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.”
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