A man ahead of his time
Confronting gender inequality and corporal punishment in a school serving the Sephardic community of Baghdad, circa 1925

By Dr. Daniel Khazzoom, Berkeley, March 1999
My dad, Abraham Khazzoom, was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1890. He received his law degree from Istanbul around the time when the first world war was coming to a close. In the mid twenties he was elected Chairman of the Jewish community's Educational Committee.

The Ecole de l'Alliance Israelite was the crown jewel of the school system established by the Jewish community in Baghdad. It had one Alliance for boys and another for girls. The Jewish community regularly sent messengers to France to recruit the finest teachers for the boys' Alliance. As an inducement to a prospective teacher, the candidate's wife might be offered a teaching post in the girls' Alliance. Some of the wives turned out to be excellent teachers. Others did not. A more relaxed standard applied to the selection of teachers for the girls.

My dad felt the Alliance's girls were being given the short shrift. He urged the adoption of a new policy whereby the two schools would merge thus giving girls and boys the same quality of education. This caused an uproar in the Jewish community. Several accused my dad of undermining Judaism by fostering coeducation. When he insisted on the plan, his home was cordoned off for two months and there were threats on his life. But he did not give in.

My dad was an observant Jew. He had no hostility to Judaism. He had no intention of undermining Jewish traditions. But he recognized the injustice and wanted it corrected.

A compromise was suggested--that teachers retained for the boys would devote half their time to teaching the girls. Since my dad's interest was in ensuring an equally good education for all students, he agreed to the compromise. To the best of my knowledge, when he left his position as Chairman, the compromise fell into disuse, and practices reverted to the earlier system.

My dad also fought against corporal punishment. He promulgated a rule that teachers, principals and all other officers of the school may not use corporal punishment. Violators were subject to reprimand or dismissal.

On one occasion a student was beaten by his teacher and his mother reported the event to the Committee. Apparently the teacher was unrepentant. My dad wrote to the principal recommending that the teacher be dismissed but the principal, who apparently agreed with the teacher's position, balked.

Since the committee had no direct jurisdiction over the teacher so long as the principal was in place, it arrived at this solution--the Committee fired the principal, thus making the Chairman (my dad) the acting principal of the school. In this capacity, he fired the offending teacher.

Once again, my dad had succeeded in causing an uproar in the Jewish community. To many, this new "harshness" by the Educational Committee was incomprehensible. But eventually most became reconciled to it. Corporal punishment, however, never completely stopped. Incidents went unreported. But when a teacher was caught beating a pupil, it was understood by all that he or she risked dismissal.

I hope I have conveyed through this brief account, a clear picture of the struggle in the Jewish community in Baghdad more than seventy years ago--and of my father's key role in that struggle--to move toward humane and dignified treatment of their children, and to address gender inequality in their schools.

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