Kurdistan: A changing land in a region that resists change

Divisions within Kurdistan created from outside, meanwhile, run the risk of pushing the region into violent conflict and undoing all of the social gains made in the last years.

People in Akre in the Kurdistan region turn out for Newroz in March. Some Kurds trace their background to Jewish ancestors, writes the author (photo credit: REUTERS)
People in Akre in the Kurdistan region turn out for Newroz in March. Some Kurds trace their background to Jewish ancestors, writes the author
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurdistan is in many ways an anomaly. It is one of the most progressive spaces in the Middle East, in its attitudes toward women, in terms of religious tolerance, in social diversity and more. Yet it is surrounded by far more conservative neighbors whose influence over the region is often malign and sometimes worrying.
We should start by celebrating. Kurdistan’s regional elections have returned a wide variety of members of its parliament, including a good proportion of women. The KDP is rightly proud of the 13 female members of parliament who have won seats for it, while Kurdistan has long had strong female representation in its military and police forces.
In some ways though, these are old stories, because Kurdistan has had a fixed proportion of female MPs since the inception of its constitution, and female peshmerga have an even longer history within Kurdistan. Perhaps those can be seen more as reflections of a continuing trend within Kurdistan’s society, rather than a new element.
Yet these reflections of a movement toward equality are found in other ways, too. In the past decade, laws to eliminate violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation and child marriage, have been progressively strengthened.
Kurdistan’s women have a full role in its artistic, cultural and literary realms. Elements of control and even killing that were once seen as “traditional” have now rightly been rejected and prosecutors are prepared to pursue cases. There is still a lot of work to be done, but Kurdistan is trying to do that work.
 The result is a society where women are freer to come and go as they please than in any of the surrounding countries. Women’s education is not ignored, as it is in so many places, but seen as a vital part of a functioning economy; more than 40% of Kurdistan’s university students are female. There are many Kurdish businesswomen and investors, and if Kurdish society still contains a lot of assumptions about men’s and women’s roles, those assumptions are at least being challenged consistently in a way that suggests that the inequalities that persist will be pushed further and further into the margins.
All of this is happening at a time when Iraq is becoming more conservative, its ostensible legal protections for women undercut by both instability and by a political climate where less moderate politicians are being elected. Links to Iran among Iraq’s upper echelons point to an increasing acceptance of the cultural and religious approaches of a neighbor whose attitudes to women often appear to be an example of everything Kurdistan should avoid.
Iran’s influence in the wider region has been growing for some time. In Kurdistan, Iran was one of the key players in putting down the referendum of last year, and its companies have economic interests within the region that give it a stronger say that is perhaps desirable in Kurdish life.
In Iraq, this goes deeper, following the election of Barham Salih as president there. It should be a moment that Kurdistan’s citizens can welcome, since he is Kurdish, and has served in key roles within the KRG, yet his PUK party has shown that it is more interested in its connections to Iran than in either Kurdistan’s ongoing cause or women’s equality.
 Of particular concern is Barham Salih’s connection to Iranian Maj.-Gen. Quasem Soleimani, commander of a Revolutionary Guard regiment implicated in a recent strike on Israel, and in numerous attempts to organize foreign militia forces to act in Iran’s interests. He is responsible for much of Iran’s covert work to destabilize those it considers its enemies, and he appears determined to fuel divisions within Kurdistan in order to prevent any threat of Kurdish independence.
The consequences of this may appear to be purely political, focusing on who is in power in Iraq and Kurdistan, or the groups that have influence in the wider world, yet these factors have a direct influence on the lives of ordinary people. A realignment of Iraq closer to Iran places the whole of Kurdistan’s population in a precarious posKURSition and threatens the hard-won rights of Kurdistan’s female population.
Divisions within Kurdistan created from outside, meanwhile, run the risk of pushing the region into violent conflict and undoing all of the social gains made in the years that Kurdistan has been autonomous. Those divisions benefit no one within Kurdistan, but instead bring advantages to the Iraqi president, who wishes to control it from outside, to the Iranians, who wish to exercise their power over the Middle East, and to those particularly conservative forces who wish to push back against any effort to move Kurdish society forward.
The writer is a student of law, an author, a political activist, a member of the British Association of Journalists, and founder of news site The New Mail. His books include The Idea of Kurdistan and Kurdistan: Genocide and Rebirth, which was an international book awards finalist in 2015.


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