COVID-19: We've created a new online space for grassroots justice groups to discuss how to adapt and respond to the pandemic.  Explore it here.

Close X
  • Join
  •     |    
  • Login
  •     |    
Log in
Join
Post

In Iraqi Kurdistan, navigating approaches to justice for rural women

An interview with Hajar Rahman Ahmad of Asuda for Combating Violence Against Women

20130620_Jordan_Portraits_0008-neutral

AMMAN – “In 2011, a new anti-violence against women law was passed in Kurdistan.  The law makes it extremely difficult for men to enter into a second marriage. Under the new law, Kurdish men are now required to get consent from their first wife in order to marry a second wife.

It’s becoming sort of a local joke in Kurdistan, men are asking women to go out for fancy dinners or they’re buying them nice jewelry – in return for their approval of the second marriage. They want to marry a second woman and keep the first marriage as well.  It’s like bribing their first wives because they don’t want to go through a divorce.

It’s becoming sort of a local joke in Kurdistan, men are asking women to go out for fancy dinners or they’re buying them nice jewelry – in return for their approval of the second marriage.

But the reason these men want to keep their first marriage isn’t because they still love their first wife.  It’s because when divorce happens, when the women leaves, she leaves the children with the father.  It’s like a punishment for the father, so that he will not be able to get married a second time, because in this society, few second wives would accept raising another woman’s children.  So a man knows that if he divorces his first wife, she will go away, she will leave the kids, and he will have to take care of them. And then if he wants to propose to another woman, she likely won’t accept because he has the kids.

Asuda’s approach

We work in an area called Chamchamal, it is a province in the Sulaymaniyah area where there are many women who lost their husbands or male family members under the previous regime. Many of these women now face legal problems as a result of the situation and that is why we are focusing on them.

In general, women face many challenges in Iraqi Kurdistan. The threat of violence hinders most women from going to court to ask for their rights.  Most women aren’t aware of their rights in the first place.  And even if a woman does choose to go to court, she faces the problem of lawyer’s fees, which are often unaffordable.  The political participation of women is very limited in Kurdistan. Even rare cases when women do fill high positions – as ministers or parliamentarians – they rarely represent our aims and our objectives.

So we work with local women to raise their legal awareness.  We work with local social and political leaders, the court, and other civil society organizations and NGOs.  We also involve individual female activists in our efforts.

Working together with local leaders

After passage of the new anti-violence law, we had paralegals and female activists hold sessions with local women to introduce them to the law and new personal status amendments passed in Kurdistan, and to explain to them what they can do in cases where they face violence against them. We found out through pre-assessments that prior to our sessions, local women had no idea at all about the personal status law amendments or the anti-domestic violence law. After the sessions, around eighty percent of women were more aware about their legal rights and the two laws.

It’s very difficult for the tribal and religious communities in this area to accept this kind of change, especially because Islam allows for four wives. To be honest, our main challenge comes from Islam. When we urge men not to marry two or three or four times, we are accused of acting against Islamic instructions and advocating against Islam.

It is very well known that in the Chamchamal area there are three very strong social components: the political, the tribal, and the religious. We have wanted to make use as much as we can of these three sectors in the local community.  We have worked with local leaders –politicians, tribal chiefs, media people, political activists – from the beginning and we have gained a lot from them.

The religious sheiks in mosques in particular have helped us a lot to explain.  People like to go to the mosque for prayers, so mosques have played an important role. In a very short period of time, religious men in the mosque were able to give fifty speeches about the amendments and the new law, reaching over five thousand people.

In Chamchamal it is very well know that when women is divorced, her rights are taken away.  She is deprived of any inheritance from her family, and because of social norms, no one can ask why.  Many women will not even go to court to ask for their rights because of the social stigma.

Persistent threats

Despite our successes, we continue to face many difficult challenges.  Women are constantly threatened.  Very often, women who try to file cases before the court are threatened by tribal and political authorities, the two strongest powers in Chamchamal.  They threaten to kill the woman or to target her family members, maybe her brother or another relative.

In Kurdistan they can use the ‘honor crime’ as justification for killing a woman.  Our law for this kind of murder says the murderer gets a maximum of two years prison or jail time.

