Women’s Struggles under Capitalist Modernity in Iraqi Kurdistan

Taking a look at the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan (southern Kurdistan), one cannot help but wonder where to begin with one’s analysis. Should I begin with the source of the issues? In that case, my writing would not come to an end. Should I write about the outcomes? It is hard to not fall into methodological errors, since there is not a single cause for the problems at hand. Which sections of society to consider? The powerful ones have built a life that is detached from the realities of society, as a result of which everyone finds themselves in a state of victimization.

In order for us to understand the situation on the ground, it is important to not be misled by the general picture that particularly gets drawn around the city-centers of southern Kurdistan. Rather, we must pay attention to the invisible things, the ones that do not seem obvious at first sight. Let us consider the two common spaces where violence against women is officially taken up. Firstly, the burning injuries departments of hospitals and secondly, the security authorities are the main spaces of registering cases of violence against women. Dozens of women are brought into hospitals due to self-immolations and many of them lose their lives shortly after because not enough is being done to keep them alive. After their death, stories around their fate turn into mysteries, no clues remain to indicate any possible crime, and soon, people stop talking about what happened. Care-takers, too, cover up the affair by referring to “honour”, so that soon these individual fates end up in the realm of silence. The theme of fire itself requires a sociological analysis in itself: “Why is it always fire?” The second factor compliments the first, as the police covers up 90% of these incidents. Especially when these happen among large families or tribes or involve officials and authorities, the women’s stories disappear. Over and over again, the police and those tasked with investigation claim to be looking into the matters, even though they are not.

Since 1991, at least 300 women get killed every year; those who commit suicide are mostly victims of so-called “honour killings”, by way of fire and bullets or are forced into suicide. At first, everyone claims to “investigate the issue”. Afterwards everyone forgets or is made to forget. This repeats itself all the time. In this situation, the victims of these stories are tied to a greater collective social wound, which further pulls down consciousness through silence and astonishment over these stories. Each story establishes an even deeper silence. I researched some of these cases and gathered some sources, only to discover a grim and tragic picture. The media and interested parties reduce this phenomenon to “violence”. This term however obscures all the aspects involved that would enable a comprehensive sociological analysis.

Whenever one speaks of “violence”, there is without a doubt one address: male violence and patriarchal mentality. This is true to an extent, but other important aspects are missing from this evaluation. If all these incidents of violence would be analyzed in a holistic manner, they could constitute a serious, fundamental source for struggle and self-organization. However, because the phenomena and their root causes are not read and analyzed appropriately, all the issues are viewed in isolation, rather than in relation with each other. In this way, each story of violence is understood as an individual incident. This is further obstructed when solutions are confined to police investigations and state institutions.

The patriarchal mentality is seen as an accumulation of individual incidents that are not considered in the light of their relationship to state institutions and mentalities. The worst aspect is that dissatisfaction and reflex against this violence no longer get expressed adequately. In the 1990s, a pregnant woman named Kajal Khidr was threatened with death after child-birth by her husband, who cut her nose off. At the time, there was general outrage, but now however, at best everyone shares a picture of victims on violence on so-called social media to sooth their conscience in the false belief to have made a contribution to change society.

It is crucial to know the prevalence of violence against women in society, in order to get a sense of the overall situation. It is not a solution to merely provide the numbers and statistics of violence, but this sort of information helps illustrate the state of the political parties, movements and organizations, which are part of the administration. The number of “suicides” and “self-immolations”, which are in reality actually cases of murder by male family members, is higher in the big cities. For example, the number is highest in Hewlêr (Erbil), 45 women were murdered in one year in the city alone. Likewise, rape is most common in Hewlêr; in the first six months of 2013, there have been at least 23 cases of rape. Statistics on the majority of harassment and rape cases are hidden and remain unpublished, but women’s efforts to raise awareness of violence against women have increased. Within the first six months of 2018 alone, among the 3470 applications to offices related to violence against women, Hewlêr, with 1367 applications holds the highest number. The majority of these applications result in temporary solutions, after which the women often return home, only to be abused, silenced or killed. In southern Kurdistan there are 225 centers, organizations and shelters for women, 33 of them are headed by men. Two women have killed themselves in these shelters. Most of the underlying issues do not get exposed or solved, violence in society is accepted as a fact of life.

In the 28 offices of the government which research the situation of women, only two are led by women. These organizations often just record the data that is acknowledged as official. The unreported cases are much higher.

While some women run shelters to genuinely struggle to protect women, most of the shelters were founded with the mentality, resources, and projects under the control of international organizations, which are usually linked to European states or the USA. The women and men, who work in these organizations as representatives see themselves as above the women, whom they perceive as victims. They look at the problems from a top-down perspective, viewing themselves as progressive experts on violence, while the people on whose behalf they work are seen as backward and hopeless. When I asked some of the people, who work in this field about their definition of violence, I was surprised by how detached their responses were from societal realities, the roots of the issues or any perspectives for sustainable solutions. This shows the extent to which this work has drifted away from societal realities.

Furthermore, social problems are not simply issues of women, but very much concern society as a whole, socially, politically, economically, ethically, etc. As Abdullah Öcalan says, we should judge “history, not the moment, society, not the individual”. The political parties of southern Kurdistan don’t hold democratic views that could operate as foundations for social transformation; likewise, progressive sections of society, media or educational institutions do not play their role adequately. Those who claim to struggle for change fail to engage the community in new quests. Although everyone claims to work towards the development of society, there is no tangible, concrete practice at hand. When social will-power is broken this deeply, it becomes difficult for society to leave the perpetual state of complaint and to take steps towards transformation and new creations.

