Iraqi Kurdish scholars put gender theory
to the test
By Matthew Reisz, Times Higher Education
October 13, 2011
Matthew Reisz on a UK-supported research centre
helping tackle violence against women in Kurdistan.
The term "gender" does not exist in Kurdish and is
sometimes seen as a synonym for homosexuality.
Yet gender issues are at the heart of the conflict
between traditionalist and progressive forces in
Iraqi Kurdistan, according to Nazand Begikhani, a
senior research Fellow at the University of
Bristol's Centre for Gender and Violence Research.
It is with this in mind that she helped to establish
the pioneering Gender and Violence Studies Centre at
the University of Sulaimaniyah.
The centre, set up as one of the British Council's
in Higher Education (DelPHE-Iraq), aims to
capitalise on the gains made by the recent Violence
against Women Act.
Dr Begikhani's involvement began when she was doing
fieldwork on honour-based violence in her native
Iraqi Kurdistan in 2010. She was asked to
participate in a collaborative human rights project
and decided to help create the centre at
Funding from the UK's Department for International
Development was matched by the Kurdistan Ministry of
Higher Education and continues until March 2012.
Comprising more than 30 projects, the DelPHE-Iraq
programme aims to "strengthen the capacity of Iraqi
higher education institutions to deliver
professional skills to support Iraq's development",
partly by improving opportunities for women.
Bristol academics collaborating on the project are
due to make five visits to Kurdistan.
The goals of the new centre, said Dr Begikhani, were
"to provide robust evidence and recommendations to
government", to adapt Western theoretical work on
gender to local realities such as female genital
forced marriage and honour killing, and to win over
those who claimed, Dr Begikhani said, that
"promoting gender equality would destroy Kurdish
A unit on gender and violence is now a compulsory
part of all sociology degrees at Sulaimaniyah. Many
graduates are employed as social workers, by
non-governmental organisations and in family courts.
Resistance has been countered by the support of the
minister for higher education and scientific
research, Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, who also holds a chair
in clinical microbiology at the University of
Four women from the centre visited the UK last month
to meet academics and community and women's groups
and take part in panel discussions. They were led by
Najat Mohammed Faraj, head of Sulaimaniyah's
Speaking in the House of Lords, she said that as
Iraqi Kurdistan is now semi-independent, it is "time
for the regional government to work for its own
The centre, continued Dr Faraj, could be "a platform
for awareness-raising, to support campaigns against
domestic violence and to act as an umbrella
organisation for many separate women's groups.
"Our work is scientific, paving the way step by step
for the acceptance of the new idea of gender studies
in Kurdistan. Every new initiative, as we know as
sociologists, faces challenges and resistance. We
are ready for the challenges."
Matthew Reisz is a reporter and features writer.
He is responsible for: intellectual affairs; trends
within disciplines, particularly in the arts,
humanities and social sciences; author profiles,
libraries and publishing as well as reporting on
issues in European higher education. He is the 2009
winner of the National Education Journalist of the
Year award, run by the Chartered Institute of Public
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