Kurdish women’s struggle
Women continue to face violence despite new laws passed to combat honor killings
For years, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has struggled to fight violence against women in the region, with statistics still indicating high rates of violence amid efforts by feminists to challenge the government's strategy on this issue. In 2002, Kurdistan's parliament amended Article 111 of the Iraqi penal code, increasing the punishment for honor killings and considering them willful murder. However, Kurdish women still suffer from social and cultural troubles facing them everyday.
I could hardly find a victim of abuse, and violence to talk. I was interested in interviewing women who attempted to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire, but no one dared to talk to me, and often made me promise that I would not write about them. Even when I explained that their names will be changed, they still did not feel reassured. The reason is obvious to me, they were afraid of the men within their family. Kurdish society in Iraq is patriarchal, and male dominance is observed in all fields ranging from Education, Politics, Economy, Business, Trade, Sport and family. Kurdish women have been suffering from this male dominance throughout the course of recorded history. However, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) strives to turn down the barriers facing women to turn out in all fields, particularly in male dominated fields such as politics and economy.
Since violence against women is a big deal in the region, the KRG’s interior ministry has established a Commission to Investigate Violence Against Women (CIVAW). Women in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region suffer from many issues such as honor killing, circumcision, dependency, underrepresentation and domestic violence. But the issue of self-burning amongst Kurdish women is the focus of this piece. There are several reasons why Kurdish women set themselves on fire.
The skeleton in the cupboard
Fear is one of the reasons, says Kardo Rahim, a social researcher taking care of women-related issues. Women are often afraid from male ‘guardians’ within their family, and this has led them to make the radical decision to self-immolate. For instance sometimes women commit suicide because they believe their brother, or father has found out she is in love with someone. The fear of being hurt, beaten, humiliated, and in the worst possible scenario killed in an honor-killing forces many women to end their life with their own hands instead of the hands of their brother or father. All love affairs between men and women are kept as a ‘secret’ until that holy day where the prospective bride is officially asked for within her family. Ironically, if people reveal the secret of a woman that she is in love with someone, and might be in a relationship, there are no consequences for the man within that relationship. In such a patriarchal society, love affairs are considered as prideful for men but losing honor for women.
Forced marriage is the second reason behind self-burning according to Zhino Mohammd, a feminist working for a NGO that deals, and focuses on women-related issues. Sometimes fathers, and brothers put pressure on a girl to marry someone she doesn’t love, or even like. In such cases, suicide is seen as a ‘way out’ of the marriage. However, significant number of women give into the pressure exerted on them by their family to accept, and marry the man chosen by her father or other male relative.
Forced marriages can lead to bad treatment by the husband because relationships are successful by virtue of the emotional attachment that is created between two people. Women in forced marriages resent their husband, and are unable to form any meaningful attachment to them as a lover, or partner. Women who are treated badly by their husband in forced marriages often face domestic violence, verbal and sexual violence. The problem for these women is that they are often not employed, or without proper education. Consequently, if they were to go back to their parents house they are likely to be brought back to their husband once more. This is why women see suicide as a way to escape the vicious world that they have been forced to live in.
Education and Economy
The absence of education and free economy is the fourth reason why Kurdish women set themselves on fire, according to Rahim. If a woman has a job and her own free economy, then she can easily ask for divorce and live by her own. She will be carefree from her husband and her fathers and brothers.
Education opens the door to freedom, and personal sovereignty. It gives women power, control and the ability to make choices in their life because without an education they are unable to get decently-paid jobs. Edu- cated women are more confident, and have higher self-esteem because they believe in themselves, their intellect and ability to make rational choices. This is compared to women who are afraid of escaping from abusive marriages because they don’t know how to be financially independent after a divorce.
Why fire to end life?
I was always intrigued when people wonder why women who end their life by setting themselves on fire choose such a horrible, and painful way to end their life. They live with fire, and it is part of their life because they use fire to cook. The tools they use for cooking are gas burners. They have two easily tools, Gas and Kerosene to end their lives.
The CIVAW figures published in 2009 show that 414 women in Kurdistan Region were burned. That figure includes accidents and intentional burning by women themselves. The CIVAW figures show that 57% of those cases were accidents and 38% of the women burned them- selves, while 5% was unknown. But its latest figures issued in 2011 says self-burning in Kurdistan in 2010 was plunged by 50% while the accidental burn soared by 20%.
Is there a law to ban self-burning?
The Kurdish government strives to tackle this issue by Law. They have on a consistent basis set up commissions and NGOs to consider ways that could end all violence against women. The Kurdish Parliament issued a law in 2007 that holds those responsible for the self-burning of women. This means, women who are pressurized into forced marriages, or those who are abused within their home, are investigated appropriately. Consequently, fathers and brothers may be held liable legally for murder if proven that through the pressure they exerted on the girl within their family (or any other woman) it led to her committing suicide. What is quite troubling is that the rate of women who die from accidental fire is greater than the rate of those who set themselves on fire. Sometimes, families claim that the burning of a girl was ‘accidental’ even if it were not. However, the government has established a committee that looks into these cases to find out the truth, and hold those responsible liable.
Kurdistan has changed drastically in the past years. There are dozens of women-led organizations and NGOs that strive to end all violence against women. The KRG has passed numerous laws to ensure the rights of women are preserved, and within Kurdistan’s governmental system women are given a quota of 30%, which ensures that they are represented on a governmental level. These are great indicators that Kurdistan is on a path towards creating a societal that is fair, and free from patriarchy.
Women activists rally against violence against women in Kurdistan Region.