“For many women in Kurdistan, life is anything but honorable,” write Johanna Higgs and Liga Rudzite for PassBlue — an independent digital publication covering the United Nations. “Women cannot have a boyfriend, but it’s an honor for a man to have a girlfriend. A divorced woman is like a disease, whereas a divorced man is just a man. A free woman is a bad woman, but a free man is a righteous man. Though there are new laws in Kurdistan promoting women’s rights, they are not accepted generally.”
The pair spoke with Suzan Aref, the director of the Women Empowerment Organization, a nonprofit group devoted to women’s rights headquartered in Erbil, the de facto capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “It’s a patriarchal system and everything is run by men,” she said. She added, Ms. Higgs and Ms. Rudzite write, “that women have seats on the legislature, but they are symbolic and that women are not represented in the executive and the judiciary branches of the Kurdish government, which is a self-ruling body separate from the Iraqi government in Baghdad.”
The women of the pesh merga, however, may be the key to upending Kurdistan’s gender inequities. When a Kurdish woman fears she may have somehow tarnished the family honor, and has been targeted by a vengeful male relative, the pesh merga will provide her with a safe house, “and try to negotiate settlements with the families,” Niqash reports. What’s more, fighters have to be literate to join the pesh merga, according to Jeremy Bender of Business Insider. Its female fighters aren’t just trained in ammunition and hand-to-hand combat, but politics and human rights, too.
Life for Kurdish women may not be perfect — but they are making strides toward equality that are anything but “symbolic.