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Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

June 27th, 2014

Institutional Restructuring, Social Change and Gender in Iraqi Kurdistan: Notes from the Field

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

June 27th, 2014

Institutional Restructuring, Social Change and Gender in Iraqi Kurdistan: Notes from the Field

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Dr Deniz Gökalp, who is currently leading a research project on the role of international actors in enhancing women’s rights in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, has recently returned from her fieldwork in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. Here are her notes from the field.


Having visited Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, for a short 4-day long visit last January to conduct preliminary research, I was back in Iraqi Kurdistan for a longer field research last month. The fieldwork was carried out as part of the collaboration project between AUD and the LSE Middle East Centre that aims to understand the role of international interventions in reconstructing social and political institutions in Iraqi Kurdistan. More specifically, the research aims to evaluate the role of international actors in structural changes with implications for women’s rights and status in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2003. Building on the work of my research partner, Dr Zeynep Kaya, who was in the field in April to interview prominent politicians, and representatives of the United Nations and civil society organizations, I continued to hold meetings with Kurdish politicians, representatives of UN entities, feminist activists, journalists and students in Iraqi Kurdistan in May and June. In addition, I gathered observational data regarding urban transformation, social diversity, economic change, social inequalities and contentious politics in the region.

Demonstrations for Dunya
GLOBE PHOTO / Safin Hamid

Two days before my arrival to Erbil on 23 May, Dunya, a 15-year-old child bride was murdered by her 45 year old husband in Kalakji, a district of Duhok in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Dunya’s heartbreaking story introduced an additional dimension to my research and observations in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah during my fieldwork. Kurdish media, numerous NGOs, general public and international feminist groups reacted fiercely to Dunya’s murder, demanding justice and the trial of the husband and others responsible in the courts. There was, however, controversy among the public disturbed by the tragedy about how to deal with the case. Some argued that it should have been done without portraying Kurdistan “like hell for women” and without violating the dignity of the victim in the media reporting of the crime and at demonstrations. Others insisted that it was necessary to assertively emphasise the systematic occurrence of brutality against women in Kurdistan, though Kurdistan is not the only place where women are murdered, mutilated and humiliated. As far as I was able to follow of Dunya’s case during my stay, the public reaction to what happened to her was too concerned with the disturbing details about her short life and her murder. It was the child’s face on the widely circulated photo of her in the media that would speak of her humanity and dignity much more powerfully than the ongoing public campaign about her.

There was another significant debate happening in the background regarding the effectiveness, as well as the implications, of the legal reforms undertaken since 2003 as a consequence of the Kurdish women’s struggle and international surveillance, including a new Personal Status Law in 2008 and Domestic Violence Law in 2011. I was given different interpretations of these legal reforms and I read clashing views in different media channels. The legal reforms are generally seen as important steps toward gender equality, and Kurdish feminist activists as well as international governmental and non-governmental organisations ask for strict implementation of the law. However, some of my key informants expressed concerns about the criminalisation of violence against women in a way that it was reduced to hideous acts of individuals without investigating the historical, political and social context of political violence, as well as of gendered violence, in Iraq and Kurdistan. Underestimating the historical, political and social turmoil that Iraqi Kurdistan has been through also creates the tendency in women’s NGOs and international actors to explain the cases of brutality against women in terms of religion, culture and patriarchy out of the historical and recent complexities of their context. The distorted relationship between Islam, tribal culture and violence against women is strengthened in the eyes of many as the perpetrators attempt to justify their actions in terms of the so-called principles of Islam or traditional morals.

Historical and political circumstances, as well as repercussions of the recently emerging economic and social relations, might have reinforced patriarchy in terms of religion and culture. Various domestic and international actors avoid addressing the complexities of the issue for different reasons and motivations. There is ample evidence and literature demonstrating that violence against women in Iraqi Kurdistan increased drastically following the creation of the “safe haven” and the imposition of the UN sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s. The Iraq-Iran war of the earlier decade had deteriorated the legal and social status of women in Iraq as a whole; in addition, international sanctions to punish the central government in Baghdad, together with the civil war between the KDP and PUK in the 1990s, reinforced the patriarchal social relations and social control over women even further especially in vulnerable sectors of Iraqi Kurdistan. Since 2003, the Kurdish region has experienced stability, normalisation and improvement in security and economy; however, key informants that I interviewed pointed out that it was difficult to make a clear judgment about whether women’s situation in Kurdistan has improved since 2003 or continued to deteriorate. The statistics and descriptive data on violence against women suggest a steady increase in the occurrences of brutality against women, but some experts associate this increase with the increase in social awareness and media reporting about violence. It was frequently implied by key informants that Kurdish women with socio-economic and political resources have experienced significant improvement in their overall standing in society since 2003, while women in socio-economically and politically vulnerable communities have continued to suffer.

