Ronak Faraj Raheem, Director of Women's Media and Education Center, which was one of the organisations that participated in the campaign for a ban on guns in homes in Iraq. Photo: Ester Sorri.
Despite massive protests from the Iraqi women’s movement, last year a law was passed, making it legal for Iraqis to keep weapons in their homes. But women’s organisations in northern Iraq won’t give up. Now they are advocating for politicians in the Kurdistan region of Iraq to enforce a ban.
“In our village, almost all men have weapons at home. Some show off their guns to gain respect” says a woman from a mountain village situated a couple of hours drive outside of Slemani in Iraqi Kurdistan.
She and a couple of other women have come to a house used for common gatherings. The help organisation Wadi is visiting to talk about women’s health, but the conversation undulates back and forth and touches on violence and the presence of weapons.
“What can we do? The men have all the power and can do whatever they want with us. I’m often afraid, my husband has threatened me with his gun. I have no choice, I have to do what he wants” says a young woman, throwing her hands in the air in a gesture of defeat.
Common with guns at home
Having a gun or any kind of light weapon at home is very common in Iraq. According to statistics from Gunpolicy.org, based on research from the Sydney University among others, an estimated 34 percent of Iraqis own a gun. There is also an extensive illegal arms trade in the country.
This development has caused strong reactions among women’s organisations. They are concerned that more accessible weapons will lead to an increase in the deadly violence against women. The women’s rights organisation Warvin has warned about the risks, stating that most Iraqi women who get killed, are shot.
When the Iraqi government a few years ago wanted to introduce a law allowing light weapons in homes, women’s organisations and concerned individuals joined forces in a counter campaign. The campaign called for a ban instead of a legalization and for the Iraqi government to gather all illegal weapons.
Despite the protests, in 2012 the new firearms legislation was introduced, making it legal for all individuals to own a gun and keep it at home. The only regulation is that it has to be registered with the police. At the same time the government urged all Iraqi households to keep a gun, to improve their safety.
“Question of mentality”
Women’s Media and Education Center, WMEC, participated in the campaign. However, the organisation’s director, Ronak Faraj Raheem, is not convinced that a ban on guns is the right way to go to prevent deadly violence against women. Mainly because she doensn’t see a direct link between firearms and honor killings.
“As an organisation, we are of course against keeping guns in homes. But I don’t believe that the act of killing someone is closer at hand just because it’s easier to get hold of a gun – first and foremost it’s a question of mentality. When it comes to defending family honour men use what’s avaliable; knives, strangulation, pistols. A gun in the home makes no bigger difference” she says.
Family honour important
In the Kurdistan region as well as throughout Iraq, family honour is an important issue and the social control is strong. A woman receiving a text message from an admirer or stating that she wants to choose her own partner, are reasons enough for her to be accused of bringing shame and dishonour upon her entire family. For this she may be punished by death and the act is often carried out by her father, husband, uncle or brother.
“We’re campaigning against weapons in the home, but more important still is that this mentality changes” says Ronak Faraj Raheem.
Lanja Abdulla, Warvin. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna.
High hopes on a law
But Lanja Abdulla from Warvin has high hopes that a law banning guns in homes in Iraqi Kurdistan would reduce the deadly violence against women.
“Police officers, security personnel, members of political parties and ordinary people – everyone has a gun at home. Most killings of women are carried out with these weapons. If we got a ban, it would automatically reduce the number of women being killed” she says.
For example, with such a law, policemen and security agents would be forced to leave their weapons at work. According to Lanja Abdulla, that would make the men not being able to kill the women as easily in an aggressive domestic situation.
In the course of spring, Warvin has managed to get the five biggest political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan to support a law on firearms. Now, the organisation will start working on drafting a bill.
Annette Ulvenholm Wallqvist, freelance journalist
A serious threat to all people in Iraq – especially women! Iraqi women’s rights organization ASUDA is very critical of a recently adopted law, that allows all citizens of Iraq to keep a gun in their home.
When Saddam Hussein were in power in Iraq, people were encouraged to carry guns in support of the Ba’ath regime. The gun became a symbol of honour and loyalty. Now, nine years after the fall of the Ba’ath party, the Iraqi government, following the recommendation of the country’s National Security Council, May 6th announced that all citizens from now on can keep a gun at home. The only restriction is that all weapons have to be registered at the nearest police station.
