“We don’t just sing and dance,” Iraqi gypsy, Nayef Hamou, states proudly. “We have a long, rich heritage and, along with others, we have contributed to the development and reconstruction of this region.”
And that is why Hamou, and many of his fellow gypsies, are now demanding political representation in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Hamou lives in what is known as the Adar Complex, about ten kilometres south west of the city of Dohuk, one of the largest residences for the gypsies of Kurdistan. It was built in 2008 and now houses more than 260 gypsy families.
“We want to be represented in the parliament and on the provincial councils,” Hamou tells NIQASH. “We have many problems, such as the lack of schools and job opportunities. There are many unemployed young people in the complex and inside gypsy communities and we want these problems addressed.”
Fahima Fattam, another gypsy in the Adar Complex was worried that gypsies were in danger of losing their culture and that this was another reason why gypsies needed political representation. “We have our own traditions, which we respect,” she says. “But many of these – such as the language, the costumes, the marriage traditions – will disappear if there are no efforts made to protect them.”
“The future of the gypsy way of life is uncertain,” Fattam argues. “IN order to have our voices heard we need our own representatives in parliament and on the provincial councils. This is the only way to address the gypsies’ problems.”
And both Fattam and Hamou may soon get their way. A census conducted by the Aluka Cultural Centre for Gypsies in Dohuk suggests that there are now more than 31,000 gypsies – also known as Domari in the Middle East – living in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“We formed a higher committee composed of gypsies from Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk and then we formed groups in each province to conduct the census,” Younis Tahir, the head of the Aluka Centre says. “As a result we counted 31,145 gypsies living in the three provinces.”
The survey took place over a period of six months and, when compared to similar earlier surveys, the increase in the number of gypsies in Iraqi Kurdistan has been significant. Tahir says the last survey showed only around 25,000 gypsies in the region.
According to Tahir, there are two major reasons for this increase. Firstly, he says, social traditions among the gypsies mean the group has a particularly high birth rate. And secondly, a large number of the gypsies have come to Iraqi Kurdistan from other parts of Iraq after they became targets for extremists and Iraqi militias. Additionally the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan are taking measures to try and persuade the gypsies to settle in one place.
As a result of their increasing numbers, the gypsies have decided they need better and more appropriate political representation.
“As yet, we haven’t formed any kind of political party,” Tahir explains. “But we did join some of the other Kurdish political parties, such as the KDP and the PUK. Because we would face significant challenges if we competed in elections on our own. However we hope that eventually the government will allocate us a political quota on the provincial councils, in the same way they have done for other minorities.”
“Gypsies should adapt to developments taking place all over the world and in doing so, they should try to benefit from the political changes taking place in Iraqi Kurdistan too,” Mohammed Biro, a gypsy leader also resident in the Adar Complex says. “Our community has suffered a lot through lack of a stable life. And this has seen us suffering from poverty, illiteracy and ignorance. Now we are still making a living by begging while we see other Iraqi minority groups benefitting from the political and economic changes here in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Sociologist Biyar Baffi, who is based in the northern city of Zakho, near the Turkish-Iraqi border, believes that local gypsies will need to do a lot in order to make real changes within their society. Apart from some of the gypsies’ own traditions which can be damaging – for example, the tradition of marrying in their teens – Iraq’s gypsies also have years of oppression to overcome.
“The former Iraqi regime played a role in weakening this sector of society,” Baffi explains. “Gypsies were not allowed Iraqi nationality and that made it difficult for them to enrol in schools and to access employment opportunities with the government.”
However, as he points out, if the gypsies win their own seats in Parliament in Iraqi Kurdistan or on the provincial councils, they may well be in a better position to be able to lobby for better educational and employment opportunities.
Ordinary Iraqis also tend to have a negative and stereotypical view of gypsies, Baffi says, despite the fact that the gypsy society is changing. He also thinks the fact that having gypsy families isolated in a compound outside the main centres in Iraqi Kurdistan is not helping this.
Gypsy participation in the electorate is welcome, says local lawyer Biyar Tahir Doski, who heads the office of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Dohuk – IHEC supervises the electoral process in Iraq. “As long as their participation is within the framework of Iraqi election law,” he adds. “So as long as the gypsies hold Iraqi nationality and as long as they have the necessary official documents to show they have the right to participate in the elections, they are very welcome.”
For now though, the would-be gypsy voters’ most difficult question may not have anything to do with their minority status. The provincial elections, due to be held in Iraqi Kurdistan in September, were postponed this week due to confusion over laws that had to do with who minorities in the region could vote for. The elections have been postponed indefinitely, until electoral law can be revised.