In some parts of Iraq there are whole military forces made up of females. In others, a young girl is killed by her uncle because she is suspected of having pre-marital sex. Niqash spoke to three prominent Iraqi women about women’s rights in Iraq today.
The Iraqi Constitution says men and women are equal in Iraq. And there is even a quota system saying that a quarter of all MPs in Iraq’ parliament should be female – this legislation was recently upheld, which unsettled many male politicians. However the real state of women’s rights in Iraq differs radically depending on whether you are in a relatively conservative city like Basra or up in Iraqi Kurdistan, where it’s common to see women in military uniforms with guns. Niqash spoke with three prominent Iraqi women about the state of women’s rights in the country today.
Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid, military leader in Iraqi Kurdistan
At six in the morning a group of chattering women gather near a gate in the northern Iraqi Kurdish town of Sulaymaniyah. They’re all wearing military uniforms but this hasn’t stopped them from putting on lipstick and perfume and even some jewellery.
And they are about to begin a long day of military training, starting with fitness training in the cold. This is the life of the female military personnel belonging to the Peshmerga Women’s Command. This women’s regiment was formed as part of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan’s own military forces and it numbers between 500 and 600 women. The highest ranking female here is Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid, who’s been in charge of the female infantry regiment since 2006.
Iraqi Kurdistan operates relatively independently of the rest of Iraq and it has its own parliament, legislation and military; these women are part of the Iraqi Kurdish military forces known as the Peshmerga.
Rashid, 47, is a veteran of the struggle for Kurdish rights against the Iraqi regime formerly led by Saddam Hussein and his nationalist Baath party. The latter fought against those of Kurdish origin living in Iraq, displacing them and discriminating against them when he was not killing them.
Rashid first joined Kurdish nationalist organizations in the 1980s - she was also a Communist. “Some women fell in love with men,” she says with a rueful smile. “I fell in love with guns.”
But as she explains why, her smile begins to fade. “They killed the person who I felt was my role model, my cousin,” she explains. “They killed him by dragging him along the street and then they buried him. They were the Baathist forces and they were the reason why I liked guns. It was then that I became involved in the armed struggle.”
Rashid was young and inexperienced and the government soon tracked her down, tracing her through her Communist affiliations. An arrest warrant was issued but she managed to escape by hiding for three days in a pen filled with farm animals.
“Not every woman can become a Peshmerga,” Rashid says, clenching her fists at the memories. “Only strong and patient women can do so.”
Additionally those women must have Iraqi nationality, they must be over 18 and they should have graduated high school, Rashid explains.
In what is known as a “peace camp” – actually a training camp for Peshmerga – the women are trained to defend their positions through “reason and argument and not just by physical means,” Rashid says. They also learn to use weapons like Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and rifles as well as physical self defence. But they must also attend lectures on politics and human rights and they get extra lessons at a special educational centre for Peshmerga.
Rashid continues her story: In 1995, she was operating a rocket propelled grenade launcher and fighting Islamists as part of a detachment made up of Iraqi Kurdish and Arab women. “It represented all of Iraq,” Rashid says. “All the women had one cause: peace though justice and equality.”
In an earlier interview Rashid has also talked about another thing that the Peshmerga women do, in terms of helping other women in the area: “Honour killings occur when a male family member feels a female family member has shamed the family by either having premarital sex, or a boyfriend the family disapproves her having,” Rashid told Special Agent Tracy Simmons of the US Air Force during an interview. The Peshmerga provide the victims with safe houses and try to negotiate settlements with the families.
Hanaa Edwar, head of civil society organization Al Amal
Interestingly enough another of Iraq’s most high profile advocates for local women’s rights has also had military training. Edwar was recently awarded the Arab Woman of the Year prize for her work with the organisation she founded, Al Amal. But Edwar also spent time fighting in the mountains of what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, in the past.
Edwar was born in Basra, in southern Iraq in 1946 and as a law student in Baghdad, she was known for her political activism. She left Iraq in the 1970s to represent Iraq at the Women's International Democratic Federation. Upon returning to the Middle East though, Edwar was unable to go back to Baghdad because of the political situation so she went to Damascus in Syria instead.
“I received military training from the Palestinian resistance in 1981 and then I spent three years in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan,” Edwar says. “I actually went to the mountains on a political mission but when the headquarters of the organisation I was with were attacked, I left for Moscow to study Marxist philosophy.”
Edwar’s passion for civil struggle has now taken precedence over armed struggle. The Al Amal organization is one of the country’s most outspoken advocates for women’s rights. They were among the groups that pushed for a 25 percent quota for women in Iraqi politics.
“Today we have six offices in the Iraq and we have had many women come through our organization,” Edwar notes. “But we still have many challenges to overcome. My aim is for some sort of peace amid all of this violence.”
One of Al Amal’s next goals is to help battered women more. “Together with the Ministry for Women’s Affairs we submitted draft legislation to Parliament suggesting that special shelters for battered women be opened as well as the formation of a special court to trial cases of domestic violence,” Edwar continued. “Sadly some of the country’s female MPs were the first to reject this draft law.”
Parliamentarian Liqaa al-Wardi, an MP from the Iraqiya bloc
“Politics cannot combat the tribal laws and logic in our society,” female MP Liqaa al-Wardi, explained why the women MPs had done this. “Any plan that contradicts those norms won’t work because the traditions mean more to the people than the laws. Currently in our society, combating violence against women is not a priority – it is considered a luxury.”
However al-Wardi does think that times are changing for the country’s women. “Previously women didn’t really participate in the political decision making. Political parties were dominated by men. But that will change in the future.”
It is hard to know whether al-Wardi’s predictions might be right. The Iraqi Constitution sees men and women as equal but that idea is a long way from the reality on Iraq’s more conservative streets. In some places in Iraq, locals find it strange that women should work in professions like education or medicine. Carrying a weapon or entering into politics is even stranger.
“Without the quota in politics I suspect we wouldn’t see a single female MP,” sociology professor Muhammad Abdul-Hassan, from the University of Baghdad, says. “In real life women are treated according to Bedouin tribal culture – they are seen as shadows of men. That is why people make jokes about women in politics and why political parties take advantage of their female representatives.”
Abdul-Hassan also says that the women doing these kinds of jobs will find it harder to marry or start a family because many tribes wouldn’t accept them as suitable wives for their sons.
Asking around on the street, things don’t look much better. One woman says she has not voted for women politicians in the past because she doesn’t trust them; instead she voted for male politicians.
Another spoke angrily about the fact that woman were allowed to join the military not because of any desire for equal rights, but because they were needed as cannon fodder. “They don’t trust us. That is why women are never appointed to senior positions in the military or even in the civil administration for the military,” she argued.
And finally, a male voter, who also happened to work for the Iraqi Parliament. “I support women’s participation in politics and I understand the problems they have because I work with them,” he said. “But I have never voted for a woman,” he said.