‘A veil does not protect a woman’s chastity. An education does’
-Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi, Iraqi poet (1863-1936)
December marked the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Kurdish Women’s Union: a reminder of the KRG’s successes, as well as a blaring wake up call. Critical women’s issues in the Kurdistan Region are still too many.
As the Kurdish state strives to create a democratic hub in a corner of the world scarred by the turmoil of a dictatorial past, the region’s breech of women’s rights threatens to mar the KRG’s development.
Iraqi Kurdistan has improved tremendously over the past 20 years; with economic investment at an all-time high, increasing links to the international community and a largely stable – albeit controversial – regional government. In many ways, the region appears to be on its way to better days.
Even women’s rights legislation has enjoyed relative success in Kurdistan, particularly when compared to neighbouring countries. The reality however, is not as rosy as the KRG would like to paint it. Undoubtedly, women’s rights – or lack thereof – is not unique to the Kurdistan Region, and the problem often lies in the international community’s indiscriminate use of the label ‘democracy’. A title which helps to conceal crimes behind a democratic facade, rather than prevent them.
For many Kurds, the government-affiliated Kurdish Women’s Union lacks in effort and resources, whilst critics of the KDP insist on its inability to uphold women’s rights. Similarly, the Women’s High Council has done very little to change women’s lives, and have been largely absent in the region’s rural areas.
These government-funded initiatives seem to work as mere facades for the KRG, as a means to export an image of democracy. The reality, however, is that women in Iraqi Kurdistan are still victims of the patriarchy they were born into, and are inevitably constrained by the limits this imposes on them.
A tragically stark example of this is that of the female members of the Barzani tribe. Following Saddam’s murder of 8,000 male members of the tribe, the women were left to fend for themselves. This happened in 1983, today they still struggle to survive. It has been next to impossible for women to remarry, and until the 2003 uncovering of mass graves, many of them still awaited the return of their loved ones. The government has been largely criticised for the lack of moral and economic support given to the Barzani women, yet it is also another example of the KRG’s insufficient efforts to support the state’s women.
The sense of despair is particularly stark in Kurdistan’s rural areas, where female genital mutilation, honour killings and rape within marriage constitute some of the longstanding issues.
Women in rural areas regularly drop out of school in order to take up housework, resulting in a high level of female illiteracy, and thus a low level of employment. Ultimately, this makes them dependent on male family members, who often lead their lives according to tribal rules. Needless to say, women are largely at a disadvantage when it comes to tribal upbringings.
Whilst there is no doubt that women in Kurdistan’s rural areas are struggling on a daily basis, and have been stripped of basic human rights, one cannot overlook the often-silenced battle ensuing in the cities. Far from the mountainous landscapes and limited education, the region’s metropoles have seen educated women being stripped of high-powered positions.
Last year, the Sulaimani province lost three women mayors; whilst the number of female heads of municipalities was on the decline. According to an investigation carried out by Rudaw, of 27 female general-directors, mayors, and municipal chiefs in the Sulaimani province, only 10 still hold their posts.
Former mayor of Qaradgh, Shirin Salih, maintains that the role of women is constantly in decline. Critics claim that the women who have been removed are increasingly being replaced by men. Is the KRG’s favouring of male authority a reflection of the patriarchal culture still lingering over Kurdish soil? Given the deep-seated tribal culture, one would assume this to be the case. However, it is important to keep in mind that the government faces constant pressure from tribal leaders and elderly men, who have been unyielding in their refusal to accept women as leaders. The issue is complex, and tribal influence is still strong.
It is in Kurdistan’s metropoles that one becomes witness to the inevitable clash between ancient tradition and modernity.
I am a strong believer in a woman’s capacity to change the world around her, and override the centuries-old, gender-based game of suppression and discrimination. Yet in a land of attempted democracy, this pattern of female disempowerment is yet to be broken by male leaders.
Indeed there has been progress, however, it is troubling to see the slow-moving development of women’s rights versus the booming growth of the region’s oil industry. Amidst a safe haven, increasing economic prosperity and international recognition, this is the right time for Kurdish women to step forward and for the KRG to prioritise them. Kurdistan possesses the qualities needed in order to advance women’s rights, but this cannot be done without the state’s wholehearted commitment.