Chalak's Place in Sulaimaniyah exhibiting symbols of Kurdish culture and history
Chalak’s Place in Sulaimaniyah exhibiting symbols of Kurdish culture and history

Iraqi Kurdistan has been rebuilding and incorporating itself into international markets, consumption culture and global capitalism since 2003. The shopping malls with stores of international brands and parking lots full of luxurious cars in Erbil resemble their equals in the western world. The amiable Filipinos at the restaurants and hotels and hardworking Indians transforming the facade of the city on the construction sites give the visitors an impression that they are in the UAE, not in Iraq. University students and young people sitting and chatting while texting on their smart phones in well-decorated cozy cafes in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah look like they have already moved on to a new world independent from the past, which would have nothing to do with the rest of Iraq if it was not the increasing number of children from the Arab Iraq working and begging on the streets together with their little Syrian fellows. These are some of the many faces of Iraqi Kurdistan passing through a radical social, economic and political transformation trapped in a troubled geography. As the two dominant Kurdish political parties have been forced into an uneasy collaboration to convince the international community of the possibility of an independent democratic Kurdistan with safe and open markets to invest in, extremely unequal distribution of economic rent and benefits among the social classes and communities has introduced new dynamics of oppression as well as competition in society, that are likely to keep disturbing the already torn social fabric with negative implications for women.

On my way back to Erbil from Sulaimaniyah, our car got stuck in a frantic traffic jam near the town of Gopala. The taxi driver spoke with other people also trapped in their cars or waiting on the side of the highway to learn about the cause of the chaos. Right after we heard the security forces shooting in the air, the driver started telling me what was happening using his broken English. According to the intelligence that he gathered from the civilians around us, the road was blocked by people protesting the regional government and companies responsible for the unemployment endemic in their villages through the recruitment of cheap Indian and Bengali workers instead of the locals for the already limited job opportunities in the industries in the area. The taxi driver took it as an opportunity to tell me more about the anger at the two-party domination and corruption in Kurdistan. It was not the first time I had heard about the growing anger towards the Kurdish leadership; but also the frustration associated with the increasingly visible contradictions between economic growth and poverty, and wealth and social inequalities in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. The confusion about what to do with the urban refugees from Syria, internally displaced Arabs from the rest of Iraq, guest workers from south Asia, and well-off professional expats from western countries has also been superimposed on Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, articulating further socio-economic complications for the region. Women in Kurdistan are subjugated socio-economically and politically; however, they are also able in many other ways to maneuver, survive and assert their agency under difficult circumstances. Most importantly, their gendered experiences cannot be disassociated from the gendered experiences of their male counterparts, in family and community, who are also subjugated within the complex pyramid of patriarchy constantly redefined with the introduction of new power relations as consequences of international interventions, politics and business, and international migrations, internal displacement and refugee and labor movements.

On the day of my departure from Iraqi Kurdistan, I was trying to keep my hopes up about the future of women in the region, despite all the problems that I observed. The last person that I spoke to was a Filipino lady working at a coffee shop at the Erbil international airport. In the absence of any other customers around early in the morning, she told me her personal story and mentioned that she had never felt safe as a woman in the other countries where she worked, until she came to Kurdistan. She had heard the Kurdish Prime Minister talking about the Filipino workers as hardworking, trustworthy quick learners, which made her extremely proud. She told me that Kurdish customers and policemen would take care of her very politely and kindly. Then, she said something that sounded quite ironic to me in the context of our research, because it was true in many ways that “Kurds respect women very much”. Her remark made me think about and thank once again to all the wonderful people, women and men, that I met during the days of my stay in Iraqi Kurdistan in January and May-June, who have gone through a long struggle for decades defending human rights, women’s rights and human dignity in the face of wars, sanctions and interventions, and contributed to our project genuinely with their stories and insights.


DenizGokalp62x86Dr Deniz Gökalp is Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the American University in Dubai. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. Gökalp’s research interests include political and comparative historical sociology, more specifically issues of political violence, social movements, and women and war. She published her work in several academic journals including The Middle East Journal, Women’s Studies International Forum and Praksis.


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Ribale Sleiman-Haidar

Posted In: Interview | Notes from the Field | Reports from the Ground

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