Women and children who fled ISIS with nothing but the clothes on their backs (image via owfi.info).

For Kurdish women in Iraq, sexual harassment, violence and honour killings are commonplace. Johanna Higgs reports from Iraq.

ERBIL, Northern Iraq — At a protest against violence against women, a small group of women and men had gathered in the centre of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital to protest violence against women.

As the small group chanted, "Women’s rights are human rights", a group of local men formed a tight circle around them. They were standing extremely close. Suddenly, a woman turned angrily and began to shoutL "Don’t touch!"

She had been grabbed by one of the surrounding men. Minutes later the group started to move down the street. Several of the women had looks of concern on their faces and one said, "Let’s get out of here". Another woman hurried past shouting, "They’re pulling hair".    

At a protest to speak against violence against women, the local Iraqi Kurdish men were sexually harassing the protesters.  

"They’re not taking it seriously", I heard another woman say as she hurried past. 

It was my third trip to Iraqi Kurdistan to learn more about violence against women. My previous two trips to the region have demonstrated that cultural taboos and traditions keep most women in somewhat of a prison. Honour killings are prevalent, as are violence and sexual harassment.      

One Kurdish woman, who preferred not to be named, met with me in a café in Erbil. She explained how there is no freedom for women in Kurdistan. Men have total control.   

She said:

The traditions and the culture are against women’s freedom; there’s no sexual freedom for women. Every week there are women who are killed just because [they were] seen walking with a man or something like this. If the family knows that there is a physical relationship, she’s dead. 

In Iraqi Kurdistan, a girl is expected to be a virgin until she is married. Should the woman or girl engage in a sexual act before she is married, culturally, it is understood that she should be killed in order to restore the family honour.  

She recounted one story of a man she knew who had cut off the head of his own mother — simply because she had been seen talking to a man on the street.

She said quietly:

"It’s really hard for women here in Kurdistan."

Part of this hardship involves enduring sexual harassment. All the women I interviewed for this article reported daily cases of being sexually harassed while on the street. Women reported cars slowing down to follow them down the street, men staring aggressively, inappropriate comments and unwanted touching.   

I met with Basma Dakhil and Nahla Qasim — two Yezidi women living in a small, makeshift home on the outskirts of Erbil. After describing how they fled their homes in Sinjar when ISIS invaded and took thousands of girls to be sold as sex slaves, I asked them about how they were finding life in Erbil.  

All of the women sighed. They pointed across the street to a construction site. They said that previously they were not even able to come out of their homes because the harassment from the workers was so bad.    

The harassment also happens on the street.

Explained Dakhil:

"The men in cars slow down to say bad things to us. I don’t like to go outside alone." 

I met with another group of Yezidi woman nearby who were living in an abandoned construction site. We gathered to sit on a small, dusty mat while they explained their story. They too were experiencing incessant sexual harassment from the local men. They explained how when they first fled to Erbil from Sinjar, local men would come by the construction site to harass them.

Zaiton Hassan, a 25-year-old Yezidi girl living in the building said: 

"It was a living hell. We couldn’t leave our house to just sit outside. They would come and stare at us and make us feel really uncomfortable." 

Ahmed Sarad, a young 15-year-old boy from Mosul, who fled the city with his mother and sister after ISIS invaded, is afraid for his sister. He’s heard that there have been cases of women and girls being kidnapped and so he’s worried. He also knows that sexual harassment is commonplace.     

Sitting in a small café in the centre of Erbil he explains how he has seen many men harassing women on the street.

When asked if they know that it’s wrong to harass women he nods his head:

"They know it’s bad but they do it anyways."

All of the men interviewed reported that they were aware that sexually harassing women causes harm, however, few seemed concerned about the effects of their behaviour.  

I met with a small group of Peshmerga soldiers working inside Erbil. When I asked them about sexual harassment they all burst into laughter. They all agreed that sexual harassment was common in Iraqi Kurdistan and knew that it caused harm to women.

Their laughter, however, did not subside. 

For Jihan Mousa and Roj Jiwhar, two young Syrian girls living in Qushtapa Refugee Camp not far from Erbil, sexual harassment has also been a part of their daily experience. They fled to Erbil after ISIS invaded their homes in northern Syria.

Mousa explained how cars slow down in the street to stare at her and make inappropriate comments.

She was also threatened while at work: 

"I was working at a mall and one man would always come to harass me, he threatened to kidnap me."

When asked how the harassment makes them feel, Jiwhar responded:

"It makes me very angry."

Shivan Fazil, an Iraqi Kurd and a leadership fellow at East West Centre, was one of the men who attended the women’s rights march. However, he was not one of the men harassing women — he was there to protest violence against women.  

He was shocked by the sexual harassment that unfolded that evening. "They were bullies", he said.

When I asked him why the men had acted in such a disrespectful manner, he explained that Iraqi Kurdistan is an extremely patriarchal society, where manners towards women are not always promoted.

He explained:

"It comes from ignorance. We are in a part of the world where even if we have progressive laws to protect women from violence, when it comes to putting them into practice, we are not doing well. When it comes to domestic violence and honour killings, we are not doing well."

When asked why, as a Kurdish male, he had decided to attend the protest, he linked it to his upbringing.

"My father believed in gender equality. My father treated my sisters and me equally. I too believe in gender equality."     

We are living in a world where these kinds of behaviours and attitudes are far too often accepted and tolerated. Stress and discomfort is a major consequence of sexual harassment and is not one that any woman or girl, especially those fleeing from war, should have to be subjected.    

Iraqi Kurdistan still has a long way to go when it comes to protecting women from violence and discriminatory practices, such as sexual harassment. However, Shivan Fazil’s presence at the protest that evening is evidence that despite repressive cultural laws against women, there are still men who will stand up for women and progress can be achieved. Every one of us should follow suit and stand up for women and girls.

Johanna Higgs is an anthropologist and founder of Project Monma, which advocates for women’s rights around the world.

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