'The Choice is Yours': Why a feminist coalition is pushing for expanded abortion rights in Iraqi Kurdistan

Kurdish women
6 min read
14 December, 2023

When 21-year-old Tre* found out she was pregnant, she was shocked and panicked. As an unmarried woman in Iraqi Kurdistan, she was using protection because she was not ready to have a baby. After missing her period, she went to a local clinic for an ultrasound. When the doctor congratulated on her pregnancy, she burst into tears.

“This shouldn’t be happening to me. You need to help me,” she pleaded to the doctor.

The doctor, in compliance with the law, refused to help her. Tre went to visit four other gynaecologists who she said rudely dismissed her. Eventually, through a friend, she was able to obtain abortion pills on the black market to terminate her pregnancy. She described the process as scary, humiliating and isolating.

"If I want to talk about the freedom of women in my society, I have to start with the choice of how she deals with her own body. I see this decision as a main route to women's freedom"

Iraq is one of a handful of countries that prohibits abortion altogether, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR). Doctors who perform the procedure could be jailed and lose their licenses. A woman or girl can be sanctioned for having an abortion, as can anyone who assists someone in accessing abortion.

But the Kurdistan Region Parliament, which can pass its laws independent of Baghdad, passed a law in September 2020 that included a provision on abortion. The Patient’s Rights and Responsibilities Law states that if a pregnant woman’s life is at risk, she can obtain an abortion with the consent of her husband, approval from an expert committee of five physicians, and a pregnancy test done in the public sector.

“Other than this case, abortion is categorically prohibited," reads the law. Kurdish women’s rights groups say this provision doesn’t go far enough, and they have formed a coalition to campaign for further changes to the law to help women like Tre access safe and legal abortion care.  

“Choices for women in Iraq are all unsafe abortion. All we hear is that it’s haram, it’s not allowed,” said a representative at Nujeen Family Democratizing Organization (NFDO), which formed The Choice is Yours coalition, along with 11 other feminist groups. The representative asked to remain anonymous for safety purposes.

“But Kurdistan is very different from other parts of Iraq, and we are trying our best to change laws that are based on religion.”

The group is using media campaigns and legal advocacy to expand the grounds for legal abortions to include cases of rape, incest, unlawful relationships, and economic or social reasons, the representative told The New Arab.

Over the last 30 years, more than 60 countries have liberalised their abortion laws, according to the CRR. If the newly elected parliamentary committee approves these amendments, the Kurdistan region could set a new precedent among Arab world countries that, except for Tunisia, largely forbid the procedure except under strict conditions. 

Suher Hashim is the coalition’s legal consultant who prepared and submitted the draft amendment.

“The issue of unsafe abortions has spread frighteningly,” she said. “Therefore we [must] protect women and protect their lives in line with safe procedures for abortions.”

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Mifepristone and misoprostol, two oral medicines commonly used in medical abortion, are available by prescription in Kurdistan. However according to Savan Abdalrahman, the founder of a women’s rights group called Tema, which is part of The Choice is Yours coalition, obtaining them can be fraught with challenges.

The government does not collect data on abortion, but members of the coalition who spoke to The New Arab say there has been a significant rise in the number of women resorting to dangerous and sometimes deadly methods to end their pregnancies, including seeking services from unqualified health practitioners.

“There are ‘back alley’ nurses who perform abortions at a high rate,” said Abdalrahman. “It's a dangerous procedure because if this woman bleeds or has other side effects, then she can't find clinical treatments.”

Though she expects strong opposition from religious leaders, Suher is optimistic that the amendments put forth by the coalition could be approved.

“Islamic jurists are some of the most strongly against this subject,” she said. “They say we must protect the fetus. But I say we must strike a balance between the life of the mother and the life of the fetus. There should be health centres, provided by the state, to guarantee safe abortions.”

Gender issues are facing significant backlash in Iraq amid an increase in violent crimes against women and girls with impunity. But in Kurdistan, notable advances in women’s rights over the past two decades include legal reforms removing protections for perpetrators of so-called ‘honour’ killings and the creation of a domestic violence law. 

Still, as in many other countries around the world, abortion remains a taboo. Abdalrahman has produced a documentary and written the first Kurdish language book on abortion, which will be released early next year. She says that while conservative religious influences make the work challenging, there are signs of change.

“Most people do not feel comfortable talking about abortion, even if they are allies of abortion rights. All we have is a religious discourse that forbids abortion without further explanation,” she said.

“But we found that there is potential for [people] to change their minds. We collected many personal stories and even the most religious persons [have] relied on abortion at one time in their lives.”

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Still, the work is not without its dangers. Abdalhraman and NFDO say they are sometimes concerned for their safety after having been targeted on social media for their advocacy.

“We faced a lot of threats to close our organization and a lot of threats to us as employees,” said the NFDO representative. “People are calling us baby killers and soul killers and we have faced attacks from religious people.”

According to them, The Choice is Yours coalition has the support of the Kurdistan Women Union and the High Council for Women and Development — two influential groups in Kurdish politics.

As their advocacy work enters the crucial final months before the parliamentary committee is formed, NFDO says they feel hopeful.

“We are optimistic about change, maybe not in the law but at least in the mindset of people. We are gaining more supporters step by step. At least we have brought safe abortion to the table for discussion.”

For Abdalrahman, it’s about more than just discussion. “If I want to talk about the freedom of women in my society, I have to start with the choice of how she deals with her own body. I see this decision as a main route to women's freedom.”

* Name changed for protection

Maxine Betteridge-Moe is a London-based freelance journalist with an MA in Media in Development from SOAS, University of London. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada and has freelanced since 2017, working in print, digital, TV and radio

Follow her on X: @maxine_moes