A look at women's lives in Kurdistan

Despite premature marriages and self-immolation, slow progress is underway.

Published January 11, 2006 3:38PM (EST)

This week in the Village Voice, reporter David Axe files a sobering story about the work of young female activists and educators in Erbil, Iraq. Readers are first introduced to Layla Ali, 30, the program director at ZEEN, a local women's center and radio station that broadcasts call-in programs, news and music made for -- and by -- Kurdish women. Perched demurely on a couch, right next to an AK-47, Ali tells Axe, "Here in Kurdistan, there is a lot of violence against Kurdish women." When asked who is responsible for the violence, she answers: "Men, of course. Husbands, brothers, fathers, managers. All men."

Axe explains that such abuse drives many women to suicide. Lacking sophisticated resources, many women end their lives with common household staples like fuel and matches. "Here in Kurdistan, most women, when they want to kill themselves, they burn themselves," Ali tells him. "When a lady burns herself, on the radio we talk about why, about what must we do to solve this problem. We want to teach girls to not kill themselves."

While suicide is more common in rural villages than in cities like Erbil, the oppressive sexual culture of forced marriage and motherhood permeates the lives of Kurdish women from every social class. "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." writes Axe. "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."

Their suffering is made harder by the knowledge that there are places in the world where, as Axe says, "women aren't slaves to men." Ferihan Amso, a member of an activist nongovernmental organization called Iraq Al-Amal, tells Axe: "All the women watch satellite [TV] and see women in other countries -- they have ambitions to be like them. [They want] not to marry early and to break with tradition. 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."

Though their work bucks tradition in a land where young wives routinely mother a dozen children, Amso's organization trains women to grow food in their own gardens and encourages them to be self-sufficient, go to school, delay marriage and find work.

Is progress possible? Axe is hopeful. "Women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers and in better jobs," he writes. "Colleges are cropping up all over Kurdistan, and as many as half of their students are women ... [And] on the public front, the news is also encouraging. Law requires that 25 percent of Iraqi parliamentary candidates be women."

Still, lest activists grow complacent, regional assemblywoman Vian Dizyee warns Axe that the "fundamental problems Kurdish women face cannot be solved through legislation."

After all, Dizyee says, "laws already forbid honor killing."

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit thefastertimes.com/streetfood and Signs and Wonders.

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