Iraqi-Kurdistan seen from a women’s perspective
By Falah Muradkan-Shaker
I held my hand to reach my pen on to write an article about women's lives in Kurdistan, from a woman's perspective. To begin is undoubtedly the most difficult part in the writing task, even more so when the subject is a complex issue concerning women's lives and aspirations in Kurdistan and Iraq. What should be the introduction and how should the task of selecting openings proceed? Should I begin by writing about physical and psychological abuse? Fear from family revenge and dread from manifesting any sign of freedom? Female genital mutilation? Suicide by self-burning? Polygamy? Marrying women for women and elder for younger? Or perhaps a simple question like the sight of a woman standing alone in a street with the questioning looks of ravenous eyes fixed on her? Any one of those can beyond doubt be the starting point of this discussion.
The first letter I received in my e-mail this very morning was a request from women of the Miradwely tribe directed to the presidency of the Kurdistan Region Government in Iraq (KRG) and the Kurdish parliament. In this letter the women complain about the habit of this large tribe, which spreads in a large area spanning the border between Iran and Iraq, of allowing their girls to marry only within the tribe. They stress "We are uneasy from the injustice done unto us, of that unbased and coercive tradition that lingers in this tribe whereby women are allowed to marry only within the same tribe. This is a spectacular phenomenon, and it is wrong since a marriage based on false premises dispossesses life of meaning. No earthly or divine law supports such an act!!"
This is why I make this story the introduction to my article. I consider one of the ground problems and an essential desire of women in our society to have the freedom of choosing partners and lovers, which women from cities and villages, both educated and otherwise are deprived of. It is still the case in our society that a third person decides on this issue, not the concerned young man and woman. Obviously this is a great concern for many girls, and one rarely finds a family who agrees with their daughter's choosing the partner she loves. The majority of girls in our society are on the other hand always afraid when they fall in love, afraid that the concrete block that killed Do'a might be thrown on their heads too (Do'a was a Yazidi girl in Ba'shiqa, Northern Iraq, who was killed by stones and concrete blocks, executed by hundreds of men from her tribe in front of the police and security forces, for the crime of falling in love with a Muslim man).
The Women of the Miradwely tribe, that spreads from Ranya, Pishder to Qaladize regions in Northeast Kurdistan, are often married at an early age. By "early" is meant marriage or exchange marriage (a woman for a woman) at the crib to a male member of the tribe. In a study done by the Ministry of Human Rights of the KRG, 3,736 cases of infant marriage (infant betrothal) were reported from these regions: Ranya – 1,112, Chwarqurna – 1,111, Hajiawa - 846, Betwate - 187, Pishder - 480 cases. This is only a limited study and a yet greater number of cases are certainly unrecorded.
The geographical extent of the region, multitude of women issues and the large number of victims harmed by such practices convinces me that if something has to be done to improve the status of women, one should start from this particular region. Once we were able to do something about this region in Kurdistan then we will certainly be able to achieve progress in other regions, since the largest number of women fatalities, honour killings, live burial of women and female genital mutilation (FGM) are reported from here. Thus this area can be seen as a symbol for the anguish and suffering of women in Kurdistan as a whole.
On the issue of FGM a report by WADI organization raised to the Kurdish Parliament in 2008 details data taken from 31 schools in the region of Ranya and Qaladize, which indicate that 2,184 girls from a total of 2,317 were mutilated (94%). Furthermore, out of 554 women from the same region 553 were cut, indicating a rate of almost 100% in middle-age women.
Clearly different rates of FGM are recorded in other areas, and when I distinguish the region of Ranya and Qaladize as the real outcry centre of women I intend that attention be paid to the region. Women in these region fall under the traditional, cultural, and religious pressures and, driven by ignorance and illiteracy, become central agents in exercising the same atrocities on other women. Women are often the perpetrators of, or accomplices in, the majority of cases of forced marriage, honour killing, FGM and other forms of violence against women in these places.
It is therefore of utmost importance that raising consciousness is made the central aim and actively worked for in all tribes and classes of the Kurdish people.
