Sexual harassment in workplace is unrelenting for women in Kurdistan

08-11-2020 06:14

Peregraf- Nazanin Goran

It is sundown. Sara had returned home from work and sat with her husband. Suddenly, the incoming message ringtone from her cell phone broke the silence in the room. The message read: “I miss you.”

“The message was not just that; it asked for a relationship, and I immediately informed my husband,” said Sara.

Sara’s husband took the phone and called the number. When the man on the other end responded, Sara’s husband rebuked him angrily and gave him time only to apologize.

After the apology, Sara’s husband hung up the phone and the case ended there.

“We put an end to it without lodging complaint because courts in the Kurdistan Region are illusory. I knew it would be useless if I lodged complaint, because law is not independent here,” said Sara.

Sara is a pseudonym for a female journalist in Sulaymaniyah. Because of her work, she calls many people to obtain information, but some of her subjects demand other things from her.

One of the officials Sara took a statement from harasses her via text.

 “The official told me that we should go out as friends. I told him ‘I do not know you outside the scope of my profession.’ But he did not let up.”

Some of the women facing sexual harassment, like Sara, do not take their claims to court. This is because they either do not want to exacerbate the problem for social reasons, or because the courts will not provide them with a remedy if they have no solid evidence and they may lose the case.

According to Peregraf’s investigation, most workplace sexual harassment against women is either verbal or there is no evidence available to prove a harassment claim.

Heshu is a pseudonym for a female victim of workplace sexual harassment. The story began with a Facebook friend request. An employer asked her to work for him and she did not turn it down because the job looked appealing.

“I worked there for four months. For three months, I received constant messages from him asking me to go to his room to seduce me, but I kept myself busy and did not go,” said Heshu.

Heshu worked at a media agency in the Kurdistan Region.

“Whenever I worked past 7 in the evening, I began to tremble.”

Some girls like Heshu remain silent about sexual harassment so that they can continue to earn a living through their work. When they speak up, they are dismissed from their jobs.

Heshu’s friend had previously worked at her place of business and called Heshu often because she was familiar with her situation. “She called me every night and asked every detail about what I did and how I was handling things.”

Another friend of Heshu called her one evening and told her: “Be careful, before you, I worked there for just a week and he asked for sex. I refused and he told me I was no longer needed.”

Then came the day that she had feared: her boss propositioned her for sex. When she refused, “he fired me and paid me only half of my salary.” Heshu says that so far, she has kept four other women from working for her previous employer after she explained her boss’ behavior to them.

Any unwanted sexual behavior or conduct, whether physical or verbal, is considered sexual harassment.

Ashna Hama Seed, a lawyer with the People’s Development Organization (PDO)’s hotline, says that women who lodge complaints of sexual harassment often do not have solid evidence to prove that they are harassed because the harassment sometimes occurs suddenly and the victim is not in a position to collect evidence.

“If the cases are taken to court without evidence, the [victims] will eventually lose because when you file a complaint, you have to prove it.” Hama Saeed told Peregraf.

She believes that apart from the cases in which there was actual harassment, there have also been cases in which the claims were not true and were made only to defame an employer.

The lawyer reiterated: “A complaint cannot be made without evidence. There have been cases that were valid. I met with one client, and I am sure she is being honest, but she does not have the power to prove it, which is a huge problem if she takes it to court.”

The data collected by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on violence against women does not contain information about sexual harassment, only data about rape.

In 2019, 139 cases of rape were recorded in the Kurdistan Region. In the first nine months of 2020, only 49 cases were recorded, which is likely as a result of protective measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic under which people were quarantined for months.

Some sexual harassment is committed in public workplaces such as in the bazaar or shopping malls.

Lava is a pseudonym for a girl who works in a mall. She says that one day, a man asked for her number and insisted that he would persist until she married him. But Lava was suspicious of the proposal and believed that that the man was propositioning her for sex.

“I did not try to inform the mall administration, as I am sure they know about it all so it would be useless if I bring it up. Maybe they don’t like it either, but it exists in society,” Lava told Peregraf.

In Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, there is no law criminalizing sexual harassment, but according to Iraq’s Penal Code, it is considered a criminal offense.

To support those who face violence and sexual harassment, the Directorate to Combat Violence Against Women and Family asks victims to provide evidence and be ready to give a statement.

Ari Rafiq, the Assistant of General Director of the Directorate, told Peregraf: “The statement of the victim is important because there are people who change their statement after making the complaint.” He thinks alterations to the complainants’ statements are attributable either to a resolution outside the courts or to pressure faced by victims to retract.

Apart from the Directorate to Combat Violence Against Women and the courts, some victims of harassment, especially journalists, go to their labor unions or other agencies to advocate for their rights.

The Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy has handled the cases of Heshu and the other woman who faced harassment from a director of a media agency.

The Director of the Metro Center, Diari Mohammad, told Peregraf: “Due to social norms, journalists do not file complaints openly because part of the case is personal and private.”

The Metro Center is prepared to retain lawyers in such cases.

“First, we help [the victims] legally, but if they want to solve the problem quietly and personally, we have a team for that.”

The Director of the Metro Center described the center’s collaboration with the Internews Organization to financially support those who have faced violence or are threatened with retaliation. Apart from psychological and legal support, the center may send the victim abroad temporally if necessary.

Diari Mohammad says evidence is the most important aspect of these kinds of cases “because we have had cases in which someone had problems with a media agency so (s)he made false claims against the agency.”

Gossip and family barriers are additional factors putting pressure on women to remain silent about sexual harassment.

Sociologist, Abas Mahmmud, told Peregraf: “Although the legal complaint is important, society is also important. [Victims] could open up about their situation to someone close to them. It is important that these complaints be brought before society. If this does not work, then [the victim] can bring a legal complaint.”

In addition to losing their jobs, it is not easy for victims of sexual harassment to recover from the psychological stress they face.

Even after seven months, Heshu, who was fired because she refused her employer’s sexual advances, is still asked about the reason she left her job. She also faces rumors, which make her situation even more difficult.

“When I remember [the harassment], my eyes fill with tears. I am stressed and depressed… I feel that my reputation has been tarnished. I have always tried to protect my reputation, but maybe this is the reason no [media] agency will hire me,” said Heshu.

This investigative report was written by Nazanin Goran for Peregraf as part of the Intensive Journalism Workshop funded by the German Foreign Office.