photo: Eddy van Wessel


Monday, March 15, 2021

When taking a taxi becomes haram for a woman


Badly affected by the corona pandemic as well as an economic crisis, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is facing a rise in domestic violence, while conservative imams increasingly oppose women’s rights activists.

Kurdish Salafist imam at book fair in Erbil  FOTO JUDIT NEURINK

By Judit Neurink

The corona crisis has had a huge effect on the position of women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as it has in many Middle Eastern countries. As Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed of the United Nations recently warned: without immediate action, “the pandemic could set back women’s rights by decades”. 

All over the Middle East, violence against women has increased since the pandemic began. Women’s shelters are packed to capacity and beyond. But in Kurdistan, even shelters could not prevent disasters. A young woman divorced by her husband for perceived infidelity was collected from just such a shelter by her family, who even signed a promise for the court that they would keep her safe. Within days, three of her brothers had murdered her.

This is just one of many incidents in the autonomous region, which is known as the safest part of Iraq. And while Kurdistan was a major player in the battle against the Islamic terror group ISIS, the rise of the group rise drew attention to the attraction Islamic radicalism continues to hold for some Kurds. At the start of this century, the region brought forth Al Qaida affiliates like the Ansar al-Islam group. To fight the attraction of ISIS, the Kurdish authorities closed mosques and banned a number of radical imams from preaching. 


Since the group was largely expelled from Iraq in 2017, these measures have slackened off once again, and imams are back preaching their radical messages. Corona, together with an economic crisis in Kurdistan, has had a big impact on women as well as on the work being done to improve their rights, says Bahar Ali (52), director of the Emma Foundation for Human Development. “The mollahs make my work very difficult,” she complains over Whatsapp from the Kurdistan capital of Erbil. “Because of the economic crisis and the ongoing political conflict, they are even more active. For now less attention is being paid to women’s issues.”

Kurdistan has not been able to pay salaries to government employees and pensioners for months now. Because everyone is focused on surviving and mostly remain inside the home, domestic violence is on the rise again. “Politically, women’s issues are not a priority. There is also less money for our organizations and our activities.”

At the same time, conservative imams have started attacking women activists. Feminists have been painted as a key enemy, seen as being against Islam and its values. “They say we import strange ideas from the West. That we want the number of divorces to go up. That it is us behind the dwindling respect for fathers and brothers,” Ali sums up. “The problem is that our patriarchal society listens to the imams.” Their reach is huge, through their 5000 mosques in Kurdistan. “Plus, almost every imam has his own TV channel, and many followers on social media. There are personal attacks on us, too, by the same media and in personal messages.” 


Just how influential they are was made clear in Kurdistan’s cultural capital, Sulaymaniya, where an artwork treating violence against women was destroyed within a day of its installation. Artist Tara Abdulla (24) had collected the clothes of 100,000 victims of domestic violence and sewn their dresses, shirts, scarves, bras and panties into a 5-kilometer-long washing line hung along the city’s main street. Her intention of spotlighting bad practices in a conservative society received support, but the artwork also came under fire for tarnishing the city’s image.  Abdulla: “Is the city tarnished by pain and violence, or by this piece of art?” Hours after the washing line was officially installed, a teenager on a motorbike set the clothes on fire. The whole line was then taken down.

Addressing violence against women directly touches upon the power over women that conservative men feel is theirs, says Xelan Nawzad (23). “It angers our religious men, and their influence in Kurdistan is huge.”

From a conservative family herself, she divorced and moved away to escape the wrath of her brothers. As a sociology student at the University of Sulaymaniya, her research into the Quran made it clear to her how religion impacts on culture and on women’s lives. To her, religion is “the first subject feminists should address, as it is the main reason we do not have freedom.” She wants to fight the mollahs with the same tools they use to maintain their hold on women’s lives: texts from the Quran.

She cites a recent example. An Iraqi bank is offering loans for second marriages, and is supported by one of the most conservative and vocal Kurdish imams, Mollah Mazhar Khorasani. He propagates polygamy, even though a Kurdish law placed tight restrictions on the practice. He has stated that the measure would be good for widows and single women, because men are numerically a minority in Kurdistan. “I could not find that particular argument anywhere in the Quran. Only that, after a military victory, women could be taken as wives and slaves.” 


With this practice employed recently by ISIS against Yezidis, the mollah had to find another, more acceptable, excuse, she says. Yet when Nawzad wrote an article on this subject, a feminist website refused to publish it. “Their argument is that the Quran is not our subject. So who should tell our women about it, then? Our women, who are scared of men and society?”

How big an influence religion is was also made clear when the Fatwa Council of Islamic Scholars in Kurdistan issued a fatwa on women travelling alone by taxi. In conservative thought, it is damaging for a woman’s honor to be alone in a car with a man she does not know. Although there have been incidents where drivers took advantage of such situations, declaring a taxi ride haram (forbidden) for women not only puts the responsibility on her, it also makes traveling difficult for women in a country where public transport hardly exists. After protests by Bahar Ali’s organization among others, and with many women ignoring the fatwa, it was finally withdrawn.

