Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Sunday, May 5, 2013

In Iraqi Kurdistan those who Murder Women go Free

"There is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. And we are here for the long haul." - Hoda Elsadda

Zhiyan group representatives are never satisfied; they never rest when it comes to women’s issues. Last week they had a press conference to release results of a study about the impact of the so called “Amnesty Law”  in cases of violence against women. The week before, they were in Kalar, Germian, to follow up the case of Nigar Rahim; a 15 year old raped by one of her brothers and murdered by another. I am not able to keep up with all of their work as I have an important role in documenting their work for our english speaking readers. Their meetings, events are always in Kurdish, but they always keep me involved despite the language barrier. I think is extremely important to have their work connected to the broader women rights struggle.

The meeting in Kalar was very positive, six representatives from Zhiyan group met with the investigator in the case of Nigar Rahim, along with many representatives of women organizations in Kalar. The organizations in Kalar expressed their readiness to be more active in Zhiyan group and to this end they selected a coordinator for the Germian area.
Meeting of Zhiyan Group in Kalar, Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo supplied by Zhiyan Group.
Last year, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani established an investigation committee to follow up the case of Nigar. The group was composed by the case investigator, a representative from NGO’s, a representative from the High Committee of Women and a representative from the Directorate to Trace Violence Against Women (DTVAW). The group wrote a 2-page paper with recommendations about Nigar’s case and emphasized the need for a women’s shelter in Germian. Until now, the Prime Minister has not answered the committee regarding their recommendations.

The outcome of the meeting in Germian was very good, with NGO’s wanting to organize a demonstration to demand shelters in the area and the commitment to be present in the court hearings of Nigar’s case.

Zhiyan group also organized a press conference on May 5th in Culture Cafe, Suleimaniya. Under the title: “No to the release of women murders under the general Amnesty Law”, Zhyan group presented a new report which focuses on the release of women murders under the general Amnesty Law. The amnesty law has been controversial among various sectors of civil society, including women groups. The law is affecting women victims of violence in a significant way.

At the press conference on May 5th in Culture Cafe, Suleimaniya, Kurdistan-Iraq
During the press conference, two members of Zhyan group presented the report which was prepared by DHRD. On 10th October 2012 a short version of this report was submitted to the presidency of Kurdish Parliament warning them about the dangers of this law on the women’s [rights] situation but there was no positive reaction .

Zhian group reported that 7 women murders were released because of this law among them the father of Sakar, a teacher who was killed by her father in 2012 .

The report reveals that perpetrators that are released under the amnesty law continue to commit crimes. This is the third time since 2003  that the amnesty law is in place. Women activists explained that honor killing is excluded from the amnesty process but that is easy to classify honor killings as another type of crime, They explained that the law is politically motivated is being implemented during the election process in order to buy votes. Zhiyan group members expressed the negative attitude that judges have towards women groups. In some instances when members of Zhiyan group attend the court hearings they are “laughed at” by lawyers or others because they are sure that perpetrators will “go out under the amnesty law”.

Notes: “According to non-official data, since 1991 about 10,000 have been killed for different reasons of so called “honor”.  According to the Iraqi penal code in case a male member of the family kill a woman he can get less charge as exception under so called honor killing. In Iraqi Kurdistan this article of penal code was amended and no more women murderers benefit from any exception. This is a big improvement and is why activists from Zhyan group are advocating for the implementation of the law.“

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Journal from Iraq: Global Solidarity, Transboundary Water and the Challenging Work of Saving a River

May 2nd, 2013, Sulaimaniya, Kurdistan, Iraq

I've been off writing for a long time. Lately,  a sense of overwhelming has won me. Since last March, I was extremely busy with a lot of travel, which I love, but I get tired and often sick. Working on an advocacy campaign to protect Iraq's right to water has been the most amazing experience of my life, personally and professionally, but also a very demanding  task both physically and emotionally. 

In March, I was in Tunis, for the World Social Forum and had the opportunity to share experiences with other water activists and community organizers from all over the world. We organized a session on global solidarity against water grabbing by mining and dam projects with other two groups from Turkey and Latin America. It was amazing and we got to meet people from Peru, Mexico, India, Turkey and share experiences on the same issues: water grabbing.  Then I went to Basra, to be part of the first green festival on the Iraqi Marshes. I was denied entry, and deported back to Turkey. 