If the region is viewed through a different lens, it is possible to recognize a struggle between the matri-centric culture of Upper Mesopotamia, which is still influential in many spheres of life on one hand, and the dominant, statist culture of Lower Mesopotamia, wherein society wants to live with its autonomous and democratic values, but believes that “we need a state in order to achieve freedom” on the other hand, to make sense of this confused and repetitive situation. Caught in between these two, southern Kurdistan is unable to re-create itself in a meaningful way, especially since its fate is often put in the hands of foreign powers. Merged between lived realities and feudal cultures on the ground, and capitalist values with their institutions in the realm of education, media, and economy on the other hand, people don’t realize the extent to which mannerism are imposed on them; the way they walk, eat, laugh, cry and lead their lives is not determined by them, but shaped by others. The greatest problem is thus the alienation from the self. One can see the cosmopolitan character of the regional, local culture; but Kurdish culture is seen as something backward that needs to be escaped.

Have the revolutionary movements and the revolutionary atmosphere in the region not left any mark? Without a doubt they have, but the revolutionary movements, perspectives and leaders have been discredited by all sorts of wrongful propaganda, step by step leading society to associate negative things with concepts like socialism, communism, and politics.

The culture of shopping malls, the heart of trade and capitalist markets, which have been established by occupying forces to expand their spheres of exploitation, affect women the most. Nobody asks what they are, but everyone sees them as symbols of progress and thus engages in a mimicking competition. In the meantime, young women find ways of occupying themselves with meaningless and empty every-day items or activities, which render them disinterested from the developments around them. Whilst young internationalists from around the world join the resistance in Rojava and express their admiration for the revolution there, many young Kurds look for ways of leaving their homes behind.

One realm that is prone to the process of society’s alienation is education. In the name of development and progress, American, European and South Asian schools and university are opened; the students graduating from these institutions lose their ties to their community to become incompetent elites, who will mostly work in the service of capitalist markets.

If this is the problem, what is the solution then? At the moment, if even the commission for women that was established in the Kurdistan National Assembly is not seen as legitimate, this means that the solution will not come easy. Change no longer takes place with the methods of the past, because they have been tried and did not deliver the desired outcomes; genuine change, the internalization of equality and the struggle for liberation cannot happen by copying models from Western countries or with financial investment – after all, the problems of this region are a result of a historical accumulation and thus ought to be understood in their entirety. Yet, theories that even European women now subject to criticism, as they do not offer solutions to them anymore, are imposed by Western institutions on the society of southern Kurdistan in the form of certain organizations in order to enforce certain methods, seemingly for the solution of problems.

Behind this backdrop, women are in need of organizing themselves. Organization does not just refer to rallying around a political party; women must develop means of asserting their will, to become a powerful force of change and transformation, and to fight the dangers that threaten women and their means of existence.

There are some women, who hold the belief that they can solve women’s and society’s issues by way of reforms. However, as the situation after the last elections has shown, political parties and their programs operate in an entirely different world than the society. The absence of a radical women’s movement renders reforms without outcome; as a result, due to the divided nature of these efforts, women’s struggles and energies get drained, although women are the driving force for their own development.

In the recent past, upon the initiative of some women, a campaign was started with the slogan “Women are Life, Don’t kill Life”.  This name sounds familiar, because the Women’s Freedom Movement of Kurdistan had started a broad campaign against feminicide a couple of years ago under this slogan, a campaign that was discussed in many places. If we look at the direction of this other, new campaign’s work, we can conclude several points regarding its nature. Firstly, women of southern Kurdistan need to return to present themselves as a hope of change and willpower instead of occupying themselves with categorizations. They must stop viewing women through the lens of victimhood and instead deepen their understanding of violence. Instead of seeing incidents as individual occurrences, they should see it as the outcome of systems that were established with patriarchal mentalities within state institutions, society, education systems, the family and all other spheres in which it protects its power. There is an urgent need for change, which can only be realized through theories, organizations and actions, as well as a de-centralized struggle that not only women, but also men participate in, but which asserts the condition of women’s autonomous self-organization to assure transformative victories.

Among the objectives of the campaign are the punishment of violence against women, the prevention of amnesty for murders of women, appealing to the government for solutions, opening women’s shelters, criticizing religious authorities, and requesting funding from the government. Their influence is very limited however. This is because they primarily focus on achieving reforms from above and tie their hopes to those in power.

These efforts can all keep on developing, but without an essential foundation for change and fighting violence at its roots, without realizing the historical and momentary manifestations of feminicide in relation to other institutions of power, such as colonialism, which impact women’s existence and status, without liberation from all these forces of territorial and intimate occupation, without genuine sociological perspectives, the basis for these efforts will keep on vanishing, as they become yearly campaigns against violence after the killing has taken place.

Two aspects of this campaign, which can be further researched for the campaign are praxis and its influence for actively changing society’s mentality, as well as the realm of education and media. These two spheres cannot achieve success unless a revolutionary and radical theory, as well as women’s autonomous organization, and increasingly broad discussions among all sections of society develop. Ultimately, solutions to the societal problems of southern Kurdistan are closely related to the possibility of a democratic revolution.