photo: Eddy van Wessel


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Make Kurdistan a better place for women

'If a woman cheats on her husband, she deserves to be killed', the young Kurd from a rich and influential family says. 'My wife can get a divorce, if she asks me. But if she cheats on me - I cannot accept that.'

We sit in a nice garden outside town, drinking a beer, eating salad and kebab. Like often in mixed company, the problem of honor killings has settled the mood between us, between men and women, and between Kurds and non-Kurds. Recently, a girl in the Kurdish town of Kalar has been killed by her brother, after she became pregnant by her other brother. Who's honor was in danger, you wonder. The case was bad enough for Kurdish women to get together and demonstrate against honor killings and violence against women. A novelty, because women in Kurdistan are hardly heard, and are hardly seen to protest in the streets.

The issue is not only discussed in the West, where Kurdish brothers hit the news as they kill their sisters, or fathers their daughters. Kurds are too often the subject in these news items. The problem finally has become an issue in Iraqi Kurdistan too, where modernity creeps in with the money earned and spent in this booming part of Iraq. In June of last year, the Kurdistan parliament agreed on an important law concerning women: one that punishes violence against women, and includes a prohibition on female genital mutilation FGM (in some regions of Iraq as many as 90 percent of the women get circumcised).

The problem that we all foresaw then, was that this law would need to be implemented, to be made to work. The police and the courts need to know what to do. How do you find the old women that circumcise young girls, how do you prevent them from doing what they consider as their job, how do you prove your case? What can you do when the mother agrees on the practice, as always is the case? Who will act when a woman is beaten up? Is the police making special teams to work on this issue?

No, I am not mixing up two subjects. I am covering here violence against women, and I consider the circumcision of young girls and women an act of violence against them.

The case of the girl in Kalar shows that a law alone is not enough. The parents of the girl, who are of course also the parents of the two young men involved, will not file a complaint. That makes persecuting the killer difficult. The fact that the young men will go unpunished does not at all set the right example.

Human Rights Watch reports that the law has not been enforced. 'The regional government has begun to run awareness campaigns, train judges, and issue orders to police on the articles of the law dealing with domestic violence. But it apparently has not taken similar steps to implement the FGM ban', says the human rights organization.

Let's see what else HRW says:
Several police officers told Human Rights Watch that their superiors had not given them any instructions or explanation of the ban on FGM. The head of an Interior Ministry directorate tasked with tracking violence against women confirmed to Human Rights Watch that no such instructions or explanation had yet been given.

The highest Muslim authority in Iraqi Kurdistan issued a fatwa in July 2010 saying that Islam does not require female genital mutilation. But after parliament passed the Family Violence Law, Mullah Ismael Sosaae, a religious leader, gave a Friday sermon in Erbil demanding that the KRG president, Massoud Barzani, refuse to sign it into law. Barzani did not sign it, but allowed the law to go into effect when it was published in the government’s Official Gazette (#132) on August 11, 2011. Critics in the Kurdish region say that this was an effort by Barzani to avoid confrontation with religious leaders like Sosaae while allowing the bill to become a law, but that this approach sent the message that those against the law could continue to undermine it. 

So here also, the wrong message was sent, it seems.

Members of parliament and civil society activists have criticized the government’s lack of action, and say the practice remains prevalent, particularly in areas such as Rania, Haji Awa, and Qalat Diza.

The areas that HRW mentions, are infamous for violence against women. Here the most honor killings take place, here the most girls are forced to set fire to themselves if the family feels the honor is violated. Is there a relation between this and FGM? I have not seen any reports on this subject, but I guess that when you feel that you can mutilate a girl of five, you will not treat a young woman in a much better way. What it all comes down to is respect, what it comes down to is agreeing that women have a right to their own (sex) life, that they are not the property of their fathers or husbands.

At the table in the dark garden, we implore the young and well-educated guy to think twice. We try to make him understand that change is needed, and that change will have to come from the men too. Is it true that men can only think of honor? Is it true that all men think honor is more important than life? 'No', he says, under pressure of a group of well spoken women at his table, 'there are modern men who do not agree to those practices.'

Well in that case, it is high time that those men speak out. That they make their voice heard, their opinion read, that honor killings are not of this time and no longer acceptable in Iraqi Kurdistan. That a life is too important, that a woman is not the property of a man, that honor is something out of the history books.

Modern men in Iraqi Kurdistan: stand up for your women. And at the same time, stand up for your country. After having fought so long and fiercely for a free Kurdistan, now it is time to consider how the outside world looks at you. And when it comes to honor killings and the way women are treated, the outside world thinks Kurdistan has got stuck in history and never moved out of the Middle Ages.

Prove them wrong, out there. Make Kurdistan a better place for women.

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