Since 2004 Wadi has been operating a number of teams to raise awareness against FGM in different regions of Iraqi Kurdistan, with our ‘STOP FGM Kurdistan’ campaign. When they visit a village they collect the women, talk to them, ask for their needs and living conditions, build up a relationship. They provide lectures on women’s rights, female health, FGM, screen an awareness film and discuss these topics with the women. Breaking the taboo is the condition precedent to a future behaviour change. Dialogue and debate among the women (and men) are firmly encouraged because real change can only be based on a collective decision. Wadi also works to end FGM in the broader region with our ‘STOP FGM Mideast’ campaign. If you want to read more about our work on FGM please click here.
This interview is part of a series where Wadi staff members reflect on their work, experiences and opinions. We hope that by sharing their ‘on the ground’ realities, their voices can be heard, and amplified. Here Wadi staff member Shokh Mohammed, asks Wadi Erbil Team members Kurdistan Rasul (social worker) and Payam Ahmed (lawyer), about their work and experiences as an all woman team, working in the city and villages in Erbil. They have been working for years to end FGM, provide education and legal awareness for women, as well as all kinds of support system to women, wherever they need it. To read more about our staff here is a Portrait of Kurdistan Rasul done in 2016 by Deutsche Welle: Changing minds about genital mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan.
As of August 2018, Wadi Team in Erbil had carried out 55 ‘Legal and Social Awareness Seminars’ where 757 women benefitted. They also provided individual legal and social counseling to 18 women’s cases currently imprisoned in Erbil.
You have been working on FGM in Erbil since 2014, since then what have you seen?
Kurdistan Rasul: We have seen a lot, such as women being belittled and degraded. Most of the violence is subjected towards women. For example: if a man remarries, it’s the woman’s fault. I think we touch a vital topic, for thousands of years, men in society and family, worked on belittling women, to prove their own power and masculinity as in “we are men, we are important, we have the power.” It is very difficult.
Now you see results, but back in the 90s, when talking of FGM or exchange marriages, no one supported you. We were insulted many times. But eventually there was a change. I believe in my work and I think that after children, women are the most vulnerable humans suffering from men’s domination.
Payam Ahmed: Sometimes women are also a part of the problem because they give up, some don’t want to fight for their rights, and won’t stop being violent against their daughters or children. I think women also have to push for change within themselves too…on an individual level. Generally, many people don’t believe in NGOs. Because many worked for a short time and focused on the NGO’s name getting bigger and not [helping] the actual people.
After the Survey Heartland Alliance International did throughout Kurdistan in 2015/2016, in your opinion has FGM increased or decreased in Erbil?
KR: FGM has decreased. There are very few villages that are still doing FGM, before it was so common, it was everywhere. Last year, I took Mullahs with me to the areas where FGM was still high according to the survey. After three or four visits, they stopped doing FGM. The Mullahs have a big influence when it comes to FGM. I also told them “you created the problems, you have to fix them too”.
I mean the Fatwa. It was flexible, true, but the way we delivered it to people was important, “all these Mullahs say not to do it, it is harmful”…it had a big [positive] effect on our work.
When I speak to men about FGM, we talk about sex, because they would love to have their wives enjoy it. This is our opportunity to approach and convince them. However, for women, it is a matter of religion and culture. Some women do not even pray or fast but they still do FGM. Or even child beating, these women believe that children need to be disciplined by beating, we work on these matters, putting the women in the shoes of the children, going back to their own childhoods. We also approach them about sex, the women often tell us “we never get any sexual satisfaction, but we can never say that out loud.”
We ask if this is what they want for their daughters too, they say No.
PA: In general, it has decreased, there are still few cases which you try hard to work with, but they are very difficult of old mentality. But other forms of violence have definitely increased.
What do you say to mothers who want to mutilate their daughters?
KR: I tell them to educate themselves. To educate their children. When they give birth to children, they don’t own their bodies or souls, and they don’t have the right to cut them. Only through education do people understand and get this. Reading and education is just as necessary as food and anything else.
PA: For mothers in this society whatever happened to them would happen to their daughters too. Because it happened to women before them too…
Nowadays younger parents when FGM is talked about, they are more aware and don’t do it. They know the pain, and don’t want to inflect the pain, although they get pressure from mothers and grandmothers.