In the last years, and specifically after the year 2000, women have manifested their dissidence in different ways; many of them setting themselves on fire. Suicide by self-immolation is the most striking form of suicide in Kurdistan, usually done by pouring gasoline or kerosene on one's body and lighting it up. It is frequently the case if too many difficulties and problems accumulate; suicide becomes the only way of gaining deliverance from the revenge of relatives, the false outlook of society and pressure from tradition. Preliminary data indicate that until now almost 10,000 women have committed suicide by self-immolation in different areas of Kurdistan, only in 2009 about 62 women committed suicide by self-immolation in Ranya region. This is an alarming figure and merits action and serious investigation and planning in order to identify its causes and instigate counter-measures to limit the phenomenon.
In November of 2010, the newspapers Asharq Alawsat and New York Times published a report indicating that 10,000 women were killed by their families in the pretext of preserving family honour (honour killing) between 1991 and 2010. Clearly the KRG rejected these data as false, but monitoring groups and expert individuals assert that the figures approach the real statistics. Those of us who live in Kurdistan are well aware of these cases, and no quarter or district, in any city or village has been exempt from witnessing similar events. I myself lived through two cases where women were killed in two neighbouring houses in our quarter. Indeed we are all aware of the wave of murdering woman that has swept the country in the last few years.
This is why women demand peace, appeal that their lives be secured and at least have a suitable place to seek when faced with injustice or violence and coercion. The number of such shelters is still not adequate however, and in 2010 a report about the work of these shelters in Kurdistan was published under the title of "Banging the doors of women shelters becomes widespread". This report records many cases of trespassing into the shelters, and prevalent shortcomings that are not fulfilled. It stresses the requirement for urgent plans to secure the lives of threatened women. Last week we were able to save a woman from dying. We moved her from Erbil to Sulaimani, and then sent her to Germany since she had a German passport. This was a very dangerous undertaking. Unfortunately many other women don't get so lucky in receiving helping hands.
Girls and women of this country are always struggling to get a shred of freedom, but they lack real support. Our politicians, in the dichotomy between acknowledging women's rights and freedoms, and the sentiments of conservatives, be them religious or tribal men, always take the side of the strongest. It is a bitter truth that our women would thus be left unsupported. The proposed amendments to the individual status law and the legislation against violence against women are the least discussed in the government. In 2008, while amending the individual status law, polygamy became once again approved. In the same year the parliament shied away from discussing FGM and continued in neglecting discussions of the proposed legislation for combating violence against women, something which they have been doing for many years now. These are real requirements of women in Kurdistan, and women’s rights and equality are basic human rights that should be provided by the law.
Nowadays if a woman is a member of the political committee of a party, or an MP, or a physician, or a university lecturer or an illiterate housewife, she will nonetheless require the presence of a male member of her family older than 18 years old, if she wants to apply for a passport! Otherwise she wouldn't be able to hold a passport. Women aged 30 and 35 years are going to the passport issuing body on a daily basis accompanied by their much younger brothers in order to request passports. In my opinion this is not only depriving women of their rights but an act of disrespect towards humans and women. But who feels concerned really?
While almost finishing writing this article a big uproar arose in the parliament and in the mosques of Hawler city on the use of the words "gender equality" in some proposed legislations. They claim that the word entails equality between men and women and is thus an unwelcome advancement. In one newspaper the Minister of Religious Affairs of the KRG says that those who use that word are "dishonourable" (Rudaw newspaper), and never is this minister faced with questioning by any authority or individual.
This is why seekers of democracy and secularism and the intellectuals of Kurdistan are supporting the girls and women of Kurdistan and have a different perspective on their needs. However, they are alone in this struggle and any support will constitute an impetus to getting closer to the attainment of another freedom.
Today Kurdistan is a place were such discussions take place, because it embodies a hope in the future, and the chance available to us in this region is exemplary compared with many of the nearby countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria or indeed middle and South of Iraq. Although some important steps have been taken towards change we are still far from achieving the optimum situation for women in Kurdistan, who, we hope, will rather sooner than later will gain all of their rights and freedoms.
Mr. Muradkan-Shaker is a lwayer and works as Iraq Project Co-ordinator for the German-Iraqi relief organisation Wadi (www.wadi-online.de and www.stopfgmkurdistan.org)
Translated from Kurdish by Hirmen Sabeer
Published in Ekurd