In Tunis, at the Climate Space talking about our session on dams and mining projects

From there, I traveled to Hasankeyf to share our struggle with the people who's lives will be directly impacted by the Ilisu dam. People in Hasankeyf  have been living in limbo for the past 10 years due to lack of certainty about the project's plans.
View of the Hasankeyf Artukid Bridge and the Tigris River
At the Green Festival in Suleimaniya with material
about the Save Tigris Campaign
Then back in Iraq, April saw a rise in violence, killing of protestors, and activists and an increase in the sectarian divide. That is discouraging and makes you reflect if your work is worthy. If I think about my work, its exciting and unique. A friend asked me yesterday what does a normal day looks like. There is no normal day, but this is how one of my days might look like: I could be speaking to Iraqi activists about how to strategize for next awareness workshop on water issues in Iraq, talking to international law experts getting legal advice on how to make people/government/transnational companies accountable for human rights or environmental law violations related to  dams projects affecting Iraq. To academics on transboundary water issues between Turkey and Iraq and the impacts of dams on Iraqi water resources. To journalists, explaining the aim of our advocacy campaign, or to common people about the importance to take steps to demand politicians to take action to protect Iraqi water resources.

I could be on any stretch of the Tigris River in Turkey, or in Iraq, or in the Iraqi Marshlands visiting the communities that will be affected by dam projects and explaining the efforts to protect Iraq's water.
A woman on the Iraqi Marshes in Chibayish, Nasriya province. The marshes are located in three of the south provinces of Iraq, Nasriya, Missan and Basra. 
Kids playing on the banks of the Tigris River in Hasankeyf, Turkey. This town is full of historical sites and is threatened to be flooded by the construction of Ilisu dam. The campaign I work, is to raise awareness about the impacts of this dam in Iraq and Turkey.

Taking to Iraqi Media after one of our seminars in south Iraq

All this is super interesting, but is natural to be tired and even discouraged, because as colleagues from Mexico shared with us, “these are long and tiring fights.” It is easy to get discouraged when you see or hear in the news what politicians really prioritize here in Iraq. The Iraqi government’s priority is to crack on protests, increase sectarian division, exploit the country’s resources for their own interest, while keeping people hostage, to surrender to the power –in the case the Shia majority to Maliki because he is the sole protector of the Shia majority population- and to look to their own political interests:  to consolidate power. The name of the game is Fear. On the other side, Turkey continues to appropriate water that belongs to Iraqis.

On a hiking trip to Kani Shook, one of the amazing canyons in Suleimaniya.
So how do I keep my sanity and motivation? In Spanish, there is a saying: “There is no calamity that last 100 years, nor body that can resist it.” When I m overwhelmed, I try to go into nature. Here in the north of Iraq, there is amazing nature, canyons, rivers, and mountains. Being in nature helps me to forget and to relax.

I trust that Iraqi people soon realize that division and sectarianism are not ingredients to develop a democratic and inclusive society. They must stop being fearful, and start to challenge the structures that prevent development. After years of war and dictatorship, Iraqis must work together to build a place based on inclusion not division, transparency, not corruption, redistribution of wealth [and Iraq has big wealth], and justice and protection of their environment. When they understand that those who want to bring fear and terror are the ones that benefit from a terrified population, that keep their power by instilling fear, then breaking the cycle of fear, will set them free. That, of course has a price; it does not come the easy way. That is part of history, no people have been granted freedom and justice; they have fought for it. I thin we have lost many, probably too many and is time to recognise that violence and terror cannot last forever.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Struggle for Survival and some Iraqi Lesson Learned, Ankawa, Erbil, 011211

It is a re-post as I found it on the drafts--
I am trying not to miss the details of Iraqi daily life, whether among Kurdish, Arab or Assyrian. Sometimes, I have the feeling that I am not in Iraq, in this blend of cultures, languages and peoples. The other day, one of my Kurdish co-workers came into the office, where there were three of us. He asked something in Kurdish to my other coworker, who didn't know the answer, so he repeated the question in Arabic to the other girl,  I was curious and asked him what was the question, so  for the third time he repeated it in English, only to hear that none of us could help him after he asked in Kurdish, Arabic and English.

