Teachers protest in Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq. (photo: دانا امين )
For around three months now, the teachers from certain parts of Iraqi Kurdistan have been protesting. Every weekend, they and their supporters have gathered to demonstrate about the fact that they have not been paid properly for months, due to the financial crisis in certain parts of the semi-autonomous northern region.
But today, the area that faces Sulaymaniyah’s Department of Education, where the protests are usually held, no longer holds so many demonstrators. There are only a few teachers left protesting. Many of the others returned to their classrooms at the end of last year.
“The demonstrations are no longer as vital because so many demonstrators have gone,” Kamran Qardaghi, one of the remaining teachers still protesting, told NIQASH. “We don’t know what is going to happen next. It’s clear the government doesn’t care about us and we no longer have the same support from all of our colleagues.”
Nobody knows what will happen to the few protestors remaining on the front line; some fear that legal measures may be taken against them.
Pshtiwan Sadiq, the Minister of Education in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own borders, military and government, actually announced the start of the new school at the end of last September. But at that stage, thousands of teachers in the provinces of Sulaymaniyah, Halabja, and Karmayan said they wouldn’t be returning to school until they had been paid, and that they would keep on protesting.
The teachers’ complaints include the fact that they are owed for over three months’ worth of work in 2015, two months in 2016 and that since early 2016, they had not been getting their full salaries at all; the Iraqi Kurdish authorities said they had to cut the teachers’ salaries by half and even three-quarters and that they would pay the money back later, when they could.
As a result, the provinces’ teachers stopped going to their classrooms and also started to demonstrate in the streets. Special committees were formed to represent the teachers’ cause.
“The protests were not only driven by the lack of salaries but we also wanted to teach the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan a lesson on patriotism,” Dilshad Mirani, a local teacher and one of the members of the protestors’ committee in Sulaymaniyah, told NIQASH. “And we are proud because despite many attempts to intimidate us and push us towards violence, we have remained peaceful.”
For example, late on December 27 last year, two cars belonging to members of the committee were burned in front of their houses in Sulaymaniyah. Several days later local security forces arrested several teachers; they were later released.
The teachers themselves said this was an example of the kinds of intimidation practiced by local authorities and security forces, who deny any wrong doing.
The protesting educators can also not help but think of other demonstrations in Iraqi Kurdistan which have ended in violence, injuries and even ten dead during protests in 2011.
“Our demonstrations have been different,” insists Barham Mustafa, the secretary of the Kurdistan Teachers' Union. “They show that we can continue to protest without despair and that we are able to use modern methods to protest. We have firm demands but we will not allow any building or street to be damaged. It is our responsibility to protect these too.”
But while the protestors may be peaceful, their numbers are diminishing.
“Many teachers have returned to their schools and the names of those who did not have been registered,” says Shoraj Ghafouri, a spokesperson at the local Ministry of Education. “Teachers with a conscience understand the seriousness of the situation, which is why they have returned to work and to their students.”
Currently education authorities are working out how to make up the lost time at school for those students who did not have teachers for several months.
But while most of the thousands of teachers who were on strike have gone back to work, that doesn’t mean they are happy about it. Most of the educators are still protesting, only now on social media.
“Our pockets are empty but our hearts are full of anger,” wrote one local teacher on Facebook. “The boycott has ended but we will begin again one day soon, and with more energy and enthusiasm than ever.”