ERBIL, Iraq — Despite the war crimes being committed against women and girls in northern Iraq since the extremist group ISIS invaded two years ago, rejection of entrenched violence and discrimination against females may be taking root among pockets of the autonomous Kurdish region here. Yet in many ways, life for women and girls remains unstable.
In an interview with Osman Ocalan, a founding guerrilla leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and brother of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, said in an interview in Erbil that the party has long criticized the bottom-rung role of women in Kurdistan.
“My brother wanted to help the most helpless in society, which has usually been women who have been shamed,” Ocalan said, speaking in a small cafe here, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. His brother has been imprisoned since 1999 in Turkey, which considers the PKK a terrorist faction.
The PKK began an armed struggle against the Turkish government in 1984, calling for an independent Kurdish state in Turkey. After many cease-fires and broken truces, the struggle came to a lull and fighters moved elsewhere, including to northern Iraq. The Syrian civil war and the role of Kurds in combating the Islamic State have renewed tensions between Turkey and the PKK.
Among other aspects of Kurdish culture, the PKK rejects honor killings, Ocalan said, although such practices prevail in the region.
“The first women who became involved with the PKK were women who had been sexually assaulted and would have been killed by their families,” Ocalan said. “When they joined the PKK they were respected.”
The PKK is famous for having created all-female guerrilla units, a process in which Osman Ocalan said he was largely involved. He and his brother recognized that taking away women’s sexual rights was a form of violence, too.
When asked about his views on ISIS and women, Osman Ocalan responded: “ISIS is Islam. This is how Islam sees women. They have enslaved women and are now using women as sexual objects. This is how Islam has always been. It is completely unacceptable.”
The northern region of Iraq is governed by the Kurdish minority, who are estimated to number about six million. The Iraq government in Baghdad and the Kurds agreed to work together to defeat ISIS, also known as the Islamic State or the Arabic word, Daesh. A new report by numerous partners, with acknowledgments to UN agencies, describes how minorities such as Christians and Yezidis are “disappearing” in Iraq amid the continuing violence.
The report, financed by the European Union, says that besides ISIS, the pesh merga and the Iraqi military have also committed war crimes.
Local Kurdish women have joined the armed struggle against ISIS. Despite the cultural taboos that prevent women from being involved with military forces, the pesh merga — the Kurdish army in Iraq — has a small unit of women, called the Hiza Agre, or Fire Force, specifically to fight ISIS.
A small group of the Fire Force fighters was stationed this spring in Dohuk, a base near the front line with ISIS. With airstrikes against ISIS visible in the distance, some fighters explained in interviews why they joined the pesh merga.
Fariba, who is from a village near Erbil, said, with an AK-47 in her hand: “ISIS says that when a man kills him he goes to heaven, when a woman kills him he will go to hell. I have come here to kill ISIS.”
Another fighter, Asima, said that when ISIS came to Sinjar and killed the men and took the women, she decided to join the pesh merga to fight ISIS.
The women’s days are filled with learning how to use guns and fight the jihadists. “ISIS doesn’t come here because they know there are female pesh merga,” said a captain, adding, “When the men in the pesh merga see women killing ISIS, he becomes very strong.”
Not far off, at a camp for displaced people near Erbil, called Baharka, women and girls are stuck in a zone of physical and emotional repression if not danger. Around 3,000 people have found refuge at the camp as they fled the onslaught of ISIS, including many Yezidis. The new report on the disappearance of Iraqi minorities also notes the “desperate” conditions in the internally displaced camps in the country, with more than 3.3 million people, including minorities, calling such places home.
According to Fatima Hashima, a social worker at Baharka, trauma continues with psychological and sexual violence committed against women there. Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence, Hashima said, but most women and girls do not report it for fear they will be shamed.
“The families marry [girls] young as a way of protecting them from being harassed by other men,” Hashima said. Reports of trafficking and little protection from security forces in the camps is said to be common.
While the overall struggle for women’s rights in Kurdistan has a distance to go to achieving equality, strides have been made in another important area: a significant decrease in the practice of female genital mutilation. Through various nonprofit organizations, circumcision in certain areas of the region has led to some villages declaring themselves “FGM-free zones.”
Those successes took about a decade and required local women to overcome tremendous wariness in speaking about their suffering from circumcision, a taboo subject. In this region, breaking silence is part of the struggle for women to win their rights.
As Osman Ocalan said, “Unless Kurdish women free themselves, Kurdish society cannot be free.”
Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article.
Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.