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Education Is Critical in Efforts to End Violence Against Women

/ 21 Sep 2021

Education Is Critical in Efforts to End Violence Against Women

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

I lost my father when I was one year old. He was buried alive by the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1987 and my mother had to assume the role of both parents. At an early age, I was witness to the challenges she faced in a patriarchal society, and I promised to work to raise awareness of all kinds of gender discrimination.

My fields of research include challenges in teaching, gender differences, educational policy and culture. For about ten years I worked as researcher, lecturer, trainer and analyst, and I found numerous gaps for studies.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is a multicultural autonomous region in the north of the country, with a population estimated at six to seven million, plus 1.8 million refugees. The region is an almost untouched field for research, yet it has a complex and sophisticated culture.

About 90 percent of Kurds are Muslims, mostly of the Shafi’i school or Sufis. The region is also home to some 200,000 Shiites and religious minorities, including Christians, Yezidis, Hawrami, Yarsan and Zoroastrians.

‘The Culture Doesn’t Help Us’

Often, when I raise the challenges facing female students and trainee teachers in workshops, seminars or symposiums, the answer that comes back is: “The culture doesn’t help us.”

In 2018, I conducted a study in a focus group of the challenges facing teachers with one to three years’ experience. Nearly half of the participants were female. In one session, the women said, without any kind of discrimination-analysis, that they needed emotional support in their careers, that they were dissatisfied with their social status, and that their principals demanded too much of them.

Later, I discovered that the roots of these challenges lay in their student days, that they had graduated without the knowledge to cope with the socio-cultural challenges they faced.

My secondary school was for boys only. The cultural-religious regulations excluded academic activities with females, so we couldn’t learn how to behave with each other. The space between male and female students was very big, and misunderstanding has influenced beliefs and attitudes for life.

Often, when I raise the challenges facing female students and trainee teachers in workshops, seminars or symposiums, the answer that comes back is: “The culture doesn’t help us.”

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Popular culture provides examples of male perceptions of women. A character in the movie The Policeman, aired in 2002 by the Kurdsat satellite channel, the first cultural Kurdish television station, described girls and daughters as “barrels of gunpowder.” The playwright Hussein Miseri (1957-2009) echoed that theme when he said men saw women as social explosive devices.

An Increase in Domestic Violence

The near-absence of gender studies in the educational system is one factor behind such ideas of the role of women in society: ideas that contribute to violence against women, family disintegration and high divorce rates. (See a related article, “Gender Studies Center in Iraqi Kurdistan Challenges Traditional Ideas.”)

Recent years have seen an increase in domestic violence, gender-based violence, and sexual violence and honor killings. According to data released by the regional Directorate for Combatting Violence against Women, there was a 53.6 percent increase in violence between 2008 and 2017. During that period, 56,979 cases were recorded: 474 killings, 504 suicides, 1,254 self-immolations, 2,334 burnings (cases which families tried to blame on faulty electricity or cooking gas), 51,213 lawsuits, and 1,209 cases of sexual violence. In 2019 alone, 120 Kurdish women lost their lives due to gender-based violence. And most notably, during 2020, at least 25 women died, 38 others committed suicide, 67 self-immolated, 10,370 lawsuits were filed, and 125 sexual assaults were recorded.

Interestingly, the directorate recorded almost no violence among the Hawrami, a Kurdish people with their own language and religious beliefs living in the mountainous Iran-Iraq border area.

Interestingly, the directorate recorded almost no violence among the Hawrami, a Kurdish people with their own language and religious beliefs living in the mountainous Iran-Iraq border area. Because the recorded-list cases of violence against women is so low among the 150,000 Hawrami living on the Iraqi side of the frontier, “there is not any office of women’s rights organizations” there, said Hamid Baram, director of Hawraman district.

“They don’t accept violence against women,” he said. “The respect of women is culturalized to our society from childhood, and as a result, there are not any recorded cases of violence.” He added: “Equality between men and women has been adopted from ancient periods and both worked together and lived together peacefully.”

Attitudes Affect Online Education

Apart from the Covid-19 pandemic, the major concern for Kurds is the education of their children. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research held several meetings to tackle the problems of unprepared teaching staff, weak electronic support, and financial crises, and decided to run online learning processes in the educational system. (See a related article, “Coronavirus Outbreak Forces Arab Countries to Consider Long-Ignored Online Education.”)

The experiment was not successful, as it did not meet the expectations of teachers. But I believe that one of the reasons was the mentality and attitudes of patriarchal society. Of the 135 students who participated in one of my studies about educational policy in the age of Covid-19, 67 percent stated that society created problems for them. Structured interviews with 25 participants revealed that sexual abuse and stalking were major problems for young females. Ten members of the group said that their fathers and young brothers refused them access to technology for online sessions.

Despite the record of violence against women, and the challenging situation for females, the region is a safer environment for women than other parts of Iraq and Arab countries. (See a related article, “Egyptian Universities Face Pressure to Better Protect Women From Harassment.”) Moreover, the efforts of some scholars and centers lead us to be optimistic about the chances of reducing traditional and cultural influences on this community.

Momen Zellmi is a political analyst, researcher and diplomatic consultant based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Follow him on Twitter at @momenzellmi




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