Hawraman: A safe haven for Kurdish women

05-11-2020 05:42
Shena is hiking alongside her friends in Hawraman

 Peregraf- Kochar Aziz

Shena never felt that she was treated differently from her brothers. She has been working outside the home for many years and never faced any violence or insults.

She is from Tawela in Hawraman, an area where the people eschew violence. Compared to other areas of Kurdistan, there is very little violence in Hawraman.

“My family has never created any obstacles for me and I have never faced any violence. My family has strongly supported me,” said Shena.

35-year-old Shena’s efforts have borne fruit; she managed both to follow her dream to make an independent living. In 200,6 she became the first female physical trainer in Halabja and started her own gym for women.

Shena described her father to Peregraf: “If someone scolded me for going out, my father would have replied, ‘Shena is my oldest son and she would never make a mistake.’ I felt overjoyed by his words at the time, but now when I consider them, I wonder why he was proud of me as his ‘son.’ But I know that my father never treated us differently, maybe he said this only to keep people from gossiping.”

For Shena and dozens of other girls and women, Hawraman represents open-mindedness and freedom. These women and girls also work shoulder to shoulder with men to manage shops and restaurants. Hawraman is a popular vacation site and thousands of tourists visit annually.

Last year, 89 complaints of violence against women were lodged in Halabja Governorate, including Hawraman. In the first nine months this year, there have been 33 complaints, according to the data Peregraf obtained from Directorate to Combat Violence Against Women.

Conversely, 3,769 complaints were recorded in the first six months of this year in the rest of the Kurdistan Region, the majority of these in Erbil. There have also been 13 cases of suicide, 26 cases of self-immolation, and 35 cases of sexual abuse.

According to the directorate, with the exception of Hawraman and Halabja, 4,973 complaints of violence against women were recorded in the Kurdistan Region in the first 6 months of 2019, including 22 cases of murder, 32 cases of suicide, 58 cases of self-immolation, and 47 cases of sexual abuse.

Barzan Osman, spokesperson for the Halabja Police Department, told Peregraf: “Last year and the first ten months of this year, there have been only two cases of violence against women [in Hawraman], which were family issues and they were resolved.”

According to police investigations, the low rate of violence is attributable to the culture of the area. The joint participation of men with women in the labor force, the cultural and educational background, and equality and freedom in workplace have caused the people of Hawraman to view the roles of women differently when compared to other areas.

Hawraman is located in northern Halabja, 100 km southeast of Sulaymaniyah. It shares border with Iran. The area includes the districts of Byara and Tawela and more than 50 villages.

Shena Adam and other women in Hawraman are proud of their area as a place where violence is very low.

“I never did household chores. Most of the time I was at work, training, or outside,” said Shena.

Shena belongs to a large family that consists of six sisters and two brothers.

Shena’s only barrier has been her schooling, which kept her from going out as often she wished: “I had to study harder because I wanted to prove myself.”

And so she did; she proved herself and opened a gymnasium. Later, she married and is now a mother of two children. She is also the principal of a kindergarten in the Contemporary Education Community in Halabja.

Shena with her husband and children

“He is someone who understands my feelings and who has supported me. With his help, I can manage both my work and household chores,” Shena said about her husband.

According to investigations by Peregraf, it is not only women who speak of the culture of tolerance in Hawraman, but members of other groups who frequently face violence confirm that the rate of violence in the area is low.

“I have worked as social researcher for seven years and I have not encountered any cases of violence,” said Nyan Aziz.

Aziz also told Peregraf: “Hawraman’s traditional religious background affected the way women were treated and it still prevails.”

According to Nyan, Hawraman’s people, both women and men, are preoccupied with work and have little time for hatred and conflicts. She also believes, with regards to social relations in Hawraman, and marital life in particular, there are similarities across groups in terms of their social norms, financial status, and other aspects of life.

There are many other stories like Shena’s in Hawraman, where women work and earn a living, even participating in public administration and governmental work.

Nukhsha Nasih is the Mayor of Halabja Center District and was the Manager of Byara Sub-District. She says that from antiquity, women in Hawraman have held positions of rank and their word was taken seriously. She says this continues today.

“Women in the area have been working in the fields side by side with men, which is a crucial social factor. At the same time, the natural environment had a calming effect on both men and women, so they could work easily and help one another, leaving them with no time to think about violence,” Nasih told Peregraf.

She does not agree with claims that there is no violence in Hawraman, but believes that the beauty of the area lies in the fact that the people of the region have managed to solve problems within their family without resorting to violence. 

Nasih claims she has not faced any violence in her career and says her family has helped and supported her.

This calm family environment in Hawraman is contrasted with an increase in domestic violence in Iraq and in most of countries across the globe as states have implemented lockdown measures and other precautions to fight COVID-19 pandemic.

Shara Abdul Karim, Coordinator of Sharazoor branch of Kurdistan Women’s Union, says that Hawraman’s women are educated enough not to conceal violence, and to file complaints when it happens. “There are problems in Hawraman too, but it is not as common as it is in other areas. In some areas in the Kurdistan Region, for example, women are still seen as second class citizens, not as human.”

According to Shara, Hawraman has the lowest rate of violence in the Kurdistan Region and this is partly attributable to a culture drawn from the region’s heritage in which women worked in all sectors in the local economy.

Although the stories of women and government data show the rarity of violence in Hawraman, field research and official investigations have not yet been conducted by the government.

Ari Rafiq, Deputy General Director of the Directorate to Combat Violence Against Women in the Kurdistan Region, told Peregraf: “The difference in the rate of violence from one area to another is relative, but it might not be true if we say an area is completely free from violence.”

He also thinks that a lack of accurate data is the result of a lack of interest from related departments and NGOs, which he believes should conduct field surveys to confirm whether what is being said is true or if there are other factors, such as women’s inability to discuss violence openly.

Ari believes that apart from publishing data, a precise survey must be conducted among random families.

Furthermore, Ari suggests that one of the questions in the survey should ask women if they have experienced violence committed by men in the area, and if there is violence, to ascertain if women feel pressured not to discuss it because of the local culture or an inability to reach out to the relevant authorities.

The women of Hawraman are not the only beneficiaries of their stories of work and success. Some work to provide for their families financially and others, like Shena, strive to help other women.

Shena Adam says that she wanted to introduce women to the outside world through hiking, so their lives would not be comprised only household chores and raising children. She wants to help them focus on their social relations outside family so they are not relegated to servitude in their marriages.

She formed female hiking and swimming groups and organized the first swim meet for women in 2016.

“In Kurdish society, women themselves should put forth greater efforts and fight harder to prove themselves.”

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