IRAQ: Supporting our sisters
by Joe Mueller
Despite repeatedly calling for an end to violence against women, the young men continued to dominate the conversation.¬† Nearly every time one of the two women spoke, one of the men cut her off.¬† The men in this CPT training group of seven were saying all the right things, but they were more interested in speaking than in hearing about the oppression experienced by their sisters.¬† At one point, when I asked the group what men could do to support women, the men competed with each other to analyze the problem.¬† Even when I redirected the question to the older of the two women, a hesitant party-affiliated activist, she seemed unwilling to answer directly.¬† Her response, however, showed that her uncertainty was more a matter of inability than unwillingness.¬† "How can I trust any man in my culture?" she demanded, "I can not.¬† We women have all been betrayed by every man in our society."¬†
Returning to Suleimaniya and increasingly overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of sexism here, I learned a few days later that the rate of female circumcision in this area of the KRG has reached over 55%.¬† While rarer in the cities, it may still reach as high as forty percent of Kurdish women.¬†
Gender-based violence is a deeply engrained phenomenon here in the KRG. ¬†Spurred on by civil society organizations (CSOs), the government has denounced this violence.¬† However, despite a recent campaign against honor killings, reports of these crimes appear regularly in the newspapers.¬† Sprinkled among stories of honor killings--a practice much decried among liberal Kurds in Suleimaniya where women drive, work and organize relatively freely--are other stories of women committing or attempting to commit suicide when forced into intolerable marriages.*
Lately, I look at Kurdish women on the street with different eyes.¬† "Is she a survivor of that?" I wonder.¬† I'm shocked at my own ignorance of what my sisters are experiencing. Comparatively, issues of financial compensation and conversational participation seem to pale.¬† Yet they are a part of the matrix of control that men have written onto women's lives and bodies in the harshest of terms.¬†
The most gruesome of these levels of control, even when common, are also least acceptable in this society.¬† However, hundreds of other smaller oppressions show little sign of fading.¬† Kurdish women do not travel at night or live alone.¬† Upon them primarily falls the burden of hospitality.¬† The ranks of power are closed to them as are the caf√©s, pool halls, mosques, and swimming places - not explicitly, but not subtly, either.
Yesterday, I spoke to a friend here who lamented the sexism too.¬† He has been abroad for years and consciously struggled to undo sexist behaviors.¬† Talking helped me realize that supporting our sisters means helping our brothers to see what we have built and must dismantle.¬† That means not only acting out against honor killings, but also accepting leadership from and opening up the closed spaces of society to our sisters.
* According to "Women's Rights Situation in Northern Iraq Annual Report 2007," Asuda for Combating Violence Against Women. April, 2008.¬† Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.¬† www.asuda.org.