Bahar Ali is frustrated most of all by how hard it is proving to reach out to conservative women. “We don’t have enough platforms, especially compared to the imams. Also, it is not easy for uneducated women to understand the issue. Many think it is all in the Quran. We tell them not to be misled by the imams, as this concerns their own personal freedom.”

This is exactly why Xelan Nawzad prefers to improve women’s knowledge of the Quran than to make texts by western feminists available to Kurdish women by translating them, as other feminists in Sulaymaniya are doing. “The sexuality of western women is not our business. Much more important are the barriers we keep finding in our way: those conservative ideas about virginity and honor.”

Her message might find a bigger audience soon. Because of the worsening situation, more women are coming forward to fight for women’s rights in Kurdistan. A new generation, bringing its own experiences and ideas with it. “Five years ago, we were all about my age,” says Bahar Ali. “Now we are seeing more and more young women with critical minds coming to gain information. Those we train. For they are our future.”

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A trial sparks a wave of desperation and distrust in Iraq's Kurdistan

The trial of five Kurdish activists and journalists for 'spying' has left Kurds furious with their leaders. As hardship increases, they recoil against growing authoritarianism, writes Judit Neurink.

One of the journalists being led away after the trial.   FOTO TWITTER

by Judit Neurink 
"But Your Honour, they threatened to rape my wife!"

This exclamation, by a Kurdish journalist to the judge who would go on to sentence him to six years in jail for spying, may have made an even greater impression than the verdict itself.

Based on notes and pictures on the journalists' phones, plus confessions they refute or say were made under duress, five Kurdish journalists and activists had been convicted before the trial in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil even began.

At a press conference days earlier, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq denied that the 70 or so Kurds imprisoned during anti-government protests were journalists and activists.

He said they were "spies" working for "foreign powers" and provoking conflict, and "armed vandals who tried to bomb foreign missions". The prime minister, who headed his party's secret service before taking office, offered no proof to back up his allegations.

Given the number of judges Barzani's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has appointed in recent years in those parts of the Kurdistan Region it administers, the verdict was seen as a foregone conclusion. At least one of the trial judges was also a prominent member of the KDP, and court documents circulating on social media indicate that Barzani ordered the verdict personally. Even if these claims are not true, the independence of Kurdish justice is clearly in jeopardy.

Read the whole story here

Gulf states embrace Israel — and the language, too

Hebrew lessons are in demand in the Gulf. Since the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the rapprochement deals with Israel last year, "Shalom" is now often heard on the streets of Dubai.

Students in a classroom in Dubai
Hebrew language courses are experiencing a boom in Gulf states   FOTO EHI

By Judit Neurink

Curiosity, that's why May al-Badi wanted to learn Hebrew. "Wanting to know more about something we don't have here," says the young Emirati woman who lives in Dubai. Until recently, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had no formal ties with Israel. "I've been fascinated by the language since I made Jewish friends in the United States."

But the main reason she is finally starting an online course is her Jewish friends she'd met in Dubai; expats who invited her to eat with them in their homes for the Shabbat, the start of the Jewish weekend on Friday night.

That was a year ago, after the Emirates officially declared 2019 its Year of Tolerance. This led to the small Jewish expat community in the UAE coming out into the open with plans to build a synagogue. Since the UAE signed the Abraham Accords [Normalization agreements - the ed.] with Israel last September, thousands of Israeli businesspeople and tourists have flocked to Dubai. Hotels have adapted to their specific needs, offering kosher food but also pre-Shabbat meals for as many as 200 people at a time.

Read the whole story here

Friday, October 2, 2020

Are Iraqi youths losing their religion?

Despite the influence of religion in Iraqi politics, recent studies show that young people in Iraq are increasingly identifying as secularist. 

by Judit Neurink

“It’s about my identity,” Yara Ali said with confidence. Ali is an Arab-Iraqi lawyer and prominent activist living in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq; for security reasons, she uses a pseudonym.

“I was forced to wear it. It was to protect me, but it wasn’t me.” Yara, 29, told Al-Monitor. A couple of years ago, the modern, educated woman who had become a professional and loved her job decided to take off her headscarf.

Her internal conflict was caused by her upbringing by a pious mother and a secular father. “I was raised to be independent and strong, with my mother setting limits,” she said. The emancipation process gained speed when she traveled for her work and studies and was introduced to people with different backgrounds from her own.

“Extremist groups were another layer,” she said of the process that ended with her eventually taking off the headscarf. The policies that the Islamic State (IS) promoted in captured areas inside Iraq and Syria, and the atrocities they committed there, shocked the world. “It made me worry how people saw me — because of IS many people now view Muslims as bad people.”

