Adena Moulton and Dr. Donna Lee Bowen, Political Science Department
Iraqi Kurdistan refers to the mountainous region in northern Iraq, which is home to a majority of Iraq’s Kurdish minority. As a distinct ethnic group, Iraqi Kurds have consistently lobbied for greater autonomy and even independence. After the American invasion in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan gained enough self-autonomy to develop into a “de-facto” state (Stansfield 2001; Voller 2014). In an effort to develop international legitimacy, the Kurdish government has enacted a series of legal reforms to improve women’s rights (KRG Addresses Women’s Rights 2008; Women’s Rights Campaign 2008). My research explored the extent to which these legal reforms improved the daily lives of Kurdish women. Specifically, I evaluated how tribal customs frequently conflict with written laws and impede the enforcement of new reforms. Tribes structure themselves around patterns of marriage and inheritance that favor men and subjugate women. To maintain these unequal power structures, they both explicitly and implicitly condone many forms of discrimination and violence against women. I examined the presence of eight discriminatory practices within Iraqi Kurdistan. These practices are
(1) patrilocality, (2)inequitable family law favoring males, (3)prevalence of polygyny, (4)early/child marriage for females, (5)marriage within the patriline (cousin marriage), (6)sanctions for honor-based violence against women, (7)high levels of violence against women, and (8) lack of property rights for women in practice. (Hudson 2015, 540)
Based on this information, I evaluated the strength of tribes in the region and the ability of the region’s government and civil society organizations to supersede them.
My research relied on qualitative research techniques. I consulted academic books, journals, primary sources, and Arabic news articles to gather my data. I also conducted substantial portions of my data in the Library of Congress.
Unfortunately, all of the practices that discriminate against women and strengthen tribal structures exist in Iraqi Kurdistan’s society.
- Patrilocality: Families, especially in rural areas, are overwhelmingly patrilocal, meaning the wife leaves her family to live near (and sometimes with) her husband’s relatives, forcing her into a new environment without the support and protection of her family and friends (Brenneman 2016, 91, 97, 113; King 2013, 69-70: King Personal is Patrilineal 2010, 321).
- Inequitable family law: Both Iraqi Kurdistan’s official family laws and its even harsher tribal customs that summarily restrict women’s right to divorce, gain custody of children, and that enacts much harsher penalties on women for acts like adultery and pre-marital sex than on men (Amnesty 2009, 33; Gill 2015, 49, 108, 122-23).
- Polygyny: Although women’s rights groups successfully lobbied for amendment to the existing Personal Status Law that forced men to obtain the consent of their first wife before marrying another, polygyny is still legal. Additionally, there is no easy way to enforce these restrictions, as it is difficult to distinguish between voluntarily and forcible consent (Amnesty 2009; Gill 2015, 48-49).
- Early/Child Marriage: Although Iraq’s personal status law bans forced marriage as well as any marriage under the age of 15, child and/or forced marriages are still common, especially among poor, rural, and uneducated women (Amnesty 2009, 32-33; Gill 2015, 57; Minoo 2013, 120-121).
- Cousin Marriage: Many Kurds consider cousin marriage as an ideal way to keep wealth in the tribe, further guarantee the honor and virginity of the bride, and keep her connected to her parents and siblings (Altuntek 2006; King 2013, 129; Minoo 2013, 121).
- Honor-based Violence: Honor crimes, or killing a woman because she damaged the family’s honor (generally by having pre-marital sex or an affair) are still common, despite the work of legislators and women’s advocacy groups to combat them (Alinia 2013, 58, 65-66;Al-Malā’ka 2014; Zībārī, 2013).
- Violence Against Women: Violence against women is rampant. 57% of the population of Northern Iraq (a majority of which is Kurdistan) believes that a husband may beat his wife for burning food, arguing with him, denying him sex, neglecting children, or leaving the house without him (Linos 2012, 627).
- Inequitable Property Rights: The only area in which Kurdish women may be making some gains is in their access to property. Since the 1990s, the KRG has codified equal property inheritance laws for men and women, and some villages enforce these measures. However, no reliable data indicates how much land and property in Iraqi Kurdistan is held by women and to what extent women exercise true control over the land and property in their name (King 2013, 70).
In regions where tribal structures are strong and the state is weak (such as in Iraqi Kurdistan), tribes undermine the state because people will often prioritize tribal codes over the rule of law. This makes it incredibly difficult to enforce legislation, especially when it undermines the foundation of tribal structures. Therefore, substantial progress for women’s rights (and, for that matter, for strengthening the Kurdish government) depends dismantling the tribal system.
While it important to understand the dangers and injustices propagated by tribes, activists and scholars must not demonize these structures. Instead, the activists, politicians, and scholars must determine how the Kurdish government can fill the essential stabilizing role that tribes play in society. Promoting women’s rights, therefore, is not simply a matter of replacing an outdated practice with a more savory one, nor is it an attempt to superimpose a system or set of values on an unwilling population. Instead, advocates will improve women’s rights by studying the institutions that discriminate against women, encouraging dialogue between all segments of society, and offering solutions that replace problematic structures in ways that complement the existing norms and values of the society.
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