Roses, women and jails: the Kurdish experience

13 May

This was a speech given by Ms. 袁志君 (Chih-Chun Yuan), a Taiwanese woman working in Christian Peacemaker’s Team in Northern Iraq, working with the mainly Kurdish communities there.

The lady who intro-ed the speech retold a story she had heard from Ms. Yuan which inspired the invitation to speech at the Kaohsiung Women’s Center. She said Ms. Yuan had met a Kurdish girl in Iraq who was terribly burnt. When asked who had done this, the girl admitted to doing it to herself. It was a failed suicide attempt, for the girl did not want to get married. So she set fire to herself. There are many less painful ways to kill oneself, why did she choose such an extreme method?

“Because even if I am saved,” the girl explained to Ms. Yuan “no one will want to marry me.”

Ms. Yuan started out by outlining the geographical and cultural environment of Islamic nations in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein’s Sunni rule was much more lenient towards women’s right. Shiite traditions are more conservative in this aspect – encouraging women to wear burkas and discouraging equal rights. Persians are more likely to be Shiites, with neighboring Iran having a grand majority. To to West, the Arabian Peninsula, Syria and Jordan have a greater majority of Sunnis, and this can also be reflected in their culture. (I wonder what would have happened to Israel upon independence if it weren’t surrounded by the relatively non-conservative Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt?) Between Iran, Iraq and Turkey is this vast area in which the major population are Kurdish. After WWI the Kurds had hoped to establish Kurdistan, but were betrayed by the British.

Now the Kurdistan movement is not the most prominent movement among Kurds, as they are realizing how impossible it is – but what the Kurds now ask for is equal citizenship rights within the nation they were born in. In Turkey the Kurds do not have citizenship. The Turkish government calls these people ‘The Mountain people’ and do not allow them to teach their own language in schools. Nor does the Turkish government allow Kurdish mothers to name their own children with Kurd names. (I am reminded of the movie 香料王國, in which the Turkish government deports all the Greek people in Turkey because of their fight over Cyprus with Greece – true historical event. )

Iraq is in the center of the middle east, and with the centuries of migrations has a rich diversity of different peoples. These people may not be divided simply into the various Islamic sects, but have distinct cultures, traditions and even tongues.

In regards to different religions among tribes there are the Assyrians and Armenians, who are Christian. Among the Iraqis there are also the Yazidi, a mysterious religion comprised of people from various Islamic sects.

“There are so many different cultures that even as an Iraqi you may not understand the culture of other Iraqis.”

I asked Ms. Yuan if she had majored in the language prior to going to Iraq. She said no, she had to learn it there.

A short clip was shown concerning the Kurdish fight for indigenous rights. It talked about women peshmerga (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUFXgHJuk9w) – the female guerilla fighters (peshmerga means “Those with the courage to face death). These women were usually the wives, mothers, daughters or sisters of Kurdish men who had been persecuted by the government or killed in fights for Kurdish rights. The beginning of it paid a tribute to The Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico at the end of the 20th century. I had never heard of the Zapatista movement in any other popular medium before having read Paul Farmer’s ‘The Pathology of Poverty’. In this book Paul Farmer mentioned the Zapatista movement as transcending a local concern in that its ideals called for the rights of indigenous people everywhere. It is said to have been a great inspiration to other peoples and I saw this here, in this clip about Kurdish women peshmesga. Evidently the Zapatista movement is known throughout the world except in areas like ours where we enjoy our rights.

All Kurdish guerilla members who are allowed combat action must be over 18. A few years back there was a report about Kurdish guerilla groups letting minors fight, which could be translated as ‘child soldiery’. Today, within the mountains, the Kurdish guerilla groups have their own schools that provide education for youngster until the age of 18.

I was amazed by the pictures of whole armies of women training in fatigues, roughing it out in the wilderness. I tend to think that women do not willingly fight if there were a viable alternative. Ms. Yuan met a girl with holes all over her face from cigarette burns of the army during interrogation. She had joined the Kurdish guerrilla group and was captured. She had joined the guerilla group at 14, when she was faced with either being taken away by the army for the crimes of their male relatives and possibly put in a refugee camp, or joining the guerilla group. “At least with the guerilla group, I had my own life in my own hands.”

Ms. Yuan says the problem here is that the structure is inadequate to support people – so that people would have to choose extreme measures to survive. As a family member of a Kurdish rebel you are persecuted by the government, and there is little social provision for widows and orphans.

In a semi-permanent refugee camp that had been in Iraq for decades, Ms. Yuan met with a group of Kurdish women who called themselves “Mothers for Peace”. They were usually the mothers of Kurds who had died for the Kurdish cause, and they regularly held demonstrations and activities to promote peace. There are many women groups in Iraq that seek peace. There is a women’s radio station in Iraq that is funded by the UN. There are other women groups that call for government parties to cease in-fighting, to cease war, to cease corruption. Did you know that 70% of Iraq’s government spending is used on government employment? The Iraqi government is the biggest employer of Iraqis within Iraq, and this effectively keeps down the unemployment rate.

Within the Iraq parliament there is a 25% female quota that must be filled (no doubt an idea spurred by the US occupation). This female quota is typically filled by the female relatives of ‘martyrs’ (because they draw sympathy and are more likely to generate votes). It is very difficult for independent, non-partisan women to get into the Iraq parliament and drive a more feminist change.

With the U.S. military occupation of Iraq another disturbing factor emerges – the irresponsible disposal/abandonment of nuclear weaponry. There has been a surge in community reports of mutant children and cancer, but the U.S. army has so far failed to acknowledge this, even going so far as denying this. There is a shortage of cancer medication within Iraq. Ms. Yuan mentions that the NGO she works with has been blacklisted by the United Nations “for not following UN positions” – they’ve smuggled cancer drugs into Iraq. “We do not get any funding from the UN. NGOs that are funded by the UN are required to follow the political position of UN.” And news reports getting out of Iraq and closely censored by the government. If you value your career as a reporter, you do not write articles that the U.S. government doesn’t want people to see.

Indeed, I have yet to see a major news vine report on U.S. army radioactive waste in Iraq.

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