Although Arab Barometer, a research network at Princeton University and the University of Michigan, suggests that the political system in countries like Iraq and Lebanon reinforces religious identities, which serves to maintain the religious influence in daily life, the same body concluded its 2019 polling surveys by writing, "There has been a decline in religious faith and trust in religious parties across the Middle East and North Africa."

Friday, June 12, 2020

Bankrupt Kurdistan is no longer 'the other Iraq'

The Kurdistan region of Iraq has hit rock bottom. What was once a promising 'other Iraq' is now a politically and financially bankrupt disappointment, writes Judit Neurink. 

"Welcome to 'the other Iraq'," tourists would be told when holidaying in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The three Iraqi provinces the Kurds have governed since 1992 were not only lush, green and mountain cool, but also more liberal, democratic and safer than the rest of Iraq.

It was the promise of democratic development that brought me to Kurdistan's cultural capital, Sulaymaniyah in 2008. After years of regularly visiting Iraq to train journalists, I had come to set up a media centre focused on developing the role of media, politicians and police in their new democracy.

Here, intellectual freedom - struggling in the region as a whole - finally seemed a given. Independent media started up, we organised debates, people dared to speak out. It was a completely different situation from the rest of Iraq and would only get better with time.

Twelve years later, that promise seems to have vanished behind the mountains. Soon after I settled in Kurdistan, one of my students was murdered for exposing ties between politicians and prostitution. More colleagues have been killed since. Tribal loyalties and overeager party members were usually blamed, in order to hide the darker and still less palatable truth.

A press law was now in place, but most courts still tried journalists using older laws that allowed them to impose punishments for reporting on taboo subjects like fraud, self-enrichment and abuses of powers.

I have seen TV studios set on fire and journalists beaten, harassed and arrested. Independent papers have now disappeared from the streets, and are now fighting for survival online. The freedoms the Kurds had worked so hard to prioritise, have been taken away by politicians who always put their own survival first.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Jewish heritage survived 'Islamic State' in Iraq

Mosul's Jewish quarter miraculously survived three years of occupation by the "Islamic State" terror group and the battle to evict it. Reporter Judit Neurink and photographer Eddy van Wessel went there to find out how.

Jewish heritage in Mosul (FOTO JUDIT NEURINK)

Judit Neurink, Mosul

When the Islamic militants of IS were finally routed from the city, most of western Mosul was left in ruins. But not the Jewish quarter. Here too, people are working to restore their houses. However, these are mostly still standing and mainly need repairs and a coat of paint to erase the traces of three years of occupation. While most residents fled the battle to free their neighborhoods of IS, they are now back.

Seventy-two-year-old Imad Fetah, who stands in front of his freshly painted gate, wearing a spotless white dishdasha, a scarf draped over his head, never left..

As he recounts the events of the years of occupation, he points to the blackened remains of a building across the narrow street. The fire was started by IS, he says, after the inhabitants had been ordered to leave. The house, which was built around a covered courtyard in the traditional Mosul style, is badly damaged but can still be restored.

When people realized what IS intended to do to their homes, they started refusing to leave. Fetah stayed put, too. "Daesh destroys old things," he says sadly, using the local name for IS. It wasn't only this neighborhood — every monument that did not fit with their strict version of Islam had to go: statues of poets and writers, Sufi places of worship, libraries with unique book collections.

The Islamic militants would only tolerate the things they had a use for, Fetah states. "Like the tunnels in our quarter which the Jews had dug." The tunnels were built to give the residents an escape route in case of danger. Until the IS takeover, they were likely last used when anti-Jewish riots erupted after the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948.

Read the whole story here

Bringing IS masses to justice poses quandaries

What will happen to the thousands of IS members who surrendered in the final phase of the battle in Syria? Neighboring Iraq might try them but the country suffers from overcrowded prisons and overworked courts.

ISIS-prisoners waiting for their turn in front of the judge (FOTO JUDIT NEURINK)

Judit Neurink, Erbil

With the battle against the terror group "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria now reportedly over, more than 65,000 of its members, among them thousands of foreigners, are being detained in camps run by Syrian Kurds. Since Syria's informal Kurdish region is unequipped to try them, and Western countries are not willing to take them back, Iraq has been asked for help.

The Syrian Kurds, who have been fighting IS as part of a coalition with the United States, are overwhelmed by the huge number of fighters who are now in their custody. They have warned that they cannot guarantee their continued imprisonment in case of an expected Turkish assault on their region.

In search of a solution, Washington turned to Baghdad, and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has announced that, as part of an undisclosed agreement, Iraq will try those foreign IS members from Syria who have committed crimes against Iraqis. He also promised to help repatriate other foreign members/fighters to their home countries. Fourteen French IS members have since been taken from Syria to Baghdad, along with 280 Iraqis, a number which is set to rise to 500 as part of the agreement. Talks are ongoing to transfer a total of 20,000 Iraqi IS men, women and children to Iraq, the International Red Cross has reported.

Read the whole story here