Publication date: 14 April 2023
My family fled to neighbouring Iran from the Kurdistan region during the Anfal genocide in 1988, and we eventually sought refuge in the UK in 1993. Initially, I focused on learning English, adapting to the new culture and completing my education, which distanced me from my community and our struggles. However, while researching my PhD on the experiences of Kurdish women living in England, I felt a strong pull towards my homeland, and began to advocate for women’s rights.
Between 2005 and 2010, during my post-doctoral research, I visited Kurdistan to interview women survivors of gas attacks, incarceration and mass killings from the Anfal genocide. I conducted fieldwork in all six of the regions that had been targeted by Saddam Hussein’s government. My experiences and reflections during this traumatic period, as well as my engagement with young people, made me certain that I wanted to be more effective in bringing about change. To achieve this, I needed to return home and take part in the redevelopment effort with like-minded activists.
So, after 26 years of living away, I moved back in 2014 to teach English and gender studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) and founded the Center for Gender and Development Studies (CGDS) there. My goal was to create a hub for discussions, knowledge production, education and community capacity-building. For this purpose, I built connections with stakeholders, developed and taught courses on feminism, formed a team and fundraised. CGDS launched the first gender studies minor in Iraq in 2017.
As is often the case in systems born out of guerrilla warfare, governance in the Kurdistan region began with promise and high expectations, but then unfortunately devolved into a corrupt system. Instead of becoming a rare example of inclusiveness in the Middle East, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has created conditions that exclude the majority of its population from meaningful social and political participation, with patriarchal norms still deeply enshrined in society.
Despite the passage of stronger legislation and promises of reforms over the past two decades, tangible progress has been limited in bridging the gender gap. Women’s rights activists have made headway in engaging the public with feminist discourse, but women in Kurdistan continue to be second-class citizens and encounter rising violence. Meanwhile, those who fight for gender equality face threats from powerful conservative and patriarchal groups that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Early hopes and problems
After decades of gender equality being sidelined by the fight against a dictatorship and ethnic oppression, women’s rights groups multiplied after the formation of the KRG in 1992. The advances initiated by the women’s rights organizations and adopted by the KRG in the 2000s were encouraging. These included the 2002 removal of Iraqi Penal Code provisions protecting perpetrators of so-called ‘honour’ killings; the 2008 civil status law reform imposing restrictions on polygamy and criminalizing forced marriage; the 2009 decision to increase women’s participation in political decision-making bodies to 30 per cent; and most notably the 2011 law on combating violence within the family, which criminalized physical, sexual and psychological violence, ‘forced sex with a husband’ and female genital mutilation. The KRG established institutions, such as the Directorate of Combating Violence Against Women and the High Council of Women’s Affairs, to execute its plans for gender equality.
Although the legal reforms are impressive, their implementation has been problematic. Activists argue that there is no genuine will among members of the Kurdish authorities to improve women’s lives. The 30 per cent quota for women’s participation in parliament and city councils, for example, is often filled by party loyalists who may or may not be capable of or interested in advancing women’s rights. Widespread corruption in the KRG has also given the traditionalists an excuse to reject the government’s programme for women’s rights. In October 2022, there was a serious risk that some of the rights granted by the 2011 law on combating violence within the family would be revoked, indicating the fragility of these gains. There is also a risk that any regress in Iraq more widely will lead to the rollback of these rights in Kurdistan. This was evidenced in January 2023, when the federal court declared the KRG’s amendments to restrict polygamy to be against the Iraqi constitution on the basis that these supposedly ‘contradict Islamic laws’.
During my time teaching and engaging with the community, I realized that a major barrier to achieving justice for women was the prevalence of a conservative cultural and religious discourse. In this worldview, oppressive gender norms and roles are presented as normal and correct and reflective of God’s wish or nature. This partly reflects years of sanctions and isolation, language barriers, and a lack of access to gender studies resources and academic research. It became clear to me that an alternative discourse was needed to explain women’s subjugation in terms of social construction. So, in addition to my work at AUIS, I began to expand my efforts outside the private university setting and to make discussions around justice and rights accessible to a wider community. We secured funding from the European Union to democratize learning, and to expand into public universities and beyond.
