Kurds Develop Gender Studies To Face Fundamentalism

05/21/2015 12:20 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016
Nazand Begikhani

ERBIL - While the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made further advances and occupied the city of Ramadi, scholars in Iraqi Kurdistan Region have been busy developing gender studies structures to enhance gender equality and social justice. Currently, two gender studies centers operate in the Kurdish part of Iraq and conduct a subtle but persistent struggle against reactionary ideologies and religious fundamentalism.

It is through knowledge, civic education, scientific research and capacity building programs that Kurds seek to uproot violence and promote human rights. However, their ambition often bypasses the reality on the ground.

"Some male colleagues cannot stand our existence. When they pass by our center, they articulate their anger by saying 'gander= f***ers,'" Dr. Najat Raheem, former head of the Gender & Violence Studies Centre (GVSC) at the University of Sulaimani, said during a meeting I attended at the university.

The GVSC was established in 2010 with the initiative of the University of Bristol and as one of the British Council's Development Projects in Higher Education. It was followed by the first step towards the establishment of another gender studies center at the University of Soran, near the Iranian frontier, in 2014. Both centers have benefited from academic resources available at the University of Bristol's Centre for Gender and Violence Research (CGVR). They received support and match funding from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The aims of establishing the gender studies centers consist of promoting gender equality as well as women's rights through deepening the understanding of gender theories and history of women's activism. They also seek to building capacity through teaching, academic research and investigations as well as training. The overall aim is to raise public awareness about gender equality and capitalize on civil society's work as well as government policies and praxis through providing facts and evidence-based recommendations for effective strategies and their implementation against inequality, fundamentalism and gendered violence in Kurdistan.

There is no word synonymous for the term gender in the Kurdish language. Hence, feminists and activists adopted Western terminology, which consequently made its way into the local language. The move caused a hot debate in the media with sexuality and sexual orientation at the heart of the discourse.

Conservatives, including affiliates to the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), resisted the use of the term and refused its concept, interpreting gender as "homosexuality." According to them, the implementation of the concept of gender would lead to "perverting" people and "divert" them from the "authentic" Kurdish culture. Advocates of this interpretation assimilated the term gender with "gander, which in Kurdish means "f***ers." The term has been used by extremists to intimidate and coerce advocates of gender studies and women's rights.

The controversial debate around the term gender dates back to 2009 when the Ministry of Culture and Youth presented a law project on gender equality to the parliament. Resistance emerged immediately against the project, accusing progressive members in the government of being "Westernized," "reproducing" and "imposing" on society alien cultures and values. The law was not signed by President Barzani and was sent back to the Parliament for further discussion.

With the advance of ISIS in the region, challenges increased and pressure escalated. Some academic members at the University of Sulaimani's Sociology Department, where the first center was based, advocated the closure of the center. However, with the support of the head of the government, the university's presidency adopted a rescue strategy; the vice chancellor of the university, Dr. Salah Ali, changed the status of the center by deciding to make it an integral part of the university's presidency. The center is now based at the University of Sulaimani's Presidential Office.

Since its establishment in 2011, a course on gender has been integrated into the curriculum, which teaches not only theories of gender, sexuality and citizenship but also Islam and women's rights. The University of Soran was set to integrate the course last year, but the advance of the ISIS in the region and the budget cut by Baghdad's central government to the Kurdistan Region delayed the initiative.

The University of Bristol, U.K., as a partner institution, has been involved in providing expertise, experiences, methodological support and training. Women who lead the GVSC have visited Bristol to meet with U.K. academics, U.K. women's officials and M.P.s, shelters, community and women's rights groups. They also participated in a roundtable discussion on women's rights at the House of Commons and advocated support for their center.

While Peshmerga forces are fighting against ISIS on the battlefield with Kurdish women on their side, scholars are leading a different battle within society through their daily engagement in at grassroot and academic levels. Fighting jihadists and fundamentalism requires not only armory for combat on the battlefields but also civic mechanisms, structures and tools to educate people on women's rights as an intrinsic part of human rights.

As Professor Gill Hague from the University of Bristol, who contributed to the establishment of the GVSC said to me, the gender studies centers in Iraqi Kurdistan "are part of the ongoing movement towards modernization and greater awareness of women's issues in the region." With great concerns not to impose neither Western values nor her views as a founder of the Bristol's SGVR, Professor Hague added, "We are proud to be able to assist a little as needed, as these pioneering Kurdish universities begin to take on issues related to women's rights and safety in the face of fundamentalism, which are now worldwide issues of concern and policy development."