In a restaurant off a busy road in Sulaymaniyah, in the south of Kurdistan, dozens of women sit in a group, talking animatedly and drinking glasses of black, sweet tea. The women, some wearing headscarves, others in jeans and colorful nail polish, are part of a feminist organization called the Sofia Society.

Ranging in age from 16 to 60, the women are there to talk about raising awareness about sexual violence and harassment of girls in school. It is a tall order, but the Sofia Society women are used to challenges—they have even received death threats from men who consider it an act of dishonor merely to speak up against male violence.

The Sofia Society was founded by a small group of women in 2016, with the primary aim of increasing literacy among girls and young women in small towns and villages in the area. The activists travel on bicycles, sometimes for dozens of miles, to reach the most secluded areas.

Females in Kurdistan are seen as significantly inferior to males, but are better off compared to those in the rest of Iraq. This is little consolation to the feminists I met during my time there. Kurdish women face horrendous challenges and misogynistic attitudes toward their involvement in social, political and economic life. For women in Kurdistan, the public sphere is forbidden, unless accompanied by a male family member, and “honor” killings, rape and female genital mutilation are daily realities for women and girls.

I was in Iraqi Kurdistan—or, as my hosts prefer, South Kurdistan—to speak at a momentous gathering: The very first conference on sexual violence toward women and girls in the region, held in the iconic Kurdish cultural center.

“I want everyone to know that we are not accepting the fate of women in Kurdistan,” Lanja Khawe, one of the founding members of the Sofia Society, tells me during the group discussion in the restaurant.

One of the society’s undertakings is a book-loan project.

“There are two reasons why we consider taking books to women [by bicycle] a revolutionary act,” Khawe says. “Firstly, in our society, riding bicycles by women is still considered shameful. We wanted to change this and, thus, break the taboo, and anyway, bicycles are environmentally friendly. Secondly, unless girls become literate, we cannot learn, and education is key to our liberation.”

Group members say that libraries in Kurdistan are considered a largely male environment and are far from female-friendly. “Many families forbid the girls to read in libraries because they think we will rebel against patriarchal norms,” says Ferah, a new member. “Therefore, many young girls are desperate for books. We are keen to meet this demand, because we know that many will read in secret. How can we be free when this basic right is denied us?”

Many urgent and pressing issues in the region are hidden and taboo, such as sexual violence toward women and girls. Abortion is treated as a sin and is forbidden. I heard about girls who were raped by their fathers, uncles or brothers and who became pregnant but were refused an abortion, often ending up with a child as a reminder of the brutality.

I met with Houzan Mahmoud, a Kurdish women’s rights and anti-war activist who travelled to Sulaymaniyah for the conference. Mahmoud currently lives in Germany and is founder of the Culture Project, a platform for Kurdish writers, feminists, artists and activists. Over tahini, pickles and black, bitter olives, she explains that women’s organizations and those running domestic violence shelters often avoid confronting male violence or men as the problem, because of the intense controversy such debates would cause. But most importantly, she tells me, the major problems facing feminists in Kurdistan are what is called the NGO-ization, or professionalization, of women’s organizations, and dependence on foreign funding, which often leads to inadequate responses and limited impact. According to Mahmoud, there is much “window dressing” within mainstream political parties, as each one has created a women’s organization and appointed its own chosen leaders.

“In my view, both the [nongovernmental organizations] and party-led women’s organizations often act as foot soldiers of patriarchy in South Kurdistan,” Mahmoud says. “Women’s struggles and issues are stagnant because of this, but I am hopeful that the new generation will step in and provide new autonomous alternatives which are feminist, anti-capitalist and pro-women’s rights only.”

During the conference, the Kurdish cultural center was full to bursting with over 300 delegates, mostly women, but also a smattering of male government officials, including the deputy prime minister. I spoke about how to combat the trafficking of women and girls into prostitution, both in and out of the region, and about the misogyny underpinning the global sex trade. Other presentations covered rape, domestic violence and homicide, sexual harassment in schools, the workplace and other public arenas, and harmful cultural practices such as “honor” killings. The final session was on legislation: the need to develop laws that deter perpetrators and support victims. In time-honored fashion, as soon as the Q&A started, all the raised hands were male.

“One of the reasons that men are so dominant, even in feminist conferences, is because [women] are invisible: We are not there, we don’t speak up, we don’t question. Women are reluctant to show their faces,” Khawe says. “We grow up with shame, and are taught to be shy, not to talk and not to speak out and not to stand up for ourselves.” I hear from several activists that they often feel scared of reprisals from religious patriarchs for campaigning against male violence, and also from some of the deeply traditional women who feel nervous about endorsing the Sofia Society’s messages. “We want to create a feeling of solidarity between women, but sometimes they come in between and turn you into enemies. Divide and rule,” one woman says.

In the new year, society members plan to talk to secondary school students about sexual violence, including how to protect themselves from harassment. “It is about what kind of language do we use, and what should the girls be aware of,” Khawe says. “We want to talk to other girls about how to raise their awareness about sexual violence, because we have no sex education whatsoever in Kurdistan. We need to raise the issues of [sexually transmitted infections] and sexual health.”

I am told about male bus drivers who were discovered sexually abusing kindergarten and primary school children. They were sacked and replaced with women, and no further action was taken by the authorities.

Society members plan to work with young women in shelters, as well as with women who have allegedly committed crimes. “There is a lot of sexual harassment in prisons from male staff,” says Khawe, who once visited a juvenile prison for girls under 18.

Mahmoud is aware of how much must be done before the patriarchy in Kurdistan is replaced by a culture of equality. “In my last visit here, I was invited to attend a young group’s discussion on abortion,” she tells me. “The group was mainly [university] graduates, as well as university students who wanted to share their views with me on the subject, and what to do. Such groups are the future of activism in Kurdistan, and their work can leave an impact on the society. It is important to support independent and politically aware groups who have a vision for women’s emancipation.”

On my final evening in Sulaymaniyah, I go for a long walk around the center, smelling the pungent herbs and spices from the many food carts lining the busy streets. Men pulling carts heaving with pomegranate seeds, nuts and pastries dripping in honey weave in and out of the crowds. Lines form to buy shawarma from the makeshift stalls, and a cluster of men sitting on tiny plastic stools drink fresh mint tea. The colorful lights on the stalls and shop windows and the music from the popular 24-hour coffee kiosk make it feel like a party. But there are no women among the hundreds of boys and men in the crowds. Eventually, I see a woman with two young children coming out of a shawarma kiosk, carrying heavy bags while ensuring that her children keep close.

“There is little space for women in public life,” Khawe says when I ask why women are not visible at night.

As I leave for the airport, Aza, one of the young Sofia Society members, tells me something. “This conference helped me to take off my veil,” she says as she shakes her loose hair from side to side. “For me it is a big step. Things are slowly changing here.”

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