Since teachers, lawyers, social workers and journalists play an important role in constructing and shaping the gender discourse, a large part of the project focused on translating gender studies texts into Arabic and Kurdish for academic departments in pedagogy, law, social work and media. We also developed online training for professors who want to teach these courses. Our team created an online database to share the project’s resources with students, academics, activists and researchers. These resources include undergraduate course materials, podcasts, short films, and reports on women’s representation in Arabic and Kurdish media and in the K-12 curriculum for primary and secondary education. The material also includes biographies of gender studies scholars in the Middle East and North Africa. We were fortunate that the beginning of our project coincided with a decree from the KRG’s Ministry of Higher Education, which mandated the establishment of gender studies centres in all universities in Kurdistan, with the aim of teaching an introductory course on gender in the future.
The patriarchal backlash
We have made great strides in our work promoting gender equality. Through our programming and the discussions that it has fostered, we have highlighted the costs of embedded patriarchal ideas, illuminating sexism in the use of language, explaining the social construction of gender, and exposing patriarchal mechanisms that oppress and marginalize women. We were successful in obtaining funding to promote women’s rights, and an increasing number of groups and institutions have expressed an interest in working with us. More local media channels have started sharing our articles and views, and students and trainees are expressing feminist ideals and principles in their daily lives. But the effectiveness of our work has created an unfortunate but expected backlash against us.
The reaction against advancements in women’s rights has taken many forms, including a general increase in violence against women, the creation of men’s rights groups that claim women are now victimizing men, and defamatory attacks on activists. In an article for the London School of Economics and Political Science, I went into greater detail on the different dimensions of these attacks. However, for women’s rights defenders such as myself, the impact of our work has led to very public smear campaigns to discredit us and our organizations, and even direct threats against us.
One of patriarchy’s biggest weapons against women is instilling fear – of losing face and of being hated, shamed and stigmatized. So, instead of cowering in fear, a few years back I decided to disarm the online perpetrators by taking screenshots of the worst comments and sharing them on social media. Through my active engagement with these highly abusive comments and lies, I showed that shameless attacks like these will not intimidate or silence us. In fact, they strengthen our resolve to fight for women’s rights.
In late 2022, I faced the most severe and well-organized attack yet. Almost overnight, dozens of Facebook pages with large numbers of followers began accusing me of corruption in relation to the EU funding for my project. They accused me of promoting and spreading homosexuality, and of receiving funding from international agencies to destroy family, culture and ‘our high values’. These allegations were paired with pictures of me with my family and were shared hundreds of times. Thousands of people repeated these lies, calls were made for the closure of CGDS, and allegations were filed against me in court. This was when I first realized that I had earned powerful enemies who had been monitoring my work and collecting evidence to turn the community against me.
Although my work has focused largely on women’s rights for over 20 years, my attackers framed it as being illegal and against ‘our values’ for promoting the LGBTQ community. They also accused me of receiving funding from ‘the West’ to destroy our way of life and hence our nation. In so doing, they appealed to the Kurds’ longstanding fear of annihilation. The evidence used to demonize me consisted of references to LGBTQ issues in the academic texts we had translated for the EU project, a four-minute film we made about gender identity, and one of my old tweets from 18 months earlier that stated my support for the human rights of the LGBTQ community, members of which had been arrested by the police and vehemently attacked in the media. The association made between women’s rights and the LGBTQ community provided ammunition for my attackers to preach their hatred against me, and by extension against all women’s rights activists. The word ‘gender’ itself came under attack and was equated with obscenity, leading to attacks on all organizations and institutions that included that word in their programming. As for me, I was warned that my life was in danger and advised to keep a low profile.
The need for optimism
While this has been a shocking and painful time for me and my family, it has also become clear that the last 20 years of feminist work in Kurdistan have been effective. The fact that those in power feel threatened by this work is evidence of its importance. Nothing is more dangerous and violent than a threatened and failing system – and that is certainly the case for the patriarchy in Kurdistan. The resistance against theocracy and women’s oppression in neighbouring Iran has also created panic among conservative forces in our community. Personally, I feel more prepared than ever for the future, and certain that this work is valuable and needs to be continued.
As the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci said, it is important to combine ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’. Pessimism is important because we should be aware how resilient and dangerous patriarchal systems are. However, optimism reminds us that if we persevere despite the obstacles, change is possible. We also need to remember that men who oppress women are not purely evil; they too are victims of their problematic upbringing and education. I hope that Kurdistan will one day become the leading example of democracy and tolerance in the Middle East that had been envisioned.
This essay was enabled by the GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub.