arrived in Iraq, starting with the Monroe Commission in 1932, and appearing with great regularity by the 1950s, often on the invitation of the new educators in their capacity as ministry officials. These groups included the American Council on Education in 1949; the World Bank in 1952; the University of Bradley Mission from 1953 to 1956; Arthur D. Little, Inc., in 1956; and the US Technical Cooperation Administration (Truman’s Point Four program), as well as various UN missions, such as those of UNESCO and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), from 1951 to 1958. The postwar commissions consistently repeated the Monroe Report’s claim that the Iraqi public school curriculum was not sufficiently differentiated by sex, and recommended that female students from the primary through the secondary levels, and in many cases at the college levels, be required to take more courses in home economics, a field developed in the United States in the late 19th century that had originally targeted rural women.

From 1932 to 1958, the Ministry of Education reshaped significant aspects of the Iraqi public school experience around sexual difference, by revising curricula, textbooks, exams, and teacher training programs, as well as by constructing new schools. In what might seem to be a paradox, the differentiation of the public school curriculum by sex was paralleled by the expansion of coeducation in Iraq at the primary and postsecondary levels during these same decades. A girl entering the public school system in 1926 was certain to study in a school populated only by other girls, but it seems she was almost equally certain to follow the same course of schooling as a boy at her grade level. A girl entering the system in 1956 might or might not find herself in a coeducational primary school, but either way she would follow a mandatory female-only official curriculum for about 20 percent of the time she spent in that school. It was as if the more girls mixed with boys, and women with men, in the public sphere, the greater became the impetus to produce differences in their learned modes of thinking and acting.