A Slow Fight for Kurdistan’s Women
By Judit Neurink
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - “It is like digging a well with a fingernail. Our work is very slow. But we did make progress.”
Pakhshan Zangana admits wholeheartedly that making change in a society takes time. The High Council of Women Affairs that she heads was set up by the government of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to improve the situation of Kurdish women.
It presented itself in 2012 with a conference where the Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani proclaimed his support. The council advises the government, works as a consultant with government institutions, universities and NGOs and checks on the progress made and policies implemented. It is known mainly for its work on violence against women, but generally tries to raise women in Kurdish society to a more equal position.
Some of it is very direct and practical. Before the interview in her office in Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, Zangana is on the phone about a court case. The papers on her table show the former member of parliament for the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) keeps in touch with developments in society. And during the interview the 16-year-old victim of a recent gang rape visits the offices, as the council wants to determine what role it can play to improve her situation and what policies are needed to prevent these incidents.
The visit was arranged through NGOs the council works with closely. Zangana points out that “there’s only a few of us in the council,” and that for success, good cooperation is necessary on the different levels.
That is how the Kurdistan government and parliament came to approve the laws that the council still works on, like the one on combatting domestic violence, and the amended Personal Status Law. The first prohibits for instance forced marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced divorce and any violence in the family. The second improves the situation for women on issues like marriage, divorce and inheritance.
The laws are starting to show some effect. Zangana reports with obvious satisfaction that the number of polygamy cases has gone down. The law made it obligatory that the present wife agrees on the new marriage, although polygamy could not be prohibited completely. The Iraqi constitution is partly based on Islam, and the Koran allows men to marry up to four wives.
The success tastes both sweet and sour, she agrees, for already loopholes have been found. Last year, 450 Kurdish men conducted a second marriage in Kirkuk. Mosul and Makhmour are also used, as these three locations are just outside the jurisdiction of Kurdistan’s laws.
“It is a problem, and a sensitive one because of its religious aspects. We are looking how we can protect the rights of the wives and their children, as a way of combatting this.”
Another problem is that men still marry girls under the age of 18, although the status law prohibits this. “Some religious leaders state that in Islam marrying a girl of nine is acceptable, and they marry the couple,” Zangana points out.
The council is calling on judges to implement the status law. Some judges do not ask for the consent of the woman in all cases where the law obliges them to do so, and instead just listen to the wishes of the man.
“We have a good law. When some judges say they do not agree, that has a bad effect on the society,” Zangana sighs, implying that this will convince others they can break the law. Because of problems with the implementation of the law, the high council set up a meeting of judges and the council of ministers. “Some judges now cooperate, but not all problems were solved.”
She relates this to the fact that “on all social issues we see intervention by the political parties, also in relation to women issues. And that definitely has its influence on the whole society.”
How difficult it is to convince people on all levels of the importance of its work is apparent when Zangana mentions financial problems for the council. She hastens to add that they are solved. Yet, lack of funds again hampered projects on improving the position of women with the ministries of interior, labor and social affairs, health and education. There was difficulty finding funds for the implementation of policies.
The council consulted with the United Nations and came up with ways to make the implementation easier. Because “no policy can be a success without taking women issues into consideration,” Zangana says.Asked where on the roadmap of change the council is, Zangana answers: “Not even half way. But I am an optimist. Knowing our people, our history and culture and the willpower of our political forces, I feel that the problems that we face are extraordinary, and that we will overcome them.”