The “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” uprising in neighboring Iran and East Kurdistan has attracted attention in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), as Kurdish and Iranian women continue to protest months after the murder of Jina Amini by Iranian “morality police.” Yet while women in the KRI may not face restrictions like mandatory hijab, their own situation is far from celebratory. Many argue that Kurdistan Region of Iraq needs its own ‘women’s revolution.’
In the KRI, women’s issues have always been relegated to the sidelines. The Kurdish nationalist movement in the KRI has historically reflected the patriarchal society of the region. Honor killings still occur in Kurdish society in Iraq— two cemeteries in Slemani and Erbil are devoted to the victims, whose families often refuse to bury them.
In politics, women are pushed to the margins. Kurdish political parties limit women’s participation to women’s branches within their parties. Women activists are involved in ceremonial party meetings and sometimes take courses on activities such as knitting. Across political parties, women remain peripheral figures, used as props in the political sphere rather than actively shaping it. In a particularly dangerous contradiction, the presence of women is often used to demonstrate how progressive the KRI is compared to the rest of Iraq or even the entire region—a clear attempt to boost the region’s image rather than improve the lives of women.
The Kurdish Peace Institute spoke to Dr. Rewas Fayaq, the speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament, who indicated pessimism about the future of women’s rights in the region.
“Compared to the early 2000s and previous parliamentary terms, during which women’s rights were championed by activists and women’s rights organizations, as well as during my tenure as a member of the Kurdistan Parliament, it can be argued that we are currently experiencing a phase of regression in the promotion of women’s rights. The challenges facing any policy aimed at further promoting women’s rights and strengthening their achievements are even greater than they were two decades ago,” Fayaq said.
This phenomenon, she added, is not related to the gender of the parliamentary president but rather to societal mentality and norms that perpetuate injustice against women.
“After the March 5, 1991 uprising, political leaders used ideas about democracy and the protection of individual rights and freedoms to establish legitimacy for their rule. Some genuinely believed in the power and energy of women. They saw the women’s cause as a social issue rather than a political one, and understood that achieving gender equality would take time. They were prepared to combat the mentality that treated women as second-class citizens and subordinate to men. They were somewhat successful— but unfortunately, this was not pursued to the desired extent, and political parties ultimately put women’s rights behind other issues.
Today, political parties no longer have the trust of the populace, and they lack the policies and ideas that can lead society. They tend to align with mainstream mindsets, rather than challenging the backward mentality that rejects gender equality. There are even misogynistic voices advocating for the KRI parliament to reduce its 30% quota for women to match the 25% quota in the Iraqi parliament. Therefore, I am not optimistic that more can be achieved. At this political stage, I believe that safeguarding what has been achieved thus far is an accomplishment at this political stage in Kurdistan.”
Kurdish women’s activists would claim that these existing achievements are significant. If we consider Kurdish women’s representation in the public sphere, this is true to some extent. However, figures matter. Of the 682,000 permanent public servants in the KRI, only 157,000 are women—around 23 percent. At the highest levels of politics, these numbers are even worse. No woman has ever led the KRI as President or Prime Minister. The KRI Presidency has 619 permanent employees; however, only 83 of them are women, and no women hold top positions. The KRG does have a high council tasked with promoting women’s rights, although this council is widely seen as an effort to improve the image of Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s cabinet. KRI President Nechirvan Barzani, who is sometimes considered by Western media and self-proclaimed partisan feminists in the KRI as a pro-woman statesman, has no senior female advisors. Women are better represented in parliament thanks to a law mandating a 30 percent quota for women. Out of 684 employees, only 205 are women.
With higher levels of gender equality, the KRI could have lower rates of poverty, better healthcare outcomes, and more economic growth. The International Labour Organization (ILO) states that the unemployment rate in the KRI is 18 percent, although the KRG and NGOs calculate different figures. For women, the figure is doubled. The KRG has no reliable statistics about unemployment and poverty— the poverty rate could be over 20 percent. As research shows, it is women who pay the highest price for economic deprivation.
Economic challenges are not the only issue on which the KRG’s failure to collect data has harmed women’s efforts to push for change. Women’s rights activists are demanding the release of statistics on the murders of women—but the KRG has failed to release them. One woman activist said 44 women were known to have been murdered in 2022, but that that number could be bigger—and this is the reason why KRG is not reporting.
