Hopes of recalibrating gender terms and rights divides the community in Iraqi Kurdistan

halabja- women
7 min read
03 February, 2023

The topics of gender terms, women's rights and responsibilities and LGBT issues have been thrust into the public eye in Iraqi Kurdistan dividing the overwhelming Muslim Kurdish society into two opposing fronts.

On the one hand, one group, supported by secular political parties and CSOs (civil society organisations) have made gender equality efforts a cornerstone of their policy. On the other hand, conservative Muslim clerics have joined to withstand and resist efforts of what they perceive as "gender-related normalisation."

The conflicting viewpoints came to light after a loudspeaker was installed in front of the municipality building in Halabja in December and a message was broadcast pushing for Kurdish women's rights and eliminating violence against women – but according to some, the recording mentioned LGBT rights and issues. 

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In a post on the official Facebook page for the Halabja municipality, Saeed Hakim, the city's mayor, said that he had been told by a team from the office of  Qubad Talabani, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, that the broadcast was about supporting women in the Kurdistan region. 

"The broadcast was not as they said. They tricked me and lied to me. This broadcast does not fit with our culture and our traditions," the mayor wrote. "I, therefore, raised a complaint with the office of the Halabja Governor, and will not be working until this issue is resolved and the governor clarifies this issue."

The following day, the governor of Halabja Azad Tofiq – in a joint press conference with the mayor – said: “The recording was about equality between women and men… this is not contrary to the teachings of the Islamic religion," in doing so denying that the project contained any reference to gender roles or LGBT rights. 

The New Arab spoke with Hakim, but the mayor refused to give a further comment to the media, stressing he is now waiting for the judiciary to look into his complaint, which is now being investigated by the police. 

Azad Tofiq, during a brief phone interview with The New Arab, clarified that they have previously permitted the installation of the loudspeakers but admitted he wasn't aware of those behind similar projects in Sulaimaniya, Chamchamal and Rania districts.

Azad emphasised that the message broadcasted “did not include anything about gender roles or homosexuality” but rather focused on the “liberty of women and the prevention of violence against women."

The Halabja branch of the Kurdistan Muslim Scholars Union (KMSU) in Halabja raised a legal case against those who were behind the project, describing such attempts to promote "homosexuality" as a threat to Kurdish Muslim society, and contrary to the social norms and the Iraqi penal laws. 

The scholars also cautioned local authorities that if such attempts reoccur, then they would urge the locals to take the streets. Locals in Rania and Sulaimaniyah thwarted similar attempts for broadcasting the recording via loudspeakers at the main marketplaces.

The New Arab contacted Samir Hawrami, the official spokesperson of Qubad Talabani, but he did not respond to a written request to comment on the issue. 

Qubad Talabani is from the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and his elder brother Bafel Talabani, is the president of PUK. Both are sons of late Iraqi president Jalal Talabani.

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Crackdown on LGBT rights 

Gender Equity in Iraq

A grant by the European Union of about one million US dollars to the Center for Gender and Development Studies (CGDS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaniyah (AUIS) in 2018, was the topic of an intense debate on Kurdish social media. 

The CGDS on February 14, 2022, announced the outcomes of its project, saying that its three-year project titled Enhancing Education, Developing Community Capacity, and Promoting Visibility to Effect Gender Equity in Iraq and the MENA Region was funded by a €900,000 European Union grant.

“The grant funded a wide range of outputs and activities to support the development of gender-related educational courses in Arabic and Kurdish; provision of online training for faculty who are interested in teaching these courses,” the CGDS said in a statement, pointing out that the fund also went on  developing the public policy recommendations for the Ministries of Education of the Government of Iraq and KRG; generating “reports on the role of the media and school textbooks in reproducing and reinforcing gender inequality.”

However, many Muslim scholars as well as the Islamic parties claimed that: “The CGDS was promoting homosexuality,” launching an online harassment campaign against the CGDS and its head Choman Hardi. She refuted the claims in an online clarification.

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'Ruining the society'

"People are trying to ruin our society under the name of gender and other bizarre names to bring about the third sex, or at least to create enmity between the masculine and feminine sexes," claimed Najmadin Qadr, a Muslim cleric and head of Sulaimaniyah branch of the KMSU. "Those people even had printed the rainbow logo on one of the public sector school textbooks, we complained about that and warned the KRG minister of education about that breach.”

He also said that through promoting gender-based research some people and political parties are trying to “polish the foreign cultures and promote homosexuality in the Kurdish Muslim society,” indicating that they as Muslim scholars are firmly rejecting such “hideous cultures”. He concluded that homosexuality is not just forbidden in Islam, but it is also an “ugly thing” in many other world countries.

Under Islamic Sharia law, consensual homosexual relations are punishable by penalties of flogging and hanging.

The legal point of view

The Iraqi Penal Code is unclear on the legality of homosexuality, however, LGBT+ people in Iraq and the Kurdistan region are often taken to court according to the Iraqi penal code number 8 of 1988 which bans prostitution, as well as article 393 of the Iraqi penal code of 1969 against rape or sodomy.

According to both codes, all types of homosexuality are punishable, even with consent, with imprisonment ranging from seven to 15 years.  

On September 4, 76 members of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq proposed an odious bill to Parliament that, if passed, would punish any individual or group who advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

The bill is reportedly gaining momentum among parliament members, Humans Right Watch (HRW) said in a report. 

According to the “Bill on the Prohibition of Promoting Homosexuality,” anyone who advocates for LGBT rights or “promotes homosexuality” would face imprisonment for up to one year, and a fine of up to five million dinars (US$3,430). The bill would also suspend, for up to one month, the licenses of media companies and civil society organisations that “promote homosexuality.”

If passed, the law would endanger free expression in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and eradicate public discussion around gender and sexuality, HRW added.

Even as LGBT people across Iraq have faced egregious violence, including murder, over two decades, the KRI was a comparatively accessible space for activism.

The proposed bill comes amid a heightened crackdown on free assembly and expression in the KRI, where just last month security forces arrested dozens of journalists, activists, and politicians in advance of planned protests over worsening corruption, poverty, and unemployment.

The new law would make a bad situation worse for LGBT people in Iraq, who can already be arrested under a range of vague penal code provisions aimed at policing morals and limiting free expression.

Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, on 3 December 2022 launched an anti-LGBTQ campaign. He said that this should be done "not with violence, killing or threats, but with education and awareness, with logic and ethical methods.”

The same day, Soran Omar, a Kurdish lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament announced that 32 Iraqi MPs signed a draft law for criminalising the promotion of homosexuality.

“This topic has foreign supporters that expend money for it which is a big danger to the individuals, the family, and the society,” Omar wrote as he published a copy of the formal document.

Dana Taib Menmy is an investigative journalist and The New Arab's Iraq reporter. His work has appeared in Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The National, among many other outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy