The position of women in Iraqi Kurdistan

The radical potential of a thriving and progressive Kurdistan Region in Iraq for the whole country and the wider Middle East was brought home to me when I sat down last week with the Women’s Committee of the provincial council in Suleimaniah, the region’s second city. It wasn’t just because I was the only bloke in the room but mainly because it was a living testament to the greater openness and female participation in social life in the Kurdistan Region.

The three councillors outlined how they had won official standing in the council and funding. They began their work by conducting a survey of what female council employees wanted. Since then they have launched a campaign to curb sexual harassment, founded a Women’s Refuge, created a crèche and raised money for a recreational hall in a prison for women and youth.

This may seem quite mundane in the west but is revolutionary stuff in the Middle East where women are generally sidelined or worse.

Yet women play a much more prominent role in the Kurdistan Region with a quota for their Parliament where women make up 30% of the 111 MPs. Many were very vocal in a training session for MPs led by the former Minister for Women, Meg Munn MP and myself.

However, there is still a long way to go to advance women’s rights in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are too few women business and union leaders but the trade unions are making a conscious effort to recruit women.

The incidence of so-called honour killings and forced female circumcision is still high, especially in the rural villages that are the traditional backbone of Kurdish society.

The cultural attitudes that endorse such crimes are deeply embedded and won’t easily be shifted by legislation alone. The political leadership of Kurdistan has, however, sought to make changes. Their former Prime Minister raised these issues in a ground-breaking speech a couple of years back. This breached a very old taboo and he managed to keep more conservative Islamic opinion on side.

The government had made honour killings a crime which it wasn’t under Saddam. Their police are being trained to tackle domestic violence. We shouldn’t be smug about this as there are still high levels of domestic violence and murder in the west.

They have been unable to outlaw polygamy because it is allowed under Islam, which is recognised officially in Iraq as a guide to the law. Instead, they have sought to reduce it to nothing through administrative means.

Kurdistan should be proud of the work both women and men are doing to improve services and change attitudes. They deserve wider recognition and support.

Note

I visited the Kurdistan Region from 4-8 January as a guest of their Parliament and in my capacity as the Administrator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. It was my fourth visit there since 2006 and I have met women’s activists on each occasion.

Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.