Of course, the trajectory is not black and white. The Kurdish Peace Institute spoke with Begard Talabani, the Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources for the KRG. In her view, having a woman as a minister has paid off in shaping certain policies. If the ministry had not been led by a woman, policies that consider women may not have been initiated in the first place. For instance, Talabani says:
“When I became the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister, I opened a new directorate at my ministry entitled the Directorate of Gender Equality to ensure women receive better representation. Now women represent about 35% of my ministry divan. We have one female adviser and three general directors. We have a strategic policy of gender equality and empowering women in the ministry. We have tried having women lead certain positions in the ministry. We are also trying to push for policies that help women gain economic independence, despite the fact that agriculture is a male-dominated industry in Kurdistan. I ideologically believe that women will not be independent if they do not have an independent economic source.”
Talabani has been challenged and opposed by the parliament and government for establishing the Gender Equality Directorate, and none of the ministries or presidencies in the Kurdistan Region have done what Talabani has done. The Committee of Agriculture at the Kurdistan Parliament wanted the Directorate to be closed—but Talabani rejected this.
This suggests that the under-representation of women in leadership positions in the KRI, particularly in the top three KRI leadership positions, not only perpetuates gender discrimination in politics, but also impedes the region’s overall progress and development. Investing in gender equality and enabling women to participate meaningfully in decision making processes– will benefit not only women but also the entire society—a society that has not progressed under male-dominated leadership.
In this context, other feminists have questioned whether seeking representation in a male-dominated system should be a goal in the first place. One was Nagihan Akarsel, a Kurdish feminist academic and founding member of the Jineolojî Academy in Slemani. Akarsel was assassinated by alleged Turkish intelligence agents in October 2022. Her assassination did not receive much attention from liberal and partisan feminists. While some may attribute this to her ideological proximity to the PKK, that may not tell the entire story. Many of these feminists accept or even support the PKK’s struggle for Kurdish rights in Turkey. Yet they avoid engaging with jineoloji and Ocalan’s theories about women’s freedom in their own context—a signal that their activism for women’s rights cannot transcend party lines.
Nagihan Akarsel also stood against the hierarchies and class interests that many liberal feminists in the KRI defend. She believed that women’s freedom goes beyond inclusion in elite male-dominated institutions and social freedoms in a wider patriarchal context. Even if women in the KRI were to find freedom from the confines of patriarchy imposed by society, the state itself is still patriarchal: KRG policies reflect the decision-making power of a select group of elite men. Liberal feminists prioritize securing jobs from the state rather than pushing for the redistribution of wealth, the elimination of social and economic inequality, and the separation of the state from patriarchal authority. Many are content to secure funds from Europe or the United States to talk about issues in our society without daring to tackle the roots of the issue, while feminists like Nagihan aim to empower women to free their minds and shape their own destinies and tackle the hierarchies, whether social or economic.
The refusal of liberal and partisan feminists to acknowledge the voices of women from remote villages and their acceptance of poverty as a natural law is in stark contrast to the views of feminists like Nagihan. She believed in the power of women to participate in shaping their own lives and destinies regardless of their socioeconomic background. Her murder is a stark reminder of the ongoing struggle for women’s rights and the need for feminists to prioritize the voices and needs of all women, regardless of their social status or economic standing. It is time for liberal feminists to recognize the limitations of their approach and to support a more comprehensive feminist agenda that prioritizes the needs of all women, regardless of their socioeconomic background or geographic location.
Even those women who are fighting for change from within the system recognize the need for a deeper cultural shift. As Dr. Fayaq said: “In the past, there was a political will to oppose this [patriarchial] mindset, which resulted in the passage of several bills—including a law criminalizing domestic violence, amendments to the penal code, the establishment of a 30% quota for women, and the imposition of capital punishment for perpetrators of “honor killings” of women. However, the current trend of degrading women under the guise of religious justification is on the rise. There is currently no political will or social movement to challenge this, and it holds little value for the elite.”
In her view, pushing for new laws absent social change could backfire: “Consequently, it is incumbent upon the parliament to protect existing achievements, and the emphasis should be on the implementation of existing laws, rather than pursuing new rights that may be threatened by the risk of being dismantled.”
(Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images)