IRAQ: Interview: Between Nationalism and Women's Rights - The Kurdish Women's Movement

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Jadaliyya: What made you write this article?

Nadje Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt: This article is part of a special issue of the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication on contemporary Iraq, which seeks to go beyond the mainstream focus on security issues, elite politics, and oil to understand the political, cultural, and intellectual trends within Iraqi society. The aims of our contribution are to shed light on the largely neglected issue of the women's movement in Iraqi-Kurdistan and to highlight the ongoing struggle for women's rights in that region of Iraq. There is a widespread image in the Western media that only central and southern Iraq face problems of violence, corruption, lack of services, and women's rights violations. Demonstrations in Iraqi-Kurdistan in 2011, as well as interviews that we conducted with Kurdish activists and politicians in 2007 and 2010, show that things are far from perfect in Iraqi-Kurdistan.

Our article reveals the ambiguous relationship between the Kurdish women's movement and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). On the one hand, there are those women activists that believe that Kurdish political leaders have been instrumental in enabling the necessary reforms for women's rights. On the other hand, there are those who believe that Kurdish political leaders are an obstacle to achieving women's rights. Our article also sheds light on the tensions amongst women activists in Kurdistan as well as the challenges faced in uniting women activists in Iraqi-Kurdistan and in the rest of Iraq.

Jadaliyya: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

NA and NP: The article examines the strategies of the Kurdish women's movement in Iraq in relation to Kurdish nationalist and “feminist”/women's rights agendas. In the literature on women's movements in the Middle East, there has been a tendency to argue either that nationalism and women's rights are compatible or that nationalism undermines women's rights. We argue that the relationship between nationalism and women's rights necessitates an in-depth and intersectional analysis of the specific context and historical moment in which women's struggles occur, the configuration of social and political forces that predominate, and the strategies adopted by women's movements in this regard. In the context of Iraqi-Kurdistan, the problem is not Kurdish nationalism per se, but rather the failure of Kurdish women's activists to engage with the wider political field of the “new Iraq,” of which Iraqi-Kurdistan is an inextricable part. This makes women's rights in Iraqi-Kurdistan vulnerable to instrumentalization by Kurdish political elites.

Jadaliyya: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

NA and NP: This article draws on our wider research on the impact of the US-led occupation on Iraq since 2003, published in 2009 by University of California Press as What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq. In our book, we were not able to include all the data on Iraqi-Kurdistan that we had collected, which is why we wanted to write an article dedicated to the Kurdish women's movement. Although the nature of political, economic, and social dynamics of Iraqi-Kurdistan differ from those of central and southern Iraq, nevertheless, we want to stress that Iraqi-Kurdistan is inextricably linked to Iraq as a whole. Despite the very lively gender politics in Iraqi Kurdistan, there has been almost nothing written in English about this subject.

Jadaliyya: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NA and NP: The article is aimed predominantly at students and researchers of Iraq, including Iraqi-Kurdistan. We hope that those researchers who do not normally engage with gender analyses of politics and society in Iraq will read this article. Women are not only half the population, but find themselves at the intersection of different discursive and material struggles in society. In other words, paying attention to women is not only a question of equity, but can also shed light on trends, dynamics, and tensions that may otherwise remain hidden by “gender neutral” approaches. We also hope that researchers and students of women's rights movements and feminism in the Middle East and the global south will read this article, both for the new empirical information about the Kurdish women's movement in Iraq and for the contribution to the debate over nationalism and feminism/women's rights.

Jadaliyya: What other projects are you working on now?

NA and NP: This is the last article written by us based on our joint research on Iraq since 2003. Since 2007, Nicola has been researching the gendered politics of in/security in the Arab world, focusing on Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan and plans to write a monograph (tentatively) entitled, “Reconceptualising Gender, Reconceptualising Security in the Arab World.” She has also been critically examining gender mainstreaming in international peace and security (aka UNSCR 1325), and has co-edited a special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics on this topic, published in December 2011. In addition, she is co-director of a research network between the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender at the University of Warwick (UK) and the Institute of Women's Studies at Birzeit University (Palestine), funded by the British Academy.

Nadje has been involved in various projects related to higher education and women's rights activism in Iraq. She has been working with two teams of Iraqi-based academics on the specific problems and challenges faced by female academics in Iraq today. She has also been involved in facilitating networks and training between Iraqi academics interested in women and gender studies as well as regional scholars from Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon who have been involved in these fields for many years. As part of these projects, she has been trying to enable Iraqi academics and civil society activists interested in women and gender issues to meet and to engage in capacity building to allow for evidence-based research that would strengthen advocacy and campaigning. She has been involved in similar initiatives related to the social sciences.

Excerpt from “Between Nationalism and Women's Rights: The Kurdish Women's Movement in Iraq”

With the fall of the Baath regime in 2003, many Kurdish women activists initially joined with women activists in the rest of Iraq to promote women's rights for all Iraqis. However, the violence that has engulfed central and southern Iraq as well as the Islamization of politics there, mean that a large number of women activists in Kurdistan have put their efforts into supporting autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan as a means of defending women's rights there. Moreover, many Kurdish activists tend to emphasize their difference from Arabs through reference to their desire for women's rights (as opposed to what they perceive as a lack of desire for women's rights in the rest of Iraq). Even those women in Kurdistan who believe that it is important to work with women in the rest of Iraq are largely prevented from doing so due to the practical difficulties of travelling to/within the rest of Iraq. However, some women's rights activists from central and southern Iraq travel to Iraqi Kurdistan for meetings and workshops as it is much safer than other parts of the country.

The comparison with the rest of Iraq has made some Kurdish women more optimistic about the gains that they have made within the Iraqi Kurdistan region, whilst others remain critical of politicians within the KRG. Some women activists believe that Kurdistan politicians are marginalizing women's rights to concentrate on the “bigger national questions” of Kirkuk, oil, and federalism. Other women activists believe that these questions of Kurdish rights are also inseparable from achieving women's rights in Kurdistan. However, both the critics and the optimists believe that autonomy for Kurdistan must be respected by the government in Baghdad