Iraqi Kurdish scholars put gender theory to the test

Matthew Reisz on a UK-supported research centre helping tackle violence against women in Kurdistan

October 13, 2011

The term "gender" does not exist in Kurdish and is sometimes seen as a synonym for homosexuality.

Yet gender issues are at the heart of the conflict between traditionalist and progressive forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to Nazand Begikhani, a senior research Fellow at the University of Bristol's Centre for Gender and Violence Research.

It is with this in mind that she helped to establish the pioneering Gender and Violence Studies Centre at the University of Sulaimaniya.

The centre, set up as one of the British Council's Development Projects in Higher Education (DelPHE-Iraq), aims to capitalise on the gains made by the recent Violence against Women Act.

Dr Begikhani's involvement began when she was doing fieldwork on honour-based violence in her native Iraqi Kurdistan in 2010. She was asked to participate in a collaborative human rights project and decided to help create the centre at Sulaimaniya.

Funding from the UK's Department for International Development was matched by the Kurdistan Ministry of Higher Education and continues until March 2012.

Comprising more than 30 projects, the DelPHE-Iraq programme aims to "strengthen the capacity of Iraqi higher education institutions to deliver professional skills to support Iraq's development", partly by improving opportunities for women.

Bristol academics collaborating on the project are due to make five visits to Kurdistan.

The goals of the new centre, said Dr Begikhani, were "to provide robust evidence and recommendations to government", to adapt Western theoretical work on gender to local realities such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage and honour killing, and to win over those who claimed, Dr Begikhani said, that "promoting gender equality would destroy Kurdish society".

A unit on gender and violence is now a compulsory part of all sociology degrees at Sulaimaniya. Many graduates are employed as social workers, by non-governmental organisations and in family courts. Resistance has been countered by the support of the minister for higher education and scientific research, Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, who also holds a chair in clinical microbiology at the University of Nottingham.

Four women from the centre visited the UK last month to meet academics and community and women's groups and take part in panel discussions. They were led by Najat Mohammed Faraj, head of Sulaimaniya's sociology department.

Speaking in the House of Lords, she said that as Iraqi Kurdistan is now semi-independent, it is "time for the regional government to work for its own citizens".

The centre, continued Dr Faraj, could be "a platform for awareness-raising, to support campaigns against domestic violence and to act as an umbrella organisation for many separate women's groups.

"Our work is scientific, paving the way step by step for the acceptance of the new idea of gender studies in Kurdistan. Every new initiative, as we know as sociologists, faces challenges and resistance. We are ready for the challenges."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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