By Emmanuelle Veuillet*
On what we called a winter day, it is actually enjoyable to have nothing planned for the afternoon… let’s go out! To the bazar? Yes, why not! And after a walk around, we can eat a delicious falafel sandwich, standing up with friends among the crowd. Then we will hang out in Iskan, seated in one of those famous chaikhana, chatting, joking, and endlessly eating sunflower seeds. Finally, with a welcome shisha, we will stay out in the fresh night air. But, is it alright for a woman to come along?
If you ask the men of Erbil, though, the answer may be surprising. “Of course not! What’s wrong with you?” they reply. “The place of a woman is not outside. The night is coming and women must go back home” … “There is nothing for them” … “Can you tell me why they have to go outside?”
Even if women truly wanted to go outside, the options are so restricted that the majority resign themselves to staying indoors. Men dominate the public areas, making the outside world in Kurdistan a hostile environment for women.
As a woman living here – and in the center of town, not in confined, privileged new buildings – I can tell you that going out for a girl is much harder than it should be, a real obstacle course.
[quote_box_right]Even if women truly wanted to go outside, the options are so restricted that the majority resign themselves to staying indoors. [/quote_box_right]
First, you have to pay close attention to the time of day, where you want to go, who will be going with you, how you will dress, and how you will get there. And even after these careful checks, you still cannot enjoy your time out without being bothered. You will never be protected from stupid car honks, troubling looks, oppressive looks, insults, cruel comments and threats. You may even receive phone calls from concerned relatives who know that you are out and ask you to go home immediately.
Since being in Kurdistan, I have truly come to understand what it means to be seen as a woman or, should I say, to be seen as a female – someone who is not fully the master of her own movements and decisions. This female is controlled, guided and influenced – not willingly or consciously in many cases – by what other people say, by the rules and by a duty to preserve their “reputation.”
This fear exists in everyone, but is more prominent in a woman’s mind. Education, radical religious ideologies and political discourse all conspire to define the woman as someone unable to take care of herself, someone who needs constant protection, someone who can only follow a man, both in the household and in society. She must be entirely devoted to family. And still she is seen as a sinner – one who aims to tempt men, pushing them to commit sex crimes.
You will never see women with men in public; even a mixed group of friends is rare. If a woman is with a man, he must be her husband, fiancé, father or close relative. A woman must follow society’s codes in order to keep and protect her “purity.” She must go to places deemed acceptable by society; she must be properly covered; she must not laugh or speak loudly; she must not eat in the streets like the men.
With these duties in mind, a woman is prevented from moving freely. Certainly culture-bound rules in Kurdistan oppress both men and women. But for women, the collective burdens become shackles.
This oppressive culture is the legacy of long-held patriarchal traditions which are linked to a tribal way of organizing society. Today, many things have changed in Iraqi Kurdistan. We have witnessed economic growth, the rise of literacy, better and more accessibly education, and promising urbanization – all of which gives the impression of ongoing progress. But things have not changed enough for women.
Mentalities are still strongly shaped by a very conservative patriarchal vision, inherited from past generations. Today that backward vision is only magnified by the fear of an unknown future, the rise of radical Islamic parties, tribal based political affiliations, and a fantasized Western image. The modernization of Iraqi Kurdistan has not yet challenged the patriarchal outlook.
[quote_box_right]This society is killing itself from the inside. Its culture is no longer an asset; it is a poison used against women[/quote_box_right]
This society is killing itself from the inside. Its culture is no longer an asset; it is a poison used against women and held up as justification of discriminatory and repressive rules. Improvements promoted by the government – new articles in the constitution, new laws, new committees for women’s issues, new shelters – have in fact had no impact on the daily life of women in Iraqi Kurdistan. These changes are not effective. They do not prevent women from being discriminated against.
This unchanging reality does not meet the expectations of the population, which only rise as the region becomes wealthier and more autonomous. If it continues to persist, this oppressive atmosphere will seriously damage the future of the region, dividing the population.
* Emmanuelle Veuillet is a graduate of political science and international relations at Sciences Po University in Paris; she studied her final year at the University of Kurdistan – Hewler as an exchange student.