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Iraq: Women In Northern Regions Could Serve As Models For Rest Of Country

In northern Iraq, women have been playing an increasingly active role in society and the democratization process since the region was liberated from Saddam Hussein's rule in 1991. Observers say many women's support groups and NGOs have been launched in northern Iraq in recent years, and point to the region as a model for women in other parts of the country.

Prague, 2 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It has been more than a decade since northern Iraq was freed from the restrictions of the Ba'ath regime. Since then, women in the region have seen many achievements.

Organizations and NGOs focusing on women's issues have flourished across northern Iraq. Shelters have been created to assist women in distress. And many conferences and seminars on women's rights have been organized.

Women hold important administrative positions in Iraqi Kurdistan. And several women have even been appointed as judges.

In 1990, Article 111 of the penal code exempted from prosecution and punishment men who killed their female relatives in so-called "honor killings."
Nesreen Berwari, the only female member of the Iraqi Governing Council -- and who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt last weekend -- is from Iraqi Kurdistan, where she served as minister of reconstruction and development for the Kurdistan regional government.

Nesreen Ibrahim is the project coordinator of the Women's Media and Education Center in the northern Iraqi city of Suleymanieh. The center publishes "Rewan" ("Guidance"), a biweekly newspaper on women's issues printed in Kurdish and Arabic.

Ibrahim says the events in 1991 opened a window of opportunity for women in northern Iraq to become aware of their rights and raise their voice.

"Political freedom was achieved to a [certain] extent and women had chances to struggle to remove the chains they had for many years, throughout the history. This is the first time Kurdish women have [a] voice. We could also raise our voice against all the discrimination or violence implemented against women like illiteracy and other issues," Ibrahim said.

Chalura Hadi is the director of Khatuza Center for Social Action in Arbil, a local NGO that organizes free computer and Internet courses and also sewing classes for women. The center is in the process of establishing Iraq's first women's radio station.

Hardi says society is becoming more and more aware of women's rights.

"We still face quite a lot of challenges and problems, but the main thing is that there is a [way] to work for it, and so the society is opening up and learning about women's rights and women's issues," Hardi said.

One of the main achievements of women in Northern Iraq is the amendment to the Iraqi penal code. In 1990, Article 111 of the penal code exempted from prosecution and punishment men who killed their female relatives in so-called "honor killings."

Activists say since the law went into effect, several hundred women were killed by their husbands, brothers, fathers, or other male relatives, simply because of suspicions they were engaged in extramarital affairs.

Under pressure from women's rights activists, the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament amended the legislation in 2002 -- a significant step toward eradicating deep-rooted acceptance of violence against women.

Suaad Abdulrahman is the project coordinator for WADI, a German NGO working in northern Iraq since 1993. WADI provides women's shelters and works to combat all forms of violence against women.

Abdulrahman says her organization is about to open two new centers for women in Hauraman, a region that until a year ago was controlled by the hard-line Ansar al-Islam faction, and where strict Islamic laws were enforced.

"I'm very happy about that, because you know for about 10 years the women of Hauraman were under [the control] of the Ansar al-Islam. Now they will have a center, a base where they can meet. They can speak about their problems and also build their capacity, improve their skills," Abdulrahman said.

Abdulrahman adds that the empowerment of women is fundamental for the democratization of the society. She says women in other parts of Iraq can use the experience of the women in the north as a model. A number of conferences in recent months have allowed women from elsewhere in Iraq to talk to women from Iraqi Kurdistan about how to improve their circumstances.

"They're exchanging many ideas about their experience because they have about 12 years of experience about women's issues," Abdulrahman said.

The analysts say that despite other differences between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, women in the north are eager to help fellow females throughout the country. Still, Hadi in Arbil says more time is needed before cooperation truly takes root.

"We have achieved a lot, and they should try to learn from us. I think it will take a while for the two nations to get back together and to listen to each other. But at the moment, a couple of times women have gone to the south to some meetings or some seminars and they have been very unhappy [upon] coming back, because they've said not only [that women in the south] don't want to listen to us, but also that they don't think we are any more ahead of them. And it has been a problem. So I think we need more dialogue and more getting used to each other. But certainly [our experience] has to be used, because it is the best model in the region," Hadi said.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.