Women in Iraqi Kurdistan – demanding their rights at work and at home

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Women in Iraqi Kurdistan - demanding their rights at work and at home

'Essentially there are three classes of women here in Kurdistan. Women who are highly educated and who are in professional jobs; women who work in agriculture or factories who are paid low and work very hard and whose wages do not always go into their own pocket, but into the pockets of men; and then there are the traditional workers and artisans who have a lot of skills in traditional industries and handicrafts which we really need to preserve.'

This is how Susan Berzinge MP summed up the economic position of women in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. We were meeting during my week-long trip to the region to further develop a TUC -UNISON project to support the empowerment of working women and women trade unionists. Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq. It has a different language, history and culture from much of the rest of Iraq. Kurdistan experienced huge repression under Saddam Hussein and a civil war in the 1990s, although it has since been protected from some of the bloodier impacts of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.

Susan Berzinge is a leading member of the Kurdistan Parliament and the leader of the 'Kurdish list' - the largest political grouping. Perhaps contrary to expectations, this parliament has 35 per cent elected women, a considerable improvement on the newly-returned House of Commons' 22 per cent.

Kurdistan region Parliament

Her colleague, Gasha Hafid MP who is chair of the parliamentary committee for the defence of women's rights continued our discussions: 'Our committee wants to see the improvement in capacities of women - economic, social, and political. For example, we have developed a law on combating violence against women: violence exists against women and it is not decreasing.'

Gasha Hafid MP and Susan Berzinge MP

'While there are many educated women who find it easy to get jobs, other women - the majority - who used to work in old government factories are now redundant and their skills are outdated and we need a new approach to help them to find work.'

And later in the week, I was able to witness first-hand the situation that working women are facing. I visited two factories in Erbil city with representatives of the Kurdistan United Workers Union (KUWU), including Nazanin Tariq Ali, who is president for women in the KUWU and also the supervisor for the Kurdistan hairdressers union.

Nazanin Tariq Ali, KUWU

When Nazanin and I started walking around the first factory, which produces paper products and tissues, we were accompanied by the factory owner and it seemed as if the workers - lots of whom were women - were unwilling to open up to us. But after a while, some other KUWU colleagues diverted the owner and Nazanin and I were able to speak to the women more privately.

Worker at paper products factory

We spoke to a number of young women who were working on the production line. I will not quote their names, to protect their identities, but they told us that, 'We earn 240,000 Iraqi dinars a month (about US$200). We work 6 days a week, from to .'

Nazanin was disappointed at the pay rates and other conditions that we found. 'That is not enough pay for a factory like that. Costs are high here and one kilo of meat costs 15,000 dinars and a local journey can cost 8000 dinars. Additionally all work sites, with more than three employees, should have insurance for all workers. But at this site of 17 workers including 10 women, only five had insurance. That means if they have an accident and can no longer work, they will not receive a state pension. There are no health and safety posters up here, there should be a canteen or somewhere to provide drinks, and there should be a first aid point. Also, the workers were not given proper work uniforms, only thin coats. The workers were wearing masks but maybe that was only because the owner knew that we were coming to visit.'

Nazanin went on: 'None of the women seemed to know about trade unions and the value of them. If they were members of a trade union, then we could help them to secure their rights. We would take up their complaints with the relevant ministries. I plan to come back to this factory and ask the workers to join the union'.

The next factory was not much better. This site processed and packed various food stuffs and half of the workers were women. Boxes and packages were piled up on the floor in a haphazard fashion.

Worker at foodstuffs factory

I commented to Nazanin about how young some of the workers seemed to be. In fact, several were still children. One lad we met told us he was 13 years old. 'I have been to school before but now I work all day, 6 days a week because my family are really poor and need me to work.' After a while he revealed to us that he worked 12 hour shifts.

Some of the other women were also very young. One had been working there for one year and she had started last year when she was 14.

Yet, when we asked the owner about how old his workers were, we were told that they were not less than 17 years old. No doubt he was worried to tell the truth as education in Kurdistan is supposed to be compulsory for all children from the ages of 6/7 to 15/16 years old.

There were several other very worrying problems which we discovered. Many of the women workers were sat on the floor cross-legged all day working, which they said caused lots of lower back pain.

Workers at foodstuffs factory

Meanwhile, women labourers were being paid at the rate of 200,000 dinars a month, while men were being paid 220,000 dinars for equivalent work. Men were also more likely to be in the better-paid jobs such as drivers who can earn up to 400,000 dinars.

We asked the owner whether there were any married women working at the factory, and he laughed and said, 'Of course I really only want single women workers, because they don't have childcare responsibilities.'

But of course, not all workplaces are like this. The following day in Sulaimaniyah we visited a carpet-weaving factory which again was dominated by women workers, both on the shop floor and in the back offices. But here many workers were married. That's because there was a crèche for young children. There were also free meals, a first aid centre, and pay rates which were at least 50 per cent higher with additional bonuses paid regularly too. The working hours were better also at six hours a day, for five days a week.

Here the women were carrying out highly skilled weaving in the old Kurdistan tradition and producing some amazingly patterned rugs, carpets and cloth.

Worker at textiles factory

One piece especially caught my eye, but not because it was beautiful. Quite the contrary in fact because it was very disturbing, whilst at the same time clearly being very well-made. Our guide told me that it represented the repression of women across the four Kurdistan regions in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. It shows gagged, bloodied and mutilated women, alongside a hangman's noose. The image invoked profound sadness in me.

Kurdistan woven carpet

What I do know is that many women in Kurdistan are living in very harsh situations at work and at home. A recent human rights report produced by a Kurdish NGO said, 'Murdering, burning, deprivation, forcible eviction from their home by their husbands, gender-based discrimination, negligence, threatening, maltreatment, verbal defamation, psychological harassment, and female genital mutilation are forms of violence that are daily practised against women in the Kurdistan Region'. The report goes onto say that the percentage of illiteracy among women and girls in some areas of the region is as high as 60 per cent.

Meanwhile, I cannot think that there is a woman in Kurdistan or from federal Iraq who has not been touched by the decades of repression and conflict that have dominated Iraq's recent past. I met a distressing number of young widowed wives or bereaved mothers in my short time there. Kurdistan itself is over 60 per cent women, a statistic which tells its own story.

These are some of the issues that the steering committee of the TUC-UNISON's proposed women's empowerment project will hope to work on. The eight women representing three trade unions and federations are all strong, determined and very brave. They have to be. Threats against women's rights campaigners are not uncommon in Kurdistan or federal Iraq, as a recent Amnesty International report testifies.

The steering committee also has a shared vision of women's empowerment and are very committed to making the lives of future generations of women and girls as good as they can possibly be.

As one of the workers in the paper factory told me, 'If I get married and have daughters, I hope they will study, get good certificates and go to university rather than working in the conditions that I do.'

PDA. 2009. Monitoring report on the status of children and women's rights. People's Development Association. Sulaimaniyah. 2009

Amnesty International. 2010. Iraq - civilians under fire. Amnesty International. London. April 2010.

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