Oftentimes it is funny, but sometimes can be very challenging. I have been improving my Arabic and learning some Kurdish. Some of my coworkers don't speak any English or Arabic, so it is really funny how I resort to creative ways of communication. I am trying to teach Sarbas, one of my co-workers , some English; sign language has proved effective for this purpose. The other day, I was talking to him in English and he was replying to me in Kurdish, and I was able to understand that he is from Suleymania, but he lived some time in Iran. He is originally from Halabja, the town that Saddam bombed with chemical weapons in 1988 (that's why his family went to Iran). He was there during 2009, when the big protests happened. Everybody here has a story, often a sad one, but they still go on, well, they don't have any other option.

Iraqis are lovely people just trying to find their way and live in this though environment. I have to say that it has been harder than Palestine. Is tough being a woman, especially in this closed, man dominated society. Women here don’t enjoy many freedoms or opportunities, they are fed up, often depressed and live under constant pressure and fear from society. They have to care about their reputation and what will people around think about them. If a woman do not wear the hijab, she is of doubtful reputation. She does not enjoy the freedom to talk to guys, to interact with male friends, because this is simply not acceptable. If she is not married at a certain age, maybe there is something wrong with her. If she likes to do something but their family does not agree, she does not have any right to do it and ultimately is her family who decides for her. For example, if she falls in love with a guy, but her family, for any reason, does not like the guy, they cannot continue the relationship, and this can even lead to the girl´s killing if she dares to disagree. They will take away the little freedoms she has (talking to her friends, etc.).

In more conservative places like Mosul or other provinces, women are harassed by neighbors or religious people and asked, why they work, or don't wear the hijab. If they want to live a normal life, they have to move, often away from their family and friends, to another city, where they don’t know anyone and they are also vulnerable because they fear that if someone recognizes them and they know they live alone (which is also unthinkable before marriage), something can happen to them or to their families that allowed them some “freedom”. Their families also suffer from this, knowing that their daughter lives alone and that at any time something can happen to her. They have to struggle with the pressure from their community/neighbors.

Even I have been a 'victim' of this pressure, and most of the time, I have to stick to the Iraqi rules. About a month ago, I met an Iraqi friend, whom I first met at UConn two years ago. He took me to the old city in Erbil and we walked around the market, it reminded me of the old city in Jerusalem. I was so excited to see him after 2 and a half years and as we were crossing the street, I said to him: “Oh my God, I am so happy to see you”, and I held his arm, (you know how expressive I am), and he almost screamed at me: “Not in front of all these people”. I am not used to contain my feelings and is very hard for me to deal with such a conservative society. He was trying to explain to me that this culture is very gender segregated because of its religious traditions. This is not always the case and depends on the family, but in general you don’t have any physical contact with men that are not your close relatives. I mean, I agree there has to be some rules, like in any ordered society, but complete segregation brings many problems. Since the interactions are forbidden, men are hungry for women and any women that they see alone, they will try to harass her.

When I went back home from Erbil to Ankawa, I took a taxi. I was going to sit in the front seat, but my friend advised me to sit in the back. Thank God, because that saved me of what was coming next....I asked the taxi driver what music was being played on the radio because I couldn’t tell if it was Arabic or Kurdish, he said it was Kurdish. I pulled a Kurdish music CD that I just got from the market and gave it to the driver. Kurdish music is very sticky and I could not help but to start dancing. WRONG....The man asked me in Kurdish (wara—come), to go and sit in the front, which I of course refused, so he tried to put his hand on my knee, and I yelled at him, NO!!!

So, that means that I could not dance because that means that I want something else with the taxi driver???? NO!!!!! Men are so desperate in such a segregated society, that any woman that smiles or even look at them is vulnerable to this behavior. That's not acceptable....So, as for me, no more dancing in public, no more smiling and no more looking at people’s eyes.....Too tough for a Latin woman. At least I will never sit in the front seat of a taxi, I learned that lesson......

Sometimes I feel I don't want to leave, and sometimes I just feel I want to run away, that I just want to sit in a cafe and talk to my friends about all the things I am experiencing here, living, eating, sleeping, working among Iraqis. How privileged and blessed we are. Yesterday, I was holding a little girl, from Khabat, she was so cute. Her father was killed two years ago; her mother, so young and widow!!!! But she was still smiling....These are the complexities of Iraq; a country, that makes me cry and laugh, that I am still struggling to understand, but also make me reflect about so many things. Sometimes I miss Palestine and wish to be there. Even though is hard, I am holding on, to every moment, every person, every story and every image, so I can later recount them to you. Its hard to keep every detail, but I am trying to do my best.