Saturday, May 9, 2015

Mahabad protests: Kurds, gender, politics


It was only a decade ago. After graduation from university, my friend Kajal was among the few fortunate ones to find a job in a government office. She was overjoyed and I was proud of her.
Her joy lasted only a few weeks, however, because her boss, a man 23 years her senior, started verbally harassing her. We’ll call him Mr N.
He would summon her into his office several times a day, call her on her cellphone at odd times, trying to convince her to go to bed with him.
“I’m only offering sex for your own benefit,” he would repeatedly say. “I’m married and my needs are met.”
Kajal was hopeless. She was a young virgin and in Iranian culture, if she were to complain, a man’s words would be considered much more reliable than hers. She was a Kurd and Mr N was Persian, the dominant ethnic group in Iran.
Plus, she was Sunni and he was a prominent Shiite man who was present at the first row of every religious gathering. She was a new employee and he was in power.
Weeks after weeks, she cried on my shoulder in silence and I cried with her. We couldn’t think of a solution. No one would take her side over his and losing the job would be public defeat.
The boss’s harassment grew more aggressive. It went from “I would do this and that to you,” to demanding her to sit close to him and not protest to his  hands on her body.
Kajal broke down, filled with shame and humiliation, feeling trapped and suffocated.
One of Kajal’s colleagues who had become suspicious of Mr N’s behavior approached her. She was a woman. She knew. But she was also a Kurd, also a woman, also a Sunni, also an employee.
She did, however, have one privilege in this highly ageist culture. She was a mature woman.
She encouraged my friend to record Mr N’s voice, to keep his nasty voice messages, to gather evidence. Kajal did so but there was a problem. If she were to be the one telling on the boss, she would not be safe from his future revenge. A plan had to be devised.
The woman talked to male colleagues about Kajal’s situation. But to get them on her side, to convince them—to go beyond blaming the female victim—she couldn’t just rely on reminding the men of a woman’s right to work in a safe environment.
She emphasized that the boss was a Fars, belonging to the notorious Etela’at, the Iranian intelligence agency, a group with a history of victimizing Kurds. This was reason enough for the men risk their careers to protect a young woman.
After days of discussion, a plan was devised.
One day, when Mr N called Kajal in and tried to touch her, she raised her voice. Other employees who had gathered behind the door, waiting to hear Kajal’s call, rushed inside while she was yelling at him.
The boss had been caught red-handed and the witnesses were men. Denial was no longer an option for Mr N.
Mr N, of course, was never punished for what he did. He was only transferred to another Kurdish city where he could continue harassing other Kurdish women.
That is not the moral of this story.
Kurdistan has come a long way over the past decade. This week, Kurds gathered to protest an alleged rapist’s immunity after the victim’s fatal jump.
On Monday, Farinaz Khosrawani plunged to her death from the fourth floor of the Tara Hotel in Mahabad after allegedly being threatened to rape. Local people and Kurds in other cities felt they could not remain silent. Over 25 people, including security personnel, were injured in this protest.
This incident can be analyzed from many angles. This article, however, focuses on gender.
In Mahabad, being a woman is no longer the only reason she is harassed. It is not because of what she is wearing or where she is—or simply because she exists and her very existence is arousing for men—that she becomes the victim of sexual assault.
Fingers are pointing at the invader but not just because the attacker is a man. He is believed to be an Iranian army officer, a group with over three decades of figuratively having abused Nishtman, the Kurdish homeland.
Regardless of what caused Farinaz’s fatal jump, what matters is that in a still highly patriarchal culture, yet another woman was killed or was put in a situation to kill herself.
Iran is a country that punishes women who defend themselves against rapists, by imprisonment or by death. Mahabad Fatehi was one of these women, put on death row after stabbing a man who tried to rape her. She was only 17 at the time of the incident, but what mattered to Iranian officials was that a man’s life was, and still is, more worthwhile than a woman’s