Kurdish women, their Plight & Socio-political Inertia / By Amir Sharifi

18.6.2013 – The ferocious flames had all the signs of despair, they held up a plea, a dramatic protest against a cruel and tormenting reality plaguing the lives of many women in the Kurdish autonomous region in Northern Iraq.  Awena Newspaper had vaguely identified the woman from Garmian, a young 33 year old whose husband had taken a second wife. The horrific image of the self- immolation on June 2, 2013 made visible the invisible and agonizing life that the woman had endured. What is shocking is the relative frequency of  such tragic incidents and the little effect such acts  have on changing public attitudes towards women and the legal and social status of women institutionally.

The Kurdish and international press more often than not report incidents of self-immolation, domestic violence against women and honor killings. According to a doctor interviewed by BBC recently in a Kurdish local hospital the number of self-immolations is frightening “there are 250 to 300, sometimes 400 each month”. Equally shocking is that prevalence of violence against women. A report by Soran Bahdin in Rudaw indicates that in in a period of four months (July of 2012), “532 cases of violence had been reported in Kurdistan”. This figure reconfirms an earlier trend reported in New York Time (November 2010) “From 1991 to 2001, 12000 women had been killed.” A study by the Kurdish Institute for Political Research revealed that “60 percent of women in Kurdistan face violence. In the name of family pride, women and young girls are murdered in open day light in different cities by their husbands, brothers and other family members ; a young girl is beheaded by her family members; a young girl elopes to avoid forced marriage; husbands beat up their wives to teach them a lesson in obedience; many women who live in cities like Erbil, the political capital bemoan the fact that they cannot  even freely go out for a walk alone around the  old city; many complain of the offensive and aggressive behavior they have to endure; women who work for television stations often become objects of  draconian surveillance and  malicious attacks of  some clergymen under the guise  of breach of chastity . These shocking facts speak to the unchanging medieval and precarious conditions under which Kurdish women live”. It is paradoxical that KRG fearful of the religious forces whose ideological influence and presence is on the rise in the Kurdish society allows conservative Islam to be used as legal, political and cultural framework (in the form of Sharia or Sunna) to define “the rights” and obligations of women and their moral conduct thus widening the gender gap in a sexually defined patriarchal hierarchy and thereby undermining the very creation of a civil society it claims to establish.

Undeniably KRG has supported and funded programs to monitor and modify the unbearable status quo by modernizing some aspects of legislature Vis a Vis women. Some basic reforms have been implemented; however, they are not adequate nor have they been effective to allow women to find their rightful place in the economic, social, and political life of the community. Recently I had the privilege of meeting members of a delegation dispatched to Southern California to partake in a training seminar about domestic violence. While it was refreshing to know that some concrete measures were being taken such as the formation of Directorates in major and minor cities to fight violence against women, family codes and laws lag behind. One of the delegates referred to a new legislation that would make a man’s taking a second wife contingent on permission from the first wife.  The reenactment of this anachronistic and confessional code in any form as a reform  is preposterous because neither the woman’s consent matters nor does a man’s dubious and often malicious claim that he would treat his wives and children from different marriages equally. Such a timid reform in the words of Barazani, the prime minister could only be seen as an “obstacle in the way of polygamy” rather than a prohibition.  In matters of polygyny and divorce, a man’s desires and wants  are unequivocally explicit in Islamic jurisprudence and the legal institutions that justify and naturalize gender based discriminatory practices.    It was also surprising and ironic that in a relatively sizeable team of experts dispatched for a training seminar on how to prevent domestic violence against women, there was not even a single Kurdish woman; there were two women:  an Arab and a Turkman. Similar regressive laws and “reforms” with respect to polygamy, temporary marriage, parental custody, and gender segregation, and divorce, age of marriage, modesty, and moral codes have all been tested and their consequences and implications have been calamitous for women in Iran ( Moghissi 1999).

