Erbil, Iraq —There’s an AK-47 leaning next to the couch at ZEEN women’s center and radio station in this capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Layla Ali, 30, ZEEN program director and fitness instructor, sits with one of her hosts on a couch just inches from the rifle and never bats an eye.
The rifle belongs to ZEEN’s standard-issue Kurdish thug, a squat character in a leather jacket who wanders between rooms scowling and saying nothing. Erbil’s pretty secure, but Kurds don’t take chances. Besides, in this conservative society, where premature arranged marriages and domestic violence are common, women just don’t run things without some man hanging around to lend tacit approval.
“Here in Kurdistan, there is a lot of violence against Kurdish women,” Ali says in delicate English. She’s an Iranian Kurd by birth, a swimmer by training, and superbly educated by Iraqi standards, lending a quiet confidence to her words. Asked who is perpetrating this violence, she doesn’t hesitate: “Men, of course. Husbands, brothers, fathers, managers. All men.”
Abuse drives many Kurdish women to suicide, says Ali. “Here in Kurdistan, most women, when they want to kill themselves, they burn themselves. I don’t know why.”
Regional assemblywoman Vian Dizyee does. She says that in a society where women have few resources at their disposal, sophisticated methods of suicide are impossible. So women self-immolate using household items like cooking fuel and matches.
“We try to find solutions,” Ali says of ZEEN, an eight-hour-a-day operation that broadcasts call-in programs, news, and music—all for and by Kurdish women—to this 10,000-year-old city of 1.2 million and its surrounding villages. “When a lady burns herself, on the radio we talk about why, about what must we do to solve this problem.”
Ali pauses. Her wide, dark eyes are sad. When she speaks, it’s in a pillow-soft tone. “We want to teach girls to not kill themselves.”
Kurdistan’s sexual landscape is like its literal landscape: diverse and potentially lethal.
In the poor villages outside cities like Erbil and Sulaymaniyah and in poor urban neighborhoods, the sexual mores are those of any traditional Muslim community. Girls roam with their brown skin exposed to the sun until they show signs of sexual maturity, at which point they’re draped in black and kept indoors until they marry. They trade one prison for another, remaining in their husbands’ houses making babies until age robs them of their sexuality. Meanwhile, if they speak out, take a lover, or demonstrate any other un-Muslim behaviors, they’re beaten—or killed.
“The culture oppresses them,” Dizyee says. That oppression is couched in marriage. This, Ali says, is the root of the suicide problem.
Suicide among women is rare in the cities, at least in the wealthier, more progressive neighborhoods. Here it’s not uncommon to see unmarried Kurdish women in Western clothes. Some are Christians. Others quietly practice no religion at all. But most are Muslims who’ve gone to school, read books, traveled, and realized there are women in the world who aren’t slaves to men.
And they’ve watched TV.
These days, satellite TV is everywhere, even in villages. “All the women watch these satellites and see women in other countries—they have ambitions to be like them,” says Ferihan Amso, a member of the nonprofit relief and activist NGO called Iraqi Al-Amal. She says many women want to be educated; they want “not to marry early and to break with tradition.” Amso adds: “We want a new Kurdistan woman. Educated. Qualified. Enlightened. Capable of facing problems— herself. A woman who can stand hand in hand with men without fear of being humiliated or made subordinate.”
As far as Amso is concerned, too many Kurdish women marry in their teens, passing into the protective custody of domineering, jealous (and often older) men before they’ve had a chance to learn basic skills. Such women face abuse when their husbands are alive. And when widowed, they’re incapable of providing for themselves.
Decades of war and oppression have made young widows of countless Kurdish women. In poor Erbil neighborhoods like Kuran, widows are in the majority. At Kuran market, where shopkeepers complain that residents can barely afford basic goods, the filthy streets are packed with weary women in black abayas. Most subsist on government handouts and what aid their relatives provide.
Amso heads a program training these women to grow staple foods in their own gardens. Another program buys livestock for widows. The way Amso describes them, these programs are damage control, doing whatever possible to ease the suffering of women for whom it’s otherwise too late. To spare future generations, Iraqi Al-Amal promotes programs encouraging young women to be self-sufficient—in other words, to postpone marriage, go to school, get a job.
But this flies in the face of thousands of years of tradition in this, the oldest continuously inhabited country in the world. Few places are more invested in large nuclear families than Kurdistan. It’s not uncommon for young brides to bear a dozen children. In this scheme, there’s not much room for women to get educations and jobs.
Self-sufficiency comes with a price. Many women who decline early marriage never marry—and middle-aged spinsters are stigmatized. Amso is unmarried. In the hallway outside her office awaiting a meeting, first-time male visitors exchange whispers and significant glances. And when Amso’s male boss, Sami Saleem, joins the meeting, the visitors are visibly relieved.
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.
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.