- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007

NORTHERN IRAQ.

Gula cries quietly as she tells her story. Sometime soon, she will be sent to live with a husband she has never met. She was sold into the relationship by her uncle, the head of her household because her father divorced her mother when she was a baby. She first learned of her arranged marriage, to a man much older than she is, when she was 5 years old.

Now Gula guesses she is 15 or 16 — she’s not sure — and already, she says, she hates the man she will be forced to wed. Her aversion is easy to understand. The man symbolizes the caged existence into which she was born, and in which she will spend the rest of her life.

Gula’s mother, her face weathered and toes blackened by infection, looks much older than her estimated age of 30. She says she is powerless to prevent her daughter’s suffering. She herself was given in marriage before she began menstruating.

There is a twist to Gula’s story that, if discovered, would spell disaster for her — she has a secret romance, a fact which she reveals after great hesitation, giving few details. Even a harmless crush could endanger Gula’s safety. Honor killings still happen here. Such is life in the rural villages of this society, where women are charged with protecting family honor through absolute sexual purity until they are given in marriage.



Sometimes, women’s tragic circumstances lead to suicide.

Kinear, a preteen girl who has been taken in by Gula’s family, describes how her mother burnt herself alive to escape the hardships of her life. “Why did she leave me here by myself?” she asks. Now that she is motherless — the whereabouts of her father are unclear — Kinear’s fate in the community is precarious. Like the other girls, she is kept home from school to work. Childhood is not a luxury she has been granted.

All of the women and girls in Gula’s village are circumcised, as required by custom. The tradition (widely referred to as female genital mutilation or FGM in the human rights community) is so adamantly observed that an uncircumcised female “cannot even accept a glass of water,” one woman explains. The myriad health concerns related to FGM are not taken into account.

Gula’s village is tucked into the side of a steep mountain gorge along the Iran-Iraq border. The decidedly tribal area is a part of Iraq’s most stable region — Kurdistan. While Iraqi Kurdistan has been dubbed “the other Iraq” for its relative peace and prosperity, rural Iraqi Kurdistan could be described as “the other other Iraq,” a place still lagging behind while urban centers are transformed by modernization.

A three-hour drive south in Sulaimaniya, the progressive side of Kurdish life reveals itself in stark contrast to village existence. Many women wear Western clothes and mingle with men in bustling markets, restaurants and university classrooms. Few women in Sulaimaniya veil themselves, alcohol is sold freely and American pop music plays at an outdoor roller rink.

Gula’s world looks nothing like this one, though she speaks the same language, feels the same Kurdish pride and lives under the same laws — at least officially — as these women.

Urban Kurdish women have far greater opportunities to advance than their rural counterparts and especially their Arab sisters in Iraq’s south. Even here, though, women say they do not experience true gender equality. One Sulaimaniya resident puts the situation of Kurdish women in perspective: “In Baghdad, violence is happening outdoors, where everyone can see it. Here it is also happening, but behind closed doors.” Conservative social attitudes still run deep, and during my visit in early June, someone commits an honor killing in Erbil, the region’s capital (the perpetrator reportedly kills his daughter while she kisses his feet and begs in vain for her life). Many villagers were forced to relocate to urban areas during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign, bringing with them an “honor” mentality that has crept into the wider public consciousness and caused a surge in violence against women.

Islamic groups, including Ansar al Islam, took control in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan until Saddam’s downfall, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law and tying religious ideas together with local customs. These groups are still rumored to maintain an underground presence. Their influence is palpable in Halabja area villages that I visit two hours south of Sulaimaniya, where nearly every woman is veiled and co-ed mingling is rare. Famous as the site of Saddam’s chemical attacks that killed thousands in 1988, Halabja and surrounding environs are witnessing the silent suffering caused by domestic violence.

Violence and discrimination against women is a problem Kurdish leaders realize they must tackle. Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, recently visited Sulaimaniya and condemned gender-based crimes, saying that Article 59, a previously issued law criminalizing honor killings, would from now on be strictly applied.

Locals say Mr. Talabani’s strong stance will help to curb honor crimes in the Kurdistan region. But hidden from the public eye, women’s hardships, like Gula‘s, will inevitably continue as long as old traditions remain ingrained in the social fabric.

Nadine Hoffman is director of the Leadership Council for Human Rights.

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