At recent demonstrations about unpaid salaries in the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nahida Hama Sayid made for an unusual sight. The 76-year-old wearing a Kurdish headscarf was sitting in a chair while demonstrating – she can’t stand up for as long as the other, younger demonstrators.
Hama Sayid says she doesn’t actually have a government-paid job – many of the protestors here do and they haven’t been paid properly for months – but she says she is here supporting her sons and daughters who do.
When there are unfavourable circumstances, it is often women who are impacted most.
Another, far younger female demonstrator, Kizan Maraan, had a similar reason for her presence. The 25-year-old was here in support of her husband, who was a teacher, she said. “I came to demand his rights, my rights and the rights of our children,” she argued.
These kinds of demonstrations have been going on for a while. Faced with a financial crisis, the government of the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan instituted a so-called salary-saving scheme months ago. As the economic situation worsened though, the authorities have barely been able to pay employees like teachers and medical staff. Locals have responded by holding a rolling series of demonstrations.
But there is something different about the latest round of demonstrations, and that is the increased participation of local women and the kinds of demands they’re making of their leaders.
Around two-thirds of the protestors that have been showing up are women, says Bekhal Ali, a female teacher and an organiser of the demonstrations in Sulaymaniyah. In the recent past local women tended to go to protests where women’s rights were concerned. Now, locals say, their demands are political and economic, the same as those of local men.
A video recorded by a local woman, Shayan Kaka Saleh, during the March 25 protests in Erbil, got a lot of attention on social media, when she called on members of the security forces to also take part.
In Iraqi Kurdistan’s other big city, Sulaymaniyah, women have often brought children and husbands along to the protests.
Jayman Salim, 50, was one of these. She has an autistic daughter so she had tied her child’s hand to hers so they did not lose one another in the crowd. She told NIQASH she was there to support the demonstrators who worked at local hospitals, because of the ongoing treatment she needed for her daughter.
Many of the women in attendance were teachers who were waiting to be paid. According to the local education department of 39,750 teachers in Sulaymaniyah, around 24,275 are female.
“A lot of men couldn’t participate in the protests anyway because they are working, doing other jobs to feed their families, so we are attending on their behalf,” says Shilan Omer, a teacher in Sulaymaniyah.
“When there are unfavourable circumstances, it is often women who are impacted most,” says Kajal Hadi Faqe, a member of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament's committee on women’s affairs. “They are the ones who suffer most because they’re not just employees, they also run their households.”