Iraqi Kurdistan: Notice the Women


by Donald Kahle -- CPT Delegation member to Iraq 31 July - 14 August

After receiving five cups of tea from homeless families in Zharawa refugee camp, I returned to Suleimaniya ready to believe that hospitality offered a recognizable path to peace. Then I received this advice from CPTer Joe Mueller: "Notice the women." He could have said, "Notice how easily you don't notice the women."

Hospitality naturally forms a circle, around a table or a campfire, a project or a topic. But women orbit outside it, shuttling to the kitchen, serving liquids hot and cold. We focus on the men.

Then our delegation met Thomas Uwer. Uwer is the chairman of the board for Wadi, one of the most enterprising and inventive NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) we encountered in Iraq.

"In less than a generation, eighty percent of Iraq's villages have been emptied," Uwer begins. "After thirty years of violence and war, sixty percent of Iraq's population is female. These women do seventy percent of the work."

Most of the former villagers gravitated toward cities, where the central government can more easily count and control its people. But some went the opposite way, hunkering down in or heading for the hills. If cosmopolitan city life has a tendency to moderate or liberalize family systems, the survivalist lifestyle can breed extremism. When patriarchy provides social order, it strengthens over time. This trend can be invisible to NGOs and news organizations, because they rely on infrastructure only available in cities.

To make visible the invisible, Wadi sent field teams to forty mountain villages, pairing one female doctor with one female social worker. The teams talked to women and school-age girls and learned that sixty percent of the women had been victims of so-called "female circumcision." In some villages, female genital mutilation (FGM) was universal. By Wadi's count, FGM is occurring in eighty-four percent of the rural villages. UNICEF and the World Health Organization don't list Iraq in their worldwide campaign to end FGM, because surveys and self-reporting didn't uncover its prevalence in rural Iraq.

Efforts to end the practice in Iraq are now mobilizing. The Iraqi Parliament will probably pass a law against it. Educational flyers are circulating. A website, www., gathers news of the effort in Kurdish, English, and German languages. A petition against FGM signed by a few dozen prominent citizens was published in the newspaper. Although traditionalists asked Wadi not to publish the names or promote the issue, saying, "If you publish this, you'll make Kurdistan look bad," the petition gathered 14,000 further signatures in a single month.

Ending FGM is not Wadi's only focus. It has funded schools for women to learn hairdressing and literacy and built a shelter for women fleeing violence. It opened the first women-only coffee house in Kurdistan.

Halabjah now has a Women's Center, offering counseling, legal advice, literacy training, or just a sympathetic ear and a cup of tea. Success on the ground is measured one family at a time. Statistics will take care of themselves.