While some progress has been made under KRG towards modernization and Kurdish women’s organizations and NGO’s have launched several campaigns to raise public awareness to put an end to cruel treatment of women, the everyday life of ordinary women has not improved drastically; backward laws and traditions still persist and the new ones are not enforced consistently and strictly. KRG continues to derive legislations from reconciling new legislations with dichotomous and polarized Islamic laws rather than drawing on more egalitarian indigenous knowledge and gender relations still practiced by some Kurdish communities and world feminism. For instance, an intriguing report published in Rudaw (21/3/203) by Peshwa Hawrami is revealing about a model of gender justice in a Kurdish community where egalitarian gender relations prevail, “The people of Biyara attribute their Zoroastrian past for their tolerant traditions. In this remote part of northern Iraq domestic violence remains virtually unknown and divorce is rare.” As a general rule, for historical and sociocultural reasons, in Kurdish traditional society compared with the neighboring peoples, women enjoyed greater freedoms in their clothing and their interactions with men and exercised more independence in Kurdish society as reflected in several women’s assumption of power in different parts of Kurdistan during the reign of independent principalities; unfortunately these tolerant local indigenous cultural forms that could have been used to expand individual liberties and rights of women in modern times are giving way to restrictive legislations unfavorable to women.

A major impediment to the advancement and promotion of women’s rights is the resistance of growing conservative sections of the Kurdish society to gender reformism as they insist on legitimizing and maintaining women’s submission to a male dominated and gender segregated society. While many men have benefited from the relative economic prosperity and political stability under KRG, very few women have been able to express ,to pursue, and to meet their legitimate concerns and demands. 

KRG then has to look within and without for models of building gender equality and justice for all including religious groups. Unfortunately no Islamic country even with more liberal interpretations of Islamic laws has been able to build a society that does not favor men’s supremacy and domination. Therefore, KRG’s accommodation of such forces is misguided and will lend support to the rise and spread of Islamist hegemony, which is a direct threat to Kurdish ideals and struggle for democracy and diversity.

To enact and devise genuine reforms and to dismantle oppressive and reactionary laws, women at all levels should become involved as participants and agents of change at grassroots to question and challenge the polarized traditional authority as autonomous citizens. The fact of the matter is with the exception of very few educated, enlightened and privileged women, the majority of women in Kurdistan are not encouraged to participate in the economic and political life of their communities nor do they have a say or voice in shaping and implementing public policies and legislatures that determine and affect their personal and social life. Kurdish women have fought alongside men as activists and peshmerga; they have been arrested, tortured, kidnapped, raped, imprisoned, and executed in their struggle for Kurdish nationalist aspirations and their very rights as women. Kurdish women in Iran have been fighting valiantly; multiple Women’s organizations have emerged in the mainland and diaspora to defend and represent women’s rights and concerns; Kurdish women are now up in arms in Syria, in commanding positions and as they have been in Turkey, and formerly in the now autonomous Kurdistan region, such women have become our national heroines. These women increasingly see the link between the Kurdish nationalist struggle for freedom and gender struggle for their own distinct rights as individual women. However, paradoxically within the Kurdish nationalist discourse, despite direct and indirect participation of women in the political struggle for liberation, women continue to symbolize the old national and normative values rather than being treated as direct and equal participants as individuals with a voice of their own in the decision making. In the words of Wilford “a manner, men act in history of battles, in governments and monarchs whereas women appear to be icons of national domesticity, morals and private society (Wilford cited in Tikansak  ). Part of the present polarization has to do with the political contradictions of the KRG itself as a semi- autonomous state based on traditional Kurdish nationalism in which conventional patriarchy persists as attempts are also being made towards modernity; it is in this context that women’s roles and statuses in many spheres are still relegated to the traditional gender regime of subordination.

What KRG needs is a secular family code or a set of civil family laws that would emancipate women from the shackles of polygyny and actual and symbolic violence against which women like the woman from Garmian have no recourse but to set themselves alight in self-defense. The gender disparities and inequities are in open contradiction with the professed historical, political and cultural freedoms under whose banner Kurdish women and men have fought for justice and equality.  The timid reforms and the current state of inertia can only pave the way for the hegemony of gender politics of Islamic fundamentalism, which has proven barbaric and anachronic where ever it has gone.  Only the direct involvement of women in the socio-economic and cultural life of the community would actualize and revolutionize gender relations in the Kurdish autonomous region. The informed and active participation of women is crucial to the process of nation building and democratization. Finally, Kurdish autonomy is inconceivable without the recognition of Kurdish women as free and autonomous citizens on the same par with men in all domains.

Dr. Amir Sharifi – President of the Kurdish American Education Society-Los Angeles


Moghissi, H. (1999). Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, The Limits of Postmodern Analysis.New York. Zed Books.

Tıkansak, O. Role of Women in Kurdish National Struggle in Turkey and Transformation of Identity . http://www.academia.edu/1155215/ROLE_OF_WOMEN_IN_KURDISH_NATIONAL_STRUGGLE_IN_TURKEY_AND_TRANSFORMATION_OF_IDENTITY