Perspectives from Kurdistan

Dr Zeynep Kaya writes for Nina Magazine

Dr Zeynep Kaya writes for Nina Magazine

Dr Zeynep Kaya, has recently returned from her fieldwork in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah with reference to the role of international organisations supporting efforts to enhance the status of women. She gives here her first impressions on her research trip.

Beginning with the creation of a no-fly zone in 1991, and most notably since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the transformation of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been dramatic and extensive. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has consistently adopted an open-door policy to international organisations, other states and international companies. The dramatic and rapid nature of change in the Kurdistan region following the 2003 intervention, the need to rebuild the region, and the willingness to include international actors within this process, all combine to render this region a particularly interesting case for exploring the relations between local governments and international actors in an institution-building context.

The research I am working on, undertaken at the LSE Middle East Centre in collaboration with the American University in Dubai, looks at women’s issues in the Kurdish region and examines the impact of international organisations in enhancing women’s status. This region provides an invaluable context to study the distinct issues facing the integration of women into new democracies in  post conflict societies.

Zeynep andTavga Rashid, DG of legal & Human Rights Protection

Zeynep andTavga Rashid, DG of legal & Human Rights Protection

I interviewed a range of female MPs, the head of Department of Foreign Relations, Falah Mustafa, and the head of High Council of Women Affairs, Pakhshan Zangana. I also met with members of staff and lawyers in international organisations, including UN Women, the UNDP, the UN Human Rights, UNAMI, International Rescue Committee and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Finally, I met with staff members working in key civil society groups.

Having returned to the familiarity of the LSE campus, now seems like an ideal time to offer some initial reflections on the direction of the research to date and the experience of undertaking fieldwork in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Since 2003 the extent of change in key laws relating to women in the social and political arena has been immense. Perhaps the most significant of these has been the change in the Personal Status Law in 2008 which sought to improve the status of women in relation to marriage, divorce and inheritance. Another hugely significant piece of legislation was the Domestic Violence Law, passed in 2011, which specified ways to help victims and hold perpetrators accountable. The Kurdish regional parliament made the decision to increase the quota of seats allocated to female representatives from 25% to 30% (the equivalent quota in the Iraqi parliament remains at 25%). Female genital mutilation was banned in 2011. Lastly, the KRG established the High Council of Women’s Affairs in 2012 to continue to promote the position of Kurdish women, to advise the government on key pertinent policies, and to develop strategies for the government and its ministries on women’s issues.

Whilst there have been significant improvements and important steps have been taken to enhance the position of women UN officials, representatives of women’s organisations and lawyers told me that a woman’s position in society can still be a vulnerable one.There are, for example, many issues with the implementation of the new rules, laws and procedures by judges and the police. For example, women are still subjected to comparatively high rates of domestic violence and extensive discrimination remains. Honour killings still occur, there is a high rate of female suicide. Cases of self-immolation, and female genital mutilation are also still being recorded.

Throughout my conversations, two key debates emerged in relation to changes in women’s statuses and the role of international actors:

Firstly, there are ongoing discussions around the speed of implementation. The deeply entrenched position of women within traditional social settings, hamper the efforts of key ‘actors’ to tackle the current challenges. This often permeates the political system, the education system, social perceptions about gender roles, economic relations and religion. Despite the desire to see things move quickly, many argue that the pace of change can only ever be gradual – precisely because the issues are so deep-rooted. However, significant numbers believe that there is not enough pressure on the KRG to act and indeed some International groups have already left the region, due to an increased political stability. It should be noted, though, that many international NGOs continue to work through local organisations and UNAMI and UN Women are actively working with political groups and many sections of civil society.

The second aspect of the debate clusters on whether the government is prioritising the right policies. Essentially the questions whether high profile and extreme life-threatening incidents should be given precedence over more everyday quality of life issues, such as access to education, jobs, and healthcare- which of course serve long-term change. This research, of course, is unlikely to solve these debates but we certainly strive to understand their parameters and how they can be negotiated and reconciled in this political context.

Sulaimaniyah Bazaar with Rosemary sellers

Sulaimaniah Bazaar with Rosemary sellers

On a less academic note, the trip to Kurdistan was fascinating. Key impressions are construction sites in full flow at 2am around Erbil and the Sulaimania Bazaar, set in with pretty streets and houses surrounded by green hills (that is where my picture comes form also – the two men selling rosemary). The use of cultural artefacts to mark a Kurdish culture is also interesting. For instance, the KRG General Board of Tourism declared the ‘clove apple’ to be the official first Kurdish symbol inherited from its past.

The greatest asset of a region is its people, then both Erbil and Sulaimania are well poised for the challenges that lie ahead. During my two weeks stay it was impossible not to be touched by the helpfulness and warmth of the people I met. Their openness, optimism about their future and their pride in their identity and achievements was remarkable.


Dr Zeynep Kaya is a Fellow at LSE where she completed her PhD in International Relations on the interaction between international norms and ethnicist conceptions of territorial identity with a focus on the Kurdish case. Zeynep is also leading the research project ‘Understanding the Role of International Actors in Enhancing Women’s Rights after a Foreign Military Intervention: A Case Study of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’, in collaboration with the American University in Dubai.

The above is abridged. The full was originally  published at LSE Middle East Centre Blog on 14 May 2014.

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