'They Burn Themselves'

Kurdish women's advocates struggle against tradition in the world's oldest city

Even the most progressive Kurdish women's advocates can't escape the presence of men whose role, whether they realize it or not, is to legitimize women's activities.

There is progress. Women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers and in better jobs. Colleges are cropping up all over Kurdistan, and as many as half of their students are women, if the new Shaqlawa Technical Institute is representative. At Shaqlawa's student cantina, Zhwan Ahmed confesses her dream of working for the Kurdistan Ministry of Tourism.

Layla Ali: "We want to teach girls to not kill themselves."
photo: David Axe
Layla Ali: "We want to teach girls to not kill themselves."

On the public front, the news is also encouraging. Law requires that 25 percent of Iraqi parliamentary candidates be women. Women now hold major bureaucratic posts in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Amso says Al-Amal will advocate new legislation once the assembly elected this past December 15 settles into office.

Assemblywoman Dizyee stresses, however, that many of the fundamental problems Kurdish women face cannot be solved through legislation. After all, she says, "laws already forbid 'honor killing.' " But culture sustains the practice.

Which means education is the only solution. Even Adnan Mufti, speaker of the regional assembly and one of the most powerful men in Kurdistan, is calling for education programs to put an end to the repression of women.

Mufti contends that the Kurdistan regional government fights for the rights of all Iraqi women. The new constitution defines an Iraqi as anyone whose father or mother is Iraqi. When Arab delegates tried to change the wording to omit mothers, Kurdish delegates protested. "If not for our efforts, the article . . . would not be in the constitution," Mufti says.

But constitutional articles and promises of regional education programs don't mean much to Ali at the ZEEN center. Mufti can take comfort in slow progress toward some future egalitarian society. But Ali struggles against the present. That means taking phone calls from suicide-attempt survivors, hosting computer classes for illiterate women, and leading aerobics in a society with no concept of physical fitness.

And it means putting up with the center's obligatory male thug.

All things considered, Ali seems satisfied with her work. Leading a tour of her mildewed basement gym, she describes the overweight middle-aged women who, after decades of self-neglect, finally realize they need to do something for themselves and enroll in Ali's fitness program. "They're so fat," she giggles.

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