Life in Kurdistan: As a Woman

The second installment of the “Life in Kurdistan” series is about gender relations, or more specifically, being a woman – a foreign, “Western” woman – here in Kurdistan.

***An aside: I say “Western” because I am American, which makes me Western by default. But I’m also Korean, and spend most of my life in Kenya. So how Western I am is debatable. Well, no. I must say much of my thinking is in line with liberal ideas of the universality of individual rights and freedom, which is a concept originating in the West. “West”. Ugh, such a terrible term (can you tell I’ve been at SOAS, if only for a year?). Anyway, my Western way of thinking is also tempered with understanding of the kind of communitarian values you’ll find elsewhere in the world – from my experience, pretty much everywhere else in the world. That’s not to say that the non-Western world (i.e. most of the world) does not subscribe to individual rights and freedoms, but only that it is more contested than in the West. I digress, but hold on to this idea because it’s related to my greater point.***

On to the main point. Yesterday Anna shared some of her experiences with religion and gender, and because I feel I’ve had a different outlook, today I will share my experiences in Kurdistan as a woman, and how I see gender relations in Kurdish society.

I am a feminist, and I’ve become a particularly vocal one in the past year. As my friends will tell you, I will call you out on the use of gender binaries and stereotyping, and will not stand for sexist jokes and jokes about rape or any form of sexual harassment (on this note – why on earth is rape considered a “funny” topic?). And in many of my grad school seminars, I’ve been left wondering – but where are the women? Surely we cannot have a discussion about the rebuilding of a postconflict society without including half of the affected population. That said, I’ve also been called a bad feminist for listening to rap/hip-hop filled with misogynistic lyrics (guilty as charged) and for not lambasting homophobic, sexist, and oppressive cultures or religions enough. And this is where I’ll start.

I agree with Anna that women are not treated as equal to men in Kurdistan, and that society and religion have created a culture of oppression of women. There’s no excusing gender inequality and oppression – and that’s where cultural relativism fails. Nevertheless, there is a fine line between denouncing injustice and ignoring the context from which it arises. Yes, there is street harassment, many women wear headscarves, gender segregation exists both in public and private spaces, and women simply do not have as many freedoms as men do in Kurdish society. At the same time, headscarves are not required (unlike Iran) and women and girls, especially in the cities, choose not to wear them. Street harassment is usually at a manageable level*; I had to deal with much more harassment in Paris than I do here. Some men don’t shake hands with women, but most do, and if I’ve proffered my hand, none refuse to shake it. Now that I think about it though, the occasional awkwardness when it comes to greetings may be because hand-shaking is such an American thing – everywhere else I’ve been, it’s either kisses (or a combination of air kisses/handshakes) or bows.

What else. I just found out today there are bars in Rania! Who would’ve thought. But, with an almost “of course”, they are reserved for men only. I asked what would happen if I went (with male friends), whether I would get kicked out or just glared at, and I received an unwilling, ambivalent answer. It’s probably best to avoid going, I don’t think Rania is ready for such changes quite yet (or are they?). But there are bars in Erbil and Sulaimaniya (the capital and the largest city), where all genders mix freely. Women are not allowed to swim in the pools in Rania, but they are in the cities.There is exciting news though: I’ve won a small victory by getting the management of the pool to agree to allow women-only swimming in the mornings, an hour a day. Woo! Baby steps.

While this has not been true in the past, girls today are educated alongside boys, and have the opportunity to attend university and embark on careers of their own. I met several young women today, all in university and studying philosophy and geography. I work with some wonderful Kurdish men and women who, from the little I can gather from pantomiming, have similar ideas about individual rights and freedom – including gender equality. The kind of servile attitude men seem to have towards women (and the corresponding view of women solely as wives, mothers, or daughters rather than individuals) is noticeably absent among the younger generation. Though I have to add, it can be difficult living with people who don’t pick up after themselves because they’re used to other people doing it for them – the number of times I’ve thought, I am not your mother, your wife, or your maidand even if I were, you’re still a grown adult and fully capable of picking up after yourself, is frankly quite depressing at this point. Or maybe I just live with a bunch of LAs**. 

So back to the point of toeing the line between understanding the context and making excuses for gender inequality and injustice. I am not trying to sweep these things under the rug of cultural relativism, because they need to go. ASAP. What I’m trying to point out is that, just like anywhere else in the world, there is an important context to consider. Kurdistan is a Muslim-majority country and more liberal in terms of gender relations than other parts of the Middle East. This is in no way saying that gender relations are actually at any acceptable level; there is obviously a lot that needs to be addressed and changed for a country (well, not technically a country) coming out of decades of conflict and oppression. However, I haven’t felt limited or been unable to do the things I want to here because I am a woman – and where I’ve come against such limitations, I try to push and stretch them a little. Change is happening, and while it’s happening too slowly for my liking, I can understand and appreciate the reasons behind the gender inequality – even if I don’t agree with any of it. However Western the ideas of individual freedoms, equality, and feminism are, I believe they are universal. But because they aren’t necessarily the ideas and values held by other people around the world, there is going to be resistance, and change won’t necessarily happen the way and the pace I’d like it to. You don’t have to think this is right (I certainly don’t), but you have to understand why. The more you understand this, the better you can encourage positive change, and the easier it’ll be for you to live here. And this doesn’t make me a bad feminist; in my humble opinion, it makes me a better one. 

*What a ridiculous statement. Street harassment shouldn’t be at a “manageable level”. It shouldn’t exist. But my point is that yes, there is street harassment, and it’s annoying, disrespectful, and intrudes on my well-being and sense of personal security. And yet, street harassment sadly happens EVERYWHERE. It’s not unique to Kurdistan. We need to do something about that.
**LA=LazyAss. Term coined by my college roommate’s mother.

3 responses to “Life in Kurdistan: As a Woman

  1. This is true. As a westener we have to take into consideration how we ourselves got democratic and equal rights, we had decades and in some parts centuries of peace and stability. I didnt like the other womans point of view we have to consider that this is the first genration kurds growing up without having to join the gerilla or fight for their lives equality comes from stability first and foremost.

  2. I think also that it is important for us westernes who work in countries like Kurdistan, is not to look down at them as we tend to do,and be white knights comming to save them, but instead understand that development comes from regional stability for a longer period of time.

    • Yes! You’ve said it perfectly. If we don’t understand historical, social, and cultural contexts, and instead feel superior because the West is more “developed” and “civilized”, then we’re only perpetrating the “White Man’s Burden” of colonialism. And it’s 2012, this kind of thinking of cultural superiority is a bit outdated, to say the least.

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