Many women’s organizations in Iraq are deeply concerned about the direction in which the country is heading, and what they see as a clear connection between a militarization of the society, an easy access to small arms and the escalating brutal violence against women.
Holds Prime Minister accountable
One of the organizations, Warvin, has previously reported on the connection between murdered women and guns being kept at home. When hearing about the new law they released a statement condemning it and holding the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally responsible for any new cases of women being murdered. ”It is a widely known fact that a government’s first responsibility is providing security and safety for its citizens and fulfill the rule of law in the country. (…) Instead of eradicating and collecting the weapon in Iraq to pave the way to exert the legal authority in the country, as one of the promises he made to people at the time of the election campaign, Maliki has turned his back to the law” the statement said.
Khanim Latif, ASUDA. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.
Campaign against guns
In the Kurdistan region, Iraq, several women’s organizations have joined forces in a campaign with the aim to get a ban on the private possession of small arms. By approving this new law, the government is signalling that issues of women’s security are not of any importance, says Khanim Latif at the women’s organization ASUDA.
- We were expecting a ban on possession of weapons, and for the government to start the process of eradicating and collecting the illegal weapons present in our society. We didn’t expect them to suddenly decide on a legalisation instead. This law represents a serious threat to all people in Iraq – especially women!
Meeting with the Parliament Speaker
ASUDA initiated the campaign, after a period of a drasticly increasing number of women getting killed by privately owned small arms. Naturally they are very concered about this new agenda.
- This law will most probably create instability and lead to a deteriorating security situation in Iraq. And it is likely that there will be an increase in incidents between different ethnic groups, which will lead to even more violence.
But the organizations are not giving up. May 9th they met with the Speaker of the Kurdistan region’s Parliament to discuss it and they will also advocate for the Iraqi government decision not to be carried out in the Kurdistan region.
One of the major questions is of course why Iraq is adopting this new weapon law right now? Ala Riani, coordinator for Iraq at the women and peace organization the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, elaborates:
- One of the suggestions is that by legalizing these weapons the government is legalizing the many militia groups that are active in the country. And most of them are said to be connected to Nouri al-Maliki.
The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation recieved a blog post from one of our colleagues visiting women’s rights organizations in the Kurdistan region in Iraq:
“My hotel is brand new. The floors are gleaming and it feels like I am the first to ever sleep in the big bed with its embroidered bedspread. The town of Erbil resembles a gigantic construction site. New houses are popping up everywhere: hotels, businesses and homes – for those who can afford them that is. Erbil, the metropolis of the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, wants to show itself to the world and there are many who want to establish themselves there. The unused oil deposits are working their magic on foreign investors and the war feels far far away, at least to an unknowing visitor. Spring has arrived in the Kurdistan region.
In the part of Erbil called Ankawa, I meet with Lanja Abdullah in the office of the women’s rights organization Warvin. She is a brave young woman who fight for women in the Kurdistan region to be able to exercise their rights. A controversial mission in a society with strong traditional and religious values. A society where violence against women is a huge problem. Threats and slander have become part of everyday life for Lanja, who never refrains from speaking her mind. At present she is involved in a legal battle with a highly placed mulla in Erbil, who she has accused of threatening her.
Reading the news on Warvins site is disheartening: ”A girl killed by AK 47”, ”A girl hangs herself” – the same theme repeats itself. According to Lanja suicides among women is a growing problem in Kurdistan, and she is trying to find out why.
- The only facts we can get hold of is the number of women who have died. I want to know why they died, why they decided to end their own lives. And I want to know if the suicides always are suicides. Every week I visit women with severe burns at the hospital in town and try to take their witness statements. Often our conversation is the last one that they have, since the burns are so bad. That affects me deeply.
Thinking of their children
Lanja describes how the women´s thoughts almost always are on their children, even during the last minutes of their lives. That is why they don’t dare to tell the truth about how they recieved their injuries.
- If they reveal that it was their husband who have set them on fire, he could end up in jail and then who would take care of the children? They take their worry and consideration with them to their graves.
Big changes are taking place in the Kurdistan region. Traditions are being challenged and new values are gaining ground. Women’s rights activists like Lanja are fighting for women’s right to their bodies and for them to be part of decision-making on the same terms as men. And they need all the support they can get.
Spring has arrived in the Kurdistan region, right?”
Park in Erbil. Photo: Anna Lithander/The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.