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.

  • Danny Boy

    ‘We shouldn’t be smug about this’: bloody right, has the Belfast Rape Crisis centre won back ANY government funding yet?

  • wild turkey

    ‘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.’

    I’d be interested on any pointers/links to articles and/or analysis of how the former prime minister managed to keep conservative opinion ‘on side’. there may be lessons there?

    on a broader and simpler point.

    Gary, thanks for this post and its implicit bigger picture perspective.

    a perspective which is often lost or ignored in the self-absorption which is nornironland… and, current soap operas not withstanding, occassionally slugger.

  • RepublicanStones

    Interesting article Gary. And the links wild turkey suggested would be welcome.

    The Sharafnama mentions as far back as the 16th century a few Kurdish women in powerful positions.
    Its strange, but sometimes it seems the past was a more civilized place.

  • wild turkey

    ‘Its strange, but sometimes it seems the past was a more civilized place. ‘

    well RS, in some ways, it probably was.Especially before the advent of spin, the 24/7 news cycle… and blogs like slugger o’toole… a certain civility was practiced.

    many, especially our politically correct friends, might call this civilized past a conspiracy of wealthy white males… and perhaps they are right.

    and apologies to gary et al if i go off topic for a bit. is that okay? i am as jaded and cynical as they come, a product of the sixties and a vet of vietnam… but even LBJ saw the writing on the wall… and packed it in.

    so to take this full circle, any links or pointers Gary on an interesting post? just how does one effect change and keep the conservatives on side?

    thanx

  • Kathy C

    posted by Kathleen Collins

    thank you for sharing your experiences. With all that is happening in northern Ireland currently, it makes me wonder about women there. We have Aine a victime of sexual rape by her father..and going to the clan elder…her uncle…and he campaigned with the rapist which gave the community his seal of approval. All in all…a sad commentary about woman in northern ireland…and I hope attitudes change there as well as in Kurdistan.

  • Gary

    Interesting stuff, thanks. We can all get a little smug when we report on the ‘third world’, in fact as far as women in parliament is concerned the United States has only 16.8% women representatives. Japan has 9.4% women in the Diet. Rwanda, with 48.8%, and Sweden, with 47%, have the highest representation of women in any parliament in the world, versus the UK’s paltry 19% women MPs.

    Spain comes a commendable fifth in the European Women in Politics League with 36.3% female MPs. More than half of Spanish cabinet ministers are women.

    The 20 countries with more than 30% women in parliament share two things in common: their electoral system uses some form of proportional representation and they use quotas.

    Leaving the Scottish parliament with 33.3% women members and the Welsh assembly with 46.7% women members. In 2007 NI Assemble elections election only returned 18 women (or 16.7%) out of a total of 108 MLAs were elected. (Thanks to Lesley Abdela for statistics and info)

    As these statistics show we have nothing to be smug about and in no way are we in a position to lecture others, not least in the middle east, where theUK has played a major role in placing governments in power who encourage the discrimination of women. I am thinking of Iraq and Afghanistan, plus we bolster the reactionary regime in Saudi Arabia. (Iraqi Kurdistan is a historical special case)

  • Brian MacAodh

    Having low representation figures is a lot different than not allowing our women to drive, keeping them in burqas, killing them if they violate our family’s honor, not allowing them out of the house by themselves, burning down girls schools, treating them as slaves, etc.

    Get a clue.

  • Danny Boy

    No-one’s saying it isn’t, Brian, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth noting that everything is not rosy with ‘our women’ (lol!). Especially as the current peculiar terrorised climate has lead to every anti-muslim suddenly claiming to be a feminist, and sexism in the middle east being presented as totally foreign to us, while, as Mickhall points out, our hands aren’t even clean of the oppression of women there, and we have plenty of work to do here. Of course I’d rather be a woman here than a woman in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, I just don’t think that’s saying much.

  • Brian MacAodh

    Well, in any event, this news story was certainly a pleasant surprise to see. A ray of light through the darkness sort of thing.

  • Brian,

    The fact that you seem to imply all muslims do such things suggest you may not have a ‘clue’ how over a billion people who make up the earths population actually live.

    It also tells me a great deal about your own attitude towards women; as a man, you seem to believe it is for you to decide what is oppressive behaviour towards women, or not.

