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 Women’s rights in Iraqi Kurdistan at a “transformative” stage

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Women’s rights in Iraqi Kurdistan at a “transformative” stage  25.6.2012  

Photo: Rudaw. See Related Links 
Many Kurdish women can’t work because their husbands won’t let them have a job or have money.

June 25
, 2012

ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Four afternoons a week, after the children have left for the day, 60 women take their places at the Mar Qardakh Elementary School in the Ainkawa district of Erbil, a cool, airy building brightly painted in a style that owes a lot to Piet Mondrian. The women have come to learn English and computer skills to prepare themselves for Kurdistan’s newly booming job market.

“Kurdish women are in a transformative stage,” says Zheela Rashid, program coordinator at the women’s social development organization START, which implements the trainings. “We’ve passed that stage where we need awareness campaigns about women’s rights. This stage is the empowerment stage, giving women the tools.”

That’s the goal of the Kurdistan Economic Empowerment Program, or KEEP, says Safin Ali, Director of START:

“The idea of KEEP is to help them stand on their own two feet, to depend on themselves. The aim is to empower them by teaching them these new skills and to enter the job market with confidence.”

And it’s working, says 21-year-old Ranit: “The computer and English language training course is very good and gives us an advantage. I couldn’t do Word or PowerPoint before – I only used the computer for Facebook; but now, yes, I can do it.”


Half of the students are Internally Displaced People – Christians from other parts of Iraq who have sought asylum in Ainkawa; the other half are economically vulnerable women from Erbil – orphans, widows and victims of domestic violence.

“They are marginalized groups,” says Ali. “They’ve been forgotten by the authorities, so we are bringing them back to the community.”

And being prepared to take advantage of the region’s rapidly developing economy, he says, will help more than just their pocketbooks:

“With the stabilized political situation and the economic boom, more and more women are participating in economic life, so their voices are being heard.”

Rawa, a 26-year-old woman from Erbil, is one of the women participating in the KEEP program. She already has a job but is hoping to get a better one by improving her skills. Not all women are as lucky, she says:

“There’s a problem here in Kurdistan. Many women can’t work because their husbands won’t let them have a job or have money. But they want to work, to have money; they want to own their own lives.”

Rawa’s classmate, 52-year-old Khlas seconds that statement. “I want to get a job so I don’t have to ask my husband for money,” she says.


Familial and social pressures can be major obstacles for women’s emancipation in Kurdistan and Southern Iraq, says Nona Svijdic, a women’s rights activist from Bosnia-Hertzegovina, but they’re not the only ones.

“They are fighting for political participation, justice, security, education, economy – everything. The aggravating circumstances that they have, which we don’t have, are the tribal communities, the huge impact of religion on different aspects of life, and civil democracy on the other hand. We have only one battlefield, the civil battlefield – there are no other elements.”

Svijdic was in Erbil for a conference organized by the Swedish Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation that brought together women living in post-conflict areas. Another significant difference between Bosnia and Kurdistan, Svijdic says, is that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) hasn’t yet implemented many of the international resolutions on women’s rights.

“Do you think the men in Bosnia are gender sensitive? Of course not, but they are wise. So Bosnia-Herzegovina has accepted and ratified all international documents, all conventions – everything to please the European Union and the international community. They would choose not to but they are politically correct so [these laws] have to be applied, and that’s a great tool for us.”

The international conventions might not be in place, but Kurdistan last year passed a homegrown initiative that outlaws domestic violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) – a practice that is still all too common in the region.

“The importance of the new law cannot be underestimated,” Falah Moradkhin, Iraq Projects coordinator for the women’s empowerment group WADI, said in a press release on the first anniversary of the law’s passage. The law, he said, “is an opportunity for the KRG to demonstrate that the region is taking a very positive, important, and modern step forward.”

But he warned that simply putting the law on the books is not enough: “In theory, the KRG has a law against domestic violence. In practice, however, it has not been implemented within the past year.”

Safin Ali of START says that part of the reason is that the judicial system and the culture of the KRG conspire to prevent the law from being put into effect.

“A woman’s community, her neighbors, might try to prevent her from lodging a complaint against her husband because they look down on women that act like that, that put their husbands in jail. So the woman will be outcast, she’ll be politically incorrect. [And if you do go to court,] the judge could say, ‘I don’t recognize this law; I don’t believe in this law, I don’t like it,’ and let the man go.”

Both START and WADI single out the importance of creating special courts that deal specifically with cases of domestic violence, and provision is made for such courts in the 2011 bill.

“Special institutions to support this law are very important,” says Safin Ali. “The personnel working in these institutions should be trained, should know the details of this law. It’s a matter of convincing the executive powers and authorities that they should implement it. We need all the forces, all the efforts to bring this in.”


One vital force that women need on their side, says Nona Svijdic, is religion.

“I’m a Muslim, but my life differs very much from the lives of Muslim women in this area,” she says. “When I compare my life as a Muslim, I have a lot of freedom. First of all, the school I go to, when I marry, who I marry, when I have my children, if I have my children; I have the freedom to spend time with whoever I want, to travel when I want. The women here face different practices, like honor killings, or genital mutilation or forced pregnancy. This is not the Islam that I know or the Islam that I am practicing.”

How Islam is practiced in Kurdistan is evolving says Mullah Basher Al-Hadad, head of the Endowment and Religious Affairs Committee at the Kurdistan parliament.

“I support the idea that our interpretation [of the Koran] should be different from 50 years ago. The texts are sacred but the interpretations are not. There are scholars who are bound to the old interpretation of the sacred texts and are not able to give them a new interpretation, but a lot of our scholars nowadays have a better understanding of the texts that’s in keeping with the principles modern life; Islam should cope with modern life and all the principles are found in our religion.”

And indeed the 2011 Anti-Domestic Violence Law explicitly cites as part of its justification the fact that domestic violence is “in contrast to what divine religions and principles of human rights dictate.”

“If a mullah says domestic violence is OK,” says Mullah Basher, “he doesn’t understand religion at all. We would ask the ministry of Religious Affairs to take away their license because violence is not part of Islam – Islam is against domestic violence. People [need to] distinguish social customs from religion and eliminate those cases from the society”

Religion can be an obstacle, says Safin Ali, but START’s philosophy is ultimately pragmatic:

“This is an Islamic society and you have to work under the ceiling of that. Let’s think about how we work under that ceiling, to not let this society go to the far right, or towards fundamentalist Islam, as some scholars try to do. Let’s work under this ceiling and make women aware of how to use the positive sides of religion in their favor.”

Religion is elastic, he says, and you have to pull it and push it the way you want.

“Some Islamic scholars are against FGM, some are for it,” he explains. “Women’s organizations push the Islamic Union to issue a fatwa against FGM, but in our campaign against FGM, we brought a mullah with us to argue against it – with what? With the verses of the Koran and the sayings of Mohammed. So you have to be smart; you have to approach these issues in a way that helps women.”

At the end of the day, he says, you have to remember what you’re fighting for:

“What do we want for women? To have equal rights, equal job opportunities in the workplace, in education, in politics; to marry who they want, and so on. We don’t want everyone deciding their future for them. So we can work on that – by bringing some Western ideas, some Islamic ideas and some Kurdish ideas.”

By Hermione Gee - Rudaw

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