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May 15, 2012

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A Hell for Women? 

Interview - By Thomas von der Osten-Sacken

Gola Ahmed Hama has been coordinating the women projects of Wadi in Pishder since 2008. This region is located to the northeast of Suleymaniah in Iraqi-Kurdistan, close to the Iranian border. During the so-called Al-Anfal Campaign in the 1980s large parts of Pishder were wrecked by the troops of Saddam Hussein. But it was in the city of Rania were the Kurdish uprising began which later led to the liberation of the northern parts of Iraq from the oppression of Saddam’s dictatorial regime. Sadly, the region is also known as a “Hell for Women”, as a survey about honour killings in Pishder put it that was recently published by Wadi. In Pishder more girls and women have been the victim of genital mutilation (FGM) than anywhere else in Iraqi-Kurdistan.

Question: In a recent report that was compiled by our office in Suleymaniah in collaboration with your people, the region of Pishder is called a “hell for women”. Could you tell me why?

Gola Ahmed Hama: Well, even compared to other regions in Kurdistan the situation in our region is grim. We have just recently published new findings: Over the last three years we have asked 13.670 girls and women whether they have been the victim of genital mutilation – 12.760 of them said they were. That means that almost 95 % of the interviewed girls and women have been mutilated whereas the average percentage in other Kurdish areas is about 50-60 %. In a number of schools we didn’t even meet one girl that wasn’t mutilated.

Additionally almost nobody in this region can decide whom to marry; the families arrange everything. In the first three months of this year alone five honour killings and eight suicide attempts by girls have been reported. And that is only the tip of the iceberg, because there are lot of cases of domestic violence that still do not become known.   

So, did the situation for women deteriorate over the last years as is often said?

No, we cannot put it like that. For example, until recently people were not aware of the fact that genital mutilation is a form of violence against women. Everyone did it and nobody spoke about it. Now, after we have launched our campaign the issue is all over the news and people speak about it openly. A lot of women only now see that this is not something normal, a kind of tradition  they do to their daughters. They realize that it is something bad and then discussions start to take place. That is something we are witnessing every day: some women still advocate FGM, but others think it should be abandoned because they have learned now that it is something bad. In the past there were no such discussions. In some villages – we work together with two FGM free villages – they have even stopped mutilating girls. People take notice of these developments. In other villages still people  claim FGM is mandated by Islam and that it is a good thing to do. For them enemies of Islam head the whole campaign. 

But now, since the law against domestic violence has been adopted that makes FGM a punishable offence, even the government supports us. And that has an impact: if, for example, mullahs speak out in favour for FGM they are now officially breaking the law.

Do the government and the police now help and support you?

Well, all this is just a beginning, but we do work closely together with the “Department of Combating Violence against Women” that was established by the ministry of internal affairs. To give you an example: if we report a case of domestic violence to them they investigate it. That is something completely new. In the past there wasn’t even an institution one could turn to. Now, if your husband beats or abuses you, you can call them or us or a number of other women’s organisations. The whole idea that this is an injustice is only now beginning to develop. Until a few years ago it was considered to be completely normal when men beat or abused their wives and children. Today, a lot of women defend themselves and report those incidents. And more and more girls simply refuse getting married to some unknown stranger without even being asked.

So, despite everything you do see progress?

Yes indeed. Women start to develop the notion that they have rights and they do not need to put up with everything. And more and more of them are reporting violence. For example, if they witness that their neighbour is being beaten constantly some even call in anonymously. Reporting violence has gotten a lot easier since today nearly everybody has a mobile phone. Who would you have informed in the past when these means of communication simply did not exist? 

The suicides, the cases of self-immolation, are a form of protest, too. That usually happens when girls are supposed marry a man they do not want to marry or even, as in recent times, when they are in love with somebody and they want to marry him but their families forbid the marriage.    But of course more needs to be done. Except Wadi no other international organization works in our region. For years we have demanded a women’s shelter. But except empty promises nothing has happened, even though it is very important that there are safe spaces in our region in which women that are threatened with violence can flee. Today such institutions exist only in big cities.   

So, is it wrong to say that violence against women is increasing? Are the high numbers due to the fact that simply more incidents are reported?

It is definitely true that more incidents are being reported today and that makes it look as if the situation is getting worse. We just do not have any data from five or six years ago that we could use for comparison. But I live here and I do not think that more women fall victim to violence. The point is that people are more aware today. 

Another important factor is that young girls now have access to television and Internet and they have new ideas about how they want to live their lives. That leads to conflicts with customs, with their parents, in some cases with their clan or the mullahs – and that regularly leads to violence. But it is a very positive development that these girls and young women are now fighting for their rights. All of that would be inconceivable without the new liberties we enjoy, without the talk shows on television for example and the possibility to openly speak about so much more than we could speak about in the past.

Translated from German by Christian Heilbronn.

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