By Laurene Daycard
March 15, 2017
Female Kurdish fighters, who represent less
than 1% of the roughly 200,000 peshmerga forces, have become “the bankable
icon” of the fight against the Islamic State. But beyond the illusions of a
land that supports women’s rights, the reality in Iraqi Kurdistan is much less
According to nongovernmental organization
Wadi, 57% of Iraqi Kurds between 14 and 19 years old underwent an excision of
the clitoris. Honor killings by male family members are still common in
Kurdistan, and many other women face forced and underage marriage, domestic
violence or polygamy issues. Worse still, since the early 1990s, several
thousand Iraqi Kurds died of self-immolation. In 2015, the Kurdistan Regional
Government listed 125 deaths by self-immolation. In most cases, deaths are concealed
behind the excuse of a random home accident, but Bahar Munzir, a popular
activist for the rights of Kurdish women, told Al-Monitor that 500 such deaths
occur each year.
Sarab, 19, is a survivor. When she was 11
years old, her father died and she had to respect her mother’s decision to
marry a man who was 14 years older than her. In regard to the night that
followed the wedding ceremony, she told Al-Monitor, "A girl should develop
physically before uniting." Two years later, she gave birth to her first daughter.
Her mother-in-law dictated her life, but Sarab never complained. "For fear
of divorce," she said. Her husband became more and more violent, and
desired another woman. Sarab thought about polygamy, which is illegal in Iraqi
Kurdistan but still practiced. However, her husband preferred to divorce,
remarry, and keep the child he had with Sarab. Barely 18 at the time but
looking like she was 30, Sarab took refuge in her mother's house. One evening,
after she found out that her child had been treated badly, she took a lighter,
covered herself in oil and set fire to herself.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, a violent husband faces
up to three years in prison and a fine of about $4,000. In 2011, the Kurdish
parliament approved the so-called Law 8 that prohibits many of the abuses women
face, such as forced marriage, forced divorce, Shigar marriage (in which men
exchange their daughters or sisters in marriage without paying a dowry) and
genital mutilation. "Law 8 is the best in all of the Middle East,"
insisted Shokhan Hama Rashid Ahmad, a Kurdish consultant lawyer for the United
Nations. For example, the law prohibits cutting a piece of the human body but
does not deal specifically with excision.
Women represent less than 10% of the judges
and are absent in the party offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of
President Massoud Barzani, according to a study by NGO People’s Development
Organization. Since the beginning of the war against IS, NGOs defending women’s
rights face increasing difficulties as they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume
“Humanitarian workers focus on refugees and
internally displaced persons," Diana Kako, the deputy director of
Erbil-based NGO Al-Mesalla, told Al-Monitor.
Al-Mesalla currently supports Fatima, an
Iraqi Kurdish woman who wears a niqab. Fatima talked to Al-Monitor about her
situation and said that her husband, a taxi driver, asked her to wear the
full-face veil until her skin is “fixed.” "I was a very beautiful woman. I
wore the scarf because I wanted to," she said. But in April 2015, her
husband expressed doubts about her loyalty, suspecting that she flirted with
another man by intercepting text messages. Fatima sank into depression and
immolated herself — 37% of her body is burned.
Fatima, an oncology nurse, told her friends
and acquaintances that it was a cooking accident. "They say that God
wanted to punish me because I drove a car and wore golden jewellery. I was
showing off in their opinion," she said in a tired voice. What if she told
the truth? Shala Abdullah, a social worker with Al-Mesalla, told Al-Monitor,
"In our culture, if you say that you are burned, we think that it's
because you were not a respectful woman. We wonder what you did to want to kill
yourself.” Fatima gets up, feverish, and gives a long handshake. She went
$9,000 in debt for her plastic surgery operation. "At the time, I didn’t
realize that I was either going to die or to suffer forever," she said.
In Sulaimaniyah, eastern Iraqi Kurdistan, a
public hospital treats victims of immolation at no cost. During Al-Monitor's
visit, cries of pain are heard when wounds are disinfected before being
bandaged again. Patients suffer tremendously during the months that they spend
healing. One patient who is in her 20s said she got married when she was 19
years old. To the question if she married out of love, she responded,
"What do you think? That this is what happens in marriages?"
Sarab lies on an iron bed covered from her
head to her thighs in bandages; her face has escaped the flames. Her brother, a
Peshmerga fighter, promised her, "I am going to issue a complaint against
your ex-husband." Revived by such a hope, Sarab said, "I want to
raise my daughters alone."