In your seminars, you also meet men, what is their position on violence and FGM?
KR: what I have heard even from intellectual men, is that “We can’t let loose in front of our wives, because we get used”.
I figure this is a problem of how they were raised. As children, both parties were not aware of their rights and duties, were not allowed opinions. When one party allows, the other takes advantage. There is a fight for control because the woman was not given any rights.This is one of the biggest complain men share with us, especially when it comes to sex. Because there, men want women to be their equal. Sometimes, men tell us, “women use sex as a weapon against us”. There are many men who became old were kicked out of their house, and faced violence too.
PA: There are indeed male too who face violence as they get old, because when young, the man committed many bad things towards his family, when gets older, the family does it too, against him.
Since 2011, have you heard of a case of FGM or related to FGM being prosecuted or taken to court?
KR: Yes, some midwives got caught but were then bailed out. Last year there was a case of a midwife in prison, but that was also bailed out. Her mentality has not changed though.
Do people find the law important? Do people believe in the law?
PA: The law includes punishment; many are scared of that. People also think the law is shameful. Mostly it is a social fear. I think the law is there, but people don’t think about it at all.
KR: It’s all fear in my opinion, a woman might be beaten by her husband all the time, and her neighbors know too. But she never complains. Because she knows if she took it outside [of the home] she might get killed.
We are asked “where do we live after going to the law?”
Still in 2018, tribal reconciliation is the dominant power, unlike the law. There was a case that even the lawyer has told the woman to try solve her issue via tribal reconciliations. Due to fears of social threats.
As women working on sensitive topics like FGM and domestic violence, did you face any struggles?
KR: When we talk about FGM, to men, they bring up topics of second wives and say inappropriate sexual things, as if we are supposed to accept it. But we persevere and make them understand that we are talking about something important, and they stop.
Sometimes in the villages, we get threatened, or talked about badly and get reproached. One time, the Mullah of a village, tore up our flyers, and called people to come and urinate on them. But we love our work, although we do get sad sometimes but it’s short-lived and we move forward.
Sometimes men stopped us told us there is no need to meet the women “Do you want to make our women wild?”
“Wild/Har” in Kurdish this word is used to describe dogs, as in wild dogs or animals, negatively. Men use it all the time for women. But we have never once heard women say that to or about men. Women always expressed that it is important for men to be aware, we noticed that all the women wanted for men to grow better. This showed us that men are really scared of their position in society or family, afraid of losing it.
PA: I feel like most men here have sex issues with their wives mostly due to FGM, but to the outside they show a different side, and curse those who talk about FGM, they think if their wives came to our seminars, they would learn to misbehave.
Could you each give a successful example of your work?
KR: There is a village in Qushtapa sub-district, all the men had second wives, the younger men were also planning to take on second wives, FGM was high. We kept visiting them, now they know of combating FGM. They know of the law. They younger men also married but have not taken second wives.
PA: In another village, we met a young teenage girl who knew much about combating FGM, from our previous visits and even did her own research on the topic and spread the word. All due to the many visits of our teams.
Beside your awareness seminars, you do some environmental work too, how do people view these projects, do you think people in Erbil need more awareness on planting trees and environment in general?
KR: Due to the lack of water, planting trees is a big problem according to people. But I believe since they have water for drinking and bathing and their necessities, they have water for some plants and trees too. The awareness on the concept of the environment is really low, the children are worse, they destroy plants and trees… and even hurt and kill animals. We think TV spots will help a lot to initiate awareness on environment.
Last Question, what are your suggestions to the Directorate of Combating Violence & the Directorate of Education in Erbil to further monitor violence, and better communication with people?
KR: to follow up cases. There were cases directed to them that were not attended to. Directorate of Combating Violence should also stand against tribal reconciliation. The process of solving the cases are difficult and time consuming, how can a woman who was threatened be helped when she can’t even go out of her house?
Our ‘STOP FGM Kurdistan’ campaign has been active over 10 years, and is an example of what can be accomplished through longterm engagement with a problem. The work to end FGM is in need of continued support, if you would like to donate to this project please click here.