For Iraqi Kurdistan, the month of March is about commemoration and tribute. March 5th brings the anniversary of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime in the town of Rania. The 14th rejoices the birth of prominent nationalist leader Mustafa Barzani in 1903. The 16th remembers the chemical weapons that inundated the city of Halabja in 1988. And on Friday the 21st—the spring equinox—the Kurdish New Year, Nawroz, elated Kurdistan with notions of new beginnings. For Kurdish women, however, every year has thus far promised exacerbated hostility.
And next March, the 8th will summon thoughts of the two Kurdish women who lit themselves on fire this year, while the rest of the world celebrated International Women’s Day.
“One of them was a 14-year-old girl from a town called Kalar and the other one was a refugee from Syria. She set fire on herself on March 5th and she died March 8th,” said founder of Kurdish NGO WADI, Falah Murad Khan Shakarm. “The first case was reported as an accident and the second one a family problem, but not much detail was published about their cases. In fact, no one is very interested about such news here because it is happening so often.”
Self-immolation has claimed the lives of as many as 10,000 Kurdish women, including girls as young as 13, since the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq gained autonomy in 1991. Two of Shakarm’s relatives are among the women who died last year. He said suicide by self-immolation could only be understood in the larger, convoluted context of women’s rights in Kurdistan.
According to President of the Parliament of Kurdistan Iraq, Mohamed Kader Abdullah via the provisions of Law No. 8 of 2011, The Law Against Domestic Violence in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, “domestic violence is a negative phenomenon contrary to the principles of divine law and human rights.” Domestic violence contradicts the notion that family is the foundation of society and, thus, each member of a family must be protected from disintegration. “To take legal action for safety, stability and the prevention of domestic violence means preventive action before it happens, and it means looking for reforms and medical treatment after it happened. This law shall serve this purpose,” according to Abdullah.
Law No. 8 deems domestic violence as any act, say or threat, on the basis of gender and in the context of family relations through marriage or kinship to the fourth degree, in which one is harmed physically, sexually or psychologically. According to Article II, this is inclusive of “suicide caused by domestic violence.”
But those of whom have doused themselves in kerosene and lit a match have been coerced in their marriages, pressured into prostitution and obliged to abort their unborn children. Their fathers and brothers have traded them with other men, betrothed into shighaar marriages. Some were married as mere children. Many of those who were not married young were forced to preserve their purity, enduring genital mutilation. They’ve been shown disdain, beaten under all pretexts and cut from their kinships. Honor killings are common. “The history of Kurdistan and Iraq is full of war and killing,” Shakarm said.
This is Iraqi Kurdistan, and this is why women kill themselves. They are already dead.
According to Shakarm, nearly all suicides occur in Kurdistan homes, and the notoriety of self-immolation as a public declaration of suffering has led to its accounting for more than half of all suicide attempts among Kurdish women.
“During Saddam, there were guns in every home. This is why women were killing themselves by shooting. After 1991 due to embargo and luck of electricity, people in Kurdistan used benzene for generator and kerosene for heating and cooking, and the ones who were dealing with this stuff were mainly women,” Shakarm explained. “Women in Kurdistan know fire more than anything else…It’s difficult to say, but time by time women using fire for ending their lives became kind of the easiest way because the liquid, which is benzene or kerosene, is available everywhere in the Kurdish house.”
Often, however, women are killed before they can even come to fathom suicide.
“Maybe, in many cases, this was also fear from slow death—women and girls who loved someone and had sex relations outside family, sometimes they are pregnant, they know they will be killed again…for what is so called honor.”
The Iraqi Panel Code No. 111 of 1969 sentences men for killing any of their female family members for any reasons of honor, though Shakarm said there have yet to be investigations into cases thus far.
“Then again, what is honor?” he asked rhetorically. “Everyone in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan can analyze the honor in different ways…and really most families here are not protecting their female members because they think she brings shame to them, and this is dishonoring them. In many cases, she will face killing or she [kills] herself.”
The Department of Domestic Violence released official statistics, proclaiming that there were 86 killings in 2013, 36 of which are deemed suicide. There were 349 cases of self-immolation, 113 of which are thought to be self-induced deaths and 236 of which are considered accidents. Yet, Shakarm said, “There are no proper investigations and cases are not reported,” so the numbers are not concrete.
According to Vice, outside the small Iraqi Kurdish town of Arbat lies a small tent city that currently serves as the makeshift home of 513 Syrian Kurdish refugee families. There, they celebrated International Women’s Day with tentative hope, participating in workshops led by NGOs.
“According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, dislocation presents a unique challenge to women—namely the increased likelihood of gender-based discrimination and violence,” Vice wrote. “We spoke to a few women gathered in the small tent city in Arbat about what it’s like to be a woman in conflict, and what their hopes are for female refugees in the next year.”
43-year-old Rabiha Qassem Muhammad told Vice, “This is the worst life. Only today, because we left all of the cleaning, the dishes, and the cooking, it’s an enjoyable day. I don’t have my rights. What am I missing? Everything. I felt like a stranger even in Syria, and I was poor. Now I’m here. I demand from everyone to at least respect women. In our eastern culture, it’s very rare for men to respect women—even pregnant women get beaten by their husbands. Awareness isn’t just for women—it’s the men who need it. There’s no point in my going to a seminar and then telling my husband, because it’ll go in one ear and back out the other and he’ll still beat me.”
Despite decade-long efforts put forth by NGOs like WADI to facilitate both the enrichment and augmentation of Kurdish women and girls’ lives, the region is imbued with feelings of helplessness. WADI opened two shelters in Erbil and Sulaimanyah in 1999 and 2002 but “they are running so bad,” Shakarm said. “Recently, one woman set fire on herself in one of the shelters, too.”
There are other temporary shelters through The Department of Domestic Violence, where women can stay for 72 hours, but 72 hours of temporary security in a life wracked by peril is not enough.
Shakarm is a founder of the Zhyan group that endeavors to shed light on women’s issues in Iraqi Kurdistan, and particularly focuses on the eradication of honor killings. “In the last two years we organized more than 30 protests and public meetings for raising awareness about women’s rights,” he said. “Today 26-3, when I’m busy answering you, I presented a case in court on behalf of the Zhyan group [in which a] husband killed [his wife] after he was released with [a pardon] decree in 2012.”
If there is hope for Kurdish women, it lies with activists like Falah Murad Khan Shakarm. He’s lived through all of the March’s, surviving the March 1988 chemical bombings in Halabja and the March 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein in Rania. He’s lived through this March, hoping for women’s rights with the Nawroz New Year, and he’ll be fighting next March, and every month in between.
“I think women in Kurdistan started their silent revolution against all back-worded morals and the patriarchal system…but I see hope and people now are more educated,” he said. Still, he continued, “Women in Kurdistan, Iraq and all of the Middle East need freedom, respect and they need to be accepted us human beings. They need an environment with rule of law to protect them and they need to be present in all fields of life. They need an independent economy and less of a patriarchal system.”