IRAQ – No Country for Women

IRAQ: No Country for Women


Insecurity and the threat of violence limits Women’s freedom


MADRID, 28 November 2010 (IRIN) – The improved political representation of women in Iraq is in sharp contrast to their broader disempowerment, as highlighted by the persistence of domestic violence and early marriage, according to a new report by the UN Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit.

Women may hold 25 percent of seats in the Iraqi parliament, but one in five in the 15-49 age group has suffered physical violence at the hands of her husband. Anecdotal evidence alleges that “many women are being kidnapped and sold into prostitution”, and female genital mutilation is still common in the north, the report notes.


Khammas noted an underlying political climate of intolerance that has become increasingly poisonous for women. She was forced to flee Iraq after receiving death threats that effectively stopped her – like thousands of other Iraqi women – from working. She now lives in Spain.

Stay home


Women’s participation in the labour force has fallen sharply since 2003. Before the invasion, 40 percent of public sector workers were women, according to a report by the BRussels Tribunal, an anti-war organisation. Some sectors, such as the teaching profession, were almost entirely staffed by women, Khammas said.

She cited the “new, fundamentalist thinking”, which emerged after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that has been aggressively imposed by the militias, armed private groups purporting to uphold religious law.

Many do not have work permits, which compounds the difficulties female-headed households face in neighbouring countries, where they struggle to make a living, “especially paying the rent”, while still “coping with family, social and community pressure”, Al-Madaien commented.

The situation many Iraqi women and girls face is beyond words,” journalist Eman Khammas told IRIN in a telephone interview.

“Before, I was a journalist, a professional; now, I am nothing.”

Their vulnerability can lead to exploitation. “There is trafficking happening among the Iraqi refugees, [but] the scope and modality is not known to us,” said Al-Madaien.

According to the UN Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit report, “Victims are trafficked internally and to neighbouring countries, including Syria and the Gulf states”.




IRAQ: Kurdish government promises

more Action on ‘honour killings’



In a conference on 25 November to celebrate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Kurdish Prime Minister, Barham Salih, said honour killings were a result of “social backwardness and a patriarchal domination” and the government would take measures to end the “embarrassing” act.

According to Aso Kamal, a human rights activist with the Doaa Network Against Violence, more than 12,000 women died in honour-based killings between 1991 and 2007, a figure dismissed by the regional government, whose statistics show a decline in recent years, the New York Times recently reported.

Kurdish academic Nazand Bagikhani, who has co-authored a Kurdish Regional Government-funded research on honour killings, said accurate figures on gender-based crimes were difficult to compile because the violence happened in the home.

In her 168-page report, the first study of honour killing in the semi-autonomous region, Bagikhani highlighted the mentality in many parts of Kurdistan that sees family honour as more important than the lives of women.


Family affair

The murder of a female family member typically happens when a woman is accused of having sex with a man other than her husband. But there have been cases of a woman killed simply for falling in love, and it is a phenomenon that occurs even in the Kurdish diaspora. Earlier this month, two Kurdish cousins in the UK were jailed for life for murdering a relative because her family disapproved of her boyfriend.

In Kurdistan, mobile phones and the internet have widened the opportunity for social interaction between young men and women, beyond the censorious eyes of male relatives.

Bahar Rafiq is the director of a shelter for women in Erbil: last month she looked after 41. The shelter, and two others in Sulaymaniyah and Duhok, are part of the regional government’s attempts to tackle domestic violence.

But the government’s best work has been amending a law that previously either let off perpetrators of honour killings, or handed down light sentences. The new law, approved in 2008, regards honour killing as murder.

But enforcing the law remains a challenge. “There is a weakness in law enforcement here. Sometimes a woman gets killed and no one is arrested,” said Bagikhani, the researcher.

Pakhsan Zangana, the leader of a new council to improve the lives of women, announced by the government on 25 November, sees honour killing as a cultural issue that cannot be solved overnight. “It will be resolved when our understanding of the concept of honour changes,” she told IRIN.


Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)

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The collapse of public social services has also limited access to education, health and jobs, while a high level of insecurity has pushed women out of public life and into the seclusion of their homes, and an ineffective judicial system has created an atmosphere of impunity, Khammas said.

The conservative attitudes of public sector officials has been reinforced by a government that supports keeping women at home, according to a 2007 report by the international women’s resource network, MADRE.

In 2006, the Iraqi Interior Ministry issued a series of notices warning women not to leave their homes alone and echoing the directives of religious leaders who urge men to prevent women family members from holding jobs,” the report noted.

Thus, the violence carried out by militias in the streets is backed up by more respectable political leaders, who support the call for a women-free public sphere.”



Escalating poverty has pushed Iraqi families into prioritizing schooling for boys, stifling future opportunities for women.

“For every 100 boys enrolled in primary schools in Iraq, there are just under 89 girls,” the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said in a report released in September 2010. School enrollment figures for girls have been progressively declining, while drop-out rates have gone up in every academic year.

Getting out

Factors pushing girls out of schooling included “security risks, attitudes to girls and education, the state of the nation’s schools, what is taught and how it is taught, the skills and attitudes of teachers, family poverty,” UNICEF said.

Like Khammas, many other women have chosen to leave Iraq, but asylum does not necessarily end their difficulties. Neighbouring Syria is home to the majority of what the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) considers as Iraqi “persons of concern” – people who have left their home country out of fear for their safety but do not conform to the legal definition of “refugee”.

Of the 139,000 registered Iraqi persons of concern in Syria, 28 percent fall under female-headed households, the UNHCR Protection Officer in Syria, Aseer Al-Madaien, told IRIN in an email interview.

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