So while often I really want to push a woman to go to court to ask for her rights – I like the idea of a woman claiming her rights – I am afraid that in practice she will be killed. As an organization we cannot actually protect anyone. We cannot provide that kind of protection.

In Chamchamal it is very well know that when women is divorced, her rights are taken away.  She is deprived of any inheritance from her family, and because of social norms, no one can ask why.  Many women will not even go to court to ask for their rights because of the social stigma. Many are convinced that it’s not even a woman’s right to ask for money.  This is the reason why most women decide against going to the court.  Many simply give up on pursuing their rights in court. Many women give up their rights because of these threats.

Another challenge is the court.  Even the court does not always buy into new amendments to the law.  They often try to integrate their own ideas, their own beliefs and their own thoughts into court decisions. This is why we conduct sessions in court with policeman, lawyers, judges, and other court employees. The trainings that we give policemen are different from the training we give lawyers, or judges, or employees.  With policemen we work first to enhance their attitude toward women, because they have a very bad attitude.  As for the court employees, we ask them to accelerate the paperwork process.  For judges and for lawyers, we focus on application and implementation of the new provisions.

One woman’s story

I remember one woman who came to us and told her story. She had been married for five years but had born any children.  Her husband insisted that he wanted to have a second wife.  And she would not approve it, of course.

He used all kinds of violence against her to make her leave the house on her own, but she wouldn’t. In the end he finally succeeded.  He sent her to back her family’s house with all of her belongings. By forcing her away from her home, he took her rights away from her.

In Kurdistan they can use the ‘honor crime’ as justification for killing a woman.  Our law for this kind of murder says the murderer gets a maximum of two years prison or jail time.

What men usually do is they go to areas close to Iraq where they don’t have to abide by the Kurdistani law and they marry there.  Our laws in Kurdistan are different from the laws in Iraq, especially when it comes to law regarding personal issues for women. This man is now living in Erbil, a city in Kurdistan.  He went ahead and married a second wife without allowing the first wife any of her rights.

The first wife is still living with her family, who are extremely poor.  They came to one of our sessions and when they heard about the new law, the woman cried.  She said, ‘This is my situation now: my family is so poor that even with support from the government – which equals around thirty dollars per month – we can still hardly find something to eat. I am living with my mother in poverty while my husband and his second wife are living in Erbil.’

We told this woman that she could file a case before the court to ask for her rights. But she begged us not to mention her name or her mother’s name because she feared they might be under threat. Her brother had been killed mysteriously five months earlier. Someone came during the night to their house and killed him. And that’s what is going on now. It is very easy to kill someone in Chamchamal. Women are threatened in this way.

Pushing forward

Despite the dangers, we continue to raise legal awareness because it is our goal. People who are not aware of the law end up being used.  It’s as simple as that.  In the Chamchamal area, many women are illiterate.  They don’t know how to read or how to write, they are not very well educated. This is our third year now, and we know that women in areas we have not been able to reach yet, where we have not been able to talk to them yet, they are being used, taken to court and forced to give up their rights.

I personally know that there will be victims.  Maybe I will be a victim one day.  But change is not going to happen overnight.  We have to start somewhere.

When we found out that raising women’s awareness about their legal rights can sometimes cause them more problems than less, we decided it was important to have men’s participation as well. This is why we have worked with men, local leaders – to raise their awareness. We want men to know more about this law because we want them to know about the punishments they can face for violating it.  Men who take a second marriage without their wife’s consent are subject to a financial fee and imprisonment, for example.  We created the men’s forum so that men can help improve the situation.

As manager of this project, I personally know that there will be victims.  Maybe I will be a victim one day.  We face personal challenges in our day-to day lives, in our homes, because of the work that we do.  Sometimes we are threatened.  So it’s not risk-free for us either.  But it is okay.  I know that change is not going to happen overnight.  All of these amendments to the personal status law, advocates have been working on them for the last twenty years and it’s only now, after the fall of the former regime, that they have been validated. I believe the same is going to happen in other areas. There will be change, even if it takes many years, and we are going to keep working for that. We have to start somewhere.”

Hajar Ahmad


January 17, 2014 | Bremen Donovan


SHARE THIS: Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Linked In Share on Pinterest