Women Burdened in Iraq

Published Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

(SULEIMANIYA, IRAQ) After receiving five cups of tea from homeless families in Zharawa, I returned to Suleimaniya ready to believe that hospitality offered a recognizable path to peace. For a full day, it seemed it could be easy. Then I received this advice from Joe Mueller, a Ohioan who has lived in Iraq, off and on, for many years: “Notice the women.” He could have said, “notice how easily you don’t notice the women.”

Hospitality naturally forms a circle, around a table or a campfire, a project or a topic. But women orbit outside it, shuttling to the kitchen, serving liquids hot and cold. We focus on the men. A rigid division of labor doesn’t betray chauvinism or misogyny. A strong patriarchy can work well for men and women both. But Mueller gave me a clue. Then we met Thomas Uwer.

Uwer is the chairman of the board for Wadi, one of the most enterprising and inventive NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) we’ve encountered in Iraq. Wadi’s work is impressively varied, but also shrewdly focused.

“In less than a generation, 80 percent of Iraq’s villages have been emptied,” Uwer starts with statistics. “After thirty years of violence and war, 60 percent of Iraq’s population is female. These women do 70 percent of the work.”

Most of the former villagers gravitated toward cities, where the central government can more easily count and control its people. But some went the opposite way, hunkering down or heading for the hills. If cosmopolitan city life has a tendency to moderate or liberalize family systems, the survivalist lifestyle can breed extremism. If only patriarchy provides social order, it strengthens over time. This trend can be invisible to NGOs and news organizations, because they rely on the infrastructure that cities can provide.

Wadi seeks to make the invisible visible. The clear-glass table in the center of the room has a laptop and a phone. Uwer’s work for the day spread beside it. Nothing is hidden.

Uwer gets specific with us. Some of the villages operate “Feudally.” It’s not a metaphor. The land is controlled by one man, who metes out justice as he sees fit. Women fare poorly. Wadi has seen it first-hand.

Wadi sent field teams into the mountains — pairing one female doctor with one female social worker. The teams fanned out and covered 40 villages. They talked to women and school-age girls. What they learned was alarming. Sixty percent of the women had been victims of so-called “female circumcision.” In some villages, female genital mutilation was universal. By Wadi’s count, FGM is occurring in 84 percent of the rural villages. UNICEF and the World Health Organization don’t list Iraq in their worldwide campaign to end FGM, because surveys and self-reporting didn’t uncover its prevalence in rural Iraq.

Efforts to end the practice in Iraq are now mobilizing. The Iraqi Parliament is expected to pass a law. Educational flyers are being distributed. A website gathers news of the effort (www.stopfgmkurdistan.org) in three languages: Kurdish, English and German. A petition signed by a few dozen prominent citizens was published in the newspaper.

Traditionalists asked Wadi not to publish the names or promote the issue. “If you publish this, you’ll make Kurdistan look bad,” they warned. The response was overwhelming. They gathered 14,000 signatures in a single month. Openness is gaining ground.

Wadi refuses to be lured by the lurid. Ending FGM is not their single focus, no matter how heinous the practice. Women are the invisible victims of many forms of violence, and this culture relies on women to carry a large load. Helping women helps Iraq.

Wadi has funded schools for women to learn hairdressing, but also literacy. They built a shelter for women fleeing violence. They opened the first women-only coffee house in Kurdistan, where women can talk to one another.

Halabjah now has a Women’s Center, offering counseling, legal advice, literacy training, or just a sympathetic ear and a cup of tea. Serving tea is good, but being served tea is also good.

Success on the ground is measured one family at a time. Statistics will take care of themselves.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is writing from Iraqi Kurdistan this week. All entries are posted and readers can leave comments at www.dksez.com.