    The only difference between refusing women the right to drive or say girls an education, etc, and our lack of a proportional number of woman in parliament is one of degrees. Both are harmful for women and society as a whole, and come about by the decisions of fearful small minded men who are protecting their own privileges.

    Out of interest, were do you stand on a woman’s right to choose?

    It seems pretty obvious to me if there were an equal number of woman in a legislature, laws which directly oppress or restrict women would not last long. It is not rocket science to remove oppressive, sexist, legislation, as countries like Sweden and have managed to equal out the legislative process.

    That this has not happened in the UK, USA and elsewhere, is because powerful men prevent it; and people like you tolerate it.

  • Paddy

    So, does the fact that a few female collaborators have parliamentary jobs justify the criminal invasion by Bush and Blair? Meanwhile, Muslims in Britain are not even allowed protest against the rape and slaughter of their co-religionists by the “peace keepers”. And Blair just landed himself another handy little earner with Louis Vuitton. No one, it seems, wants Bush. Maybe the Kurdish collaborators will welcome him. Or perhaps the Afghan poppy growers.

  • Brian MacAodh

    “The fact that you seem to imply all muslims do such things suggest you may not have a ‘clue’ how over a billion people who make up the earths population actually live.”

    Those that inhabit large swaths of the middle east often experience a life in the manner in which I depict, for the most part. Obviously in most areas girls are allowed a meager education and don’t have to wear a full burqa, but their general situation is that of an obvious inferior.

    “It also tells me a great deal about your own attitude towards women; as a man, you seem to believe it is for you to decide what is oppressive behaviour towards women, or not.”

    I’m not sure I follow you. I was simply pointing out that gulf between woman’s rights and freedoms in the West compared to those in Islamic countries. While it is never good to be smug, it is not good to pretend that we are anywhere near the same situation with regard to gender inequality as that part of the world is.

    “The only difference between refusing women the right to drive or say girls an education, etc, and our lack of a proportional number of woman in parliament is one of degrees. Both are harmful for women and society as a whole, and come about by the decisions of fearful small minded men who are protecting their own privileges.”

    Agreed, but our society has advanced many degrees in this area throughout the last 200 years and I would like to believe we are nearing the home stretch. Just the fact that women are childbearers and mothers might always keep the numbers slightly lower then men. Obviously, numbers like 16.8% or not slightly lower.

    “Out of interest, were do you stand on a woman’s right to choose?”

    I am firmly against abortion, but at the same time I (or the govt) don’t have a right to tell women what to do. Other than limits on 3rd trimester abortions and particularly cruel practices, I think abortions should remain legal.(I live in the states now, what is the current status in the 6 counties?)

    “It seems pretty obvious to me if there were an equal number of woman in a legislature, laws which directly oppress or restrict women would not last long. It is not rocket science to remove oppressive, sexist, legislation, as countries like Sweden and have managed to equal out the legislative process.”

    Yes, but progress has been and will continue to be made. The end goal isn’t too far away in this area, IMO. From the generation of the babyboomers to the most recent crop I thikn there has been a huge shift in perception and thinking.

    “That this has not happened in the UK, USA and elsewhere, is because powerful men prevent it; and people like you tolerate it.”

    Probably correct on both counts, to be honest. I don’t actively tolerate it but I can’t say I am doing anything to improve the situation either.

  • pinni

    In spite of the teething problems, thank you George Bush for helping to establish freedom and democracy in Iraq and bringing an end to decades of mindless slaughter.

    What a positive legacy for Bush to leave. Only people with a warped perspective like Republican Stones would think that ‘sometimes it seems the past was a more civilized place’

  • Brian

    Thanks for taking the trouble to reply, I do not agree completely with your take but I found your honesty extremely refreshing.

    I’m pushed for time so apologies for not replying in full.

    All the best

  • Kathy C

    posted by Kathleen Collins

    Hi Danny Boy,

    I liked your comment,
    ” Of course I’d rather be a woman here than a woman in Iraq or Saudi Arabia, I just don’t think that’s saying much.

    Posted by Danny Boy on Jan 12, 2010 @ 05:01 PM”

    if you don’t mind my asking…are you a woman…I thought by your name …you were a man.

  • Danny Boy

    I enjoy the gender-free anonymity of the internet! So I’m cross-dressing, as it were.

  • Danny Boy

    PS: Sh! 😉