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Home > English > Website archives > Globalization, resistance, immigration > Women in Iraqi Kurdistan

Women in Iraqi Kurdistan

A Report by CODEPINK: Women for Peace and Global Exchange

Monday 24 April 2006, by Marjorie P. LASKY

The study of Iraqi women’s lives is complicated by the fact that Iraq is a country cobbled together from various ethnicities, tribes, social classes, and even religions, all of which influenced women’s lives. As we follow Iraqi women through the war and occupation we must be attentive to both the differences in their experiences and to those aspects of their lives that transcend the differ¬ences. To that end we will examine the Kurdish north separately from the Arab central and south of Iraq, which we will bring together when we discuss their common experiences.


By Marjorie P. Lasky


In the north, the vast majority of Iraq’s Kurdish popula¬tion of 6 million people inhabits the mountainous Iraqi Kurdistan, an area of about 83,000 kilometers. Although most Kurds are Sunni Muslim, a minority, the Failis, are Shi’a, the Kurds have Indo¬European roots and differ in race, history, and culture from Iraq’s 19¬20 million Semitic Arabs. From the 1920s until 1991, the Kurds repeatedly rebelled against the central govern¬ment which responded by destroying villages. Further, its reprisals against the Kurds included deportations, detentions, disappearances, murders, and kidnappings for sex trafficking. The Saddam Hussein government used biological and chemical weapons; the 1988 Anfal campaign exterminated entire segments of the rural population. In addition, the Ba’thists’ Arabization poli¬cy forcibly expelled Kurdish, Turkoman, and Assyrian families from their northern homes and replaced them with southern Arabic families.
After the Kurds rose against the Hussein government in 1991, Iraqi Kurdistan was divided in half. The UN declared a safe haven and no¬fly zone over the three northeastern governates (provinces) and the Iraqi gov¬ernment voluntarily withdrew all civil administration. Two major political parties, the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and KDP (Kurdish Democratic party) govern in the resulting autonomous governates—albeit from rival administrative bases. At present, most Kurds live in the autonomous governates and in two nearby provinces that contain the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Several other ethnic groups, including Arabs, Assyrian¬Chaldeans, Armenians and Turkoman live in Kurdistan.

Violence, fueled by an almost¬fratricidal conflict between the PUK and KDP, scarcely abated after 1991. Under UN sanctions and Hussein’s embargo of trade with the north, the area’s humanitarian crisis worsened. However, the self¬governing areas generally had much less repression, anarchy, and lawlessness than the rest of the country endured, and compared to the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan thrived.

Thus, before 1991, Iraqi Kurdish women experienced fear, displacement, and violence along with the restric¬tions and occasional brutality of this male¬dominated society. After 1991, male dominance persisted, but women in the autonomous region gained more freedom of movement and speech and basic human rights than many women in other regions of Iraq.
Putting aside for the moment the relative well¬being of Iraqi Kurdish women, their lives were somewhat deter¬mined by the policies of the two political parties, the PUK and KDP. Critics of the parties claim that, after the parties came to power, hundreds of women were murdered in honor killings, wearing the hijab became a necessity, and girls could no longer attend school. More widely reported are both parties’ disregard of women’s issues and their attempts to suppress women’s organizations. Between 2000 and 2002 both parties outlawed honor killings in their separate administrative bases, but have generally not enforced the laws. Still, some women have held political positions and served as judges, and the regional and local governments have allowed the development of women’s centers and organ¬izations. Wadi, a German NGO working with local women for more than a decade, has established centers to help women with serious social and psychological problems to reintegrate into society, dispersed mobile teams to deal with women’s health, and initiated litera¬cy campaigns.
As in other restrictive societies, Kurdish women and girls navigated within their female world towards self¬expres¬sion and self¬sufficiency. They created women’s groups that frequently operated underground, and, in urban areas, had experienced some benefits from the Personal Status Law. Since the early 1990s women’s rights organ¬izations have raised awareness about the suffering caused by violence against women. In 1999, Wadi worked with local women to open the first shelter for Iraqi female vic¬tims of violence—a movement that subsequently spread to other cities in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some Muslim clerics also supported women’s groups in the struggle against widespread female genital mutilation.

War and Occupation

During the recent war, Kurdish forces fought alongside the Coalition. For most Kurds the war was a continua¬tion of the process of liberation. In the northeastern governates, peshmerga (Kurdish militia) guard the streets and the Coalition forces are barely present.

Thus, most Kurds, and women in particular, are some¬what isolated from much of the horror experienced in southern and central Iraq. Nonetheless the north still reports a degree of terror, chaos, and deprivation — sui¬cide bombings, particularly outside the autonomous governates; fighting between Coalition troops and insur¬gents, mainly in the northwest, close to the Syrian bor¬der, and in the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk; Kurdish attacks on Arab families seeking to undo the Arabization policy; and daily deprivation caused by a collapsed infra¬structure. Kurdish Sulaimaniyah is reported to be the safest city in Iraq, but ex¬patriot Kurdish families who have returned still lament the lack of oil, electricity and water, and the rising costs of housing.

Still, women’s lives today differ markedly from their peers in central and southern Iraq—except for the per¬sistence of a male¬dominated culture and a rural¬urban divide, which we will discuss in a moment. Indeed, in some ways there have been interesting improvements. Before the war, compared to other regions in Iraq, the north had the lowest levels of education for women and girls. Because now girls in the north can venture out of their homes without fear for personal safety, they attend elementary and intermediate schools in much greater numbers relative to the population than girls in central and southern Iraq. More women’s centers have opened, Kurdish women have held positions in the interim Iraqi governments, and urban Kurdish women strongly protested in 2004 when the Iraqi Governing Council attempted to scrap secular family laws and rein¬state Shari’a to define women’s affairs. With U.S. sup¬port, Ms. Ala Talabani, a member of the PUK, has established several female¬based NGOs.

Women’s lives in remote Kurdish villages close to the Iranian border have also improved somewhat since the invasion. Before 2003, radical groups of Islamists had forced women to wear black, to stop attending schools, to throw out their televisions and radios, and to suffer constant surveillance by those in power. Attacked by U.S.¬Kurdish forces, the radical Islamists fled. Women could dress as they once did and NGOs rushed in to build schools, homes, and income¬generating projects, offer literacy classes, and establish women’s centers with sewing classes and information on women’s rights.

However, the rural¬urban divide that more often than not influenced women’s position in Kurdish society in the past persists. As in the rest of Iraq, rural women and girls are much more likely to be illiterate and less likely to attend school than their urban peers. In rural areas, honor killings and mutilations, forced marriages, and female circumcision persist on a much greater scale than in urban centers. The strongly secular PUK and more conservative KDP derive much of their support from the cities, but are being challenged by growing Islamic political parties with allegedly liberal, democratic ideals and anachronistic beliefs that oppose any major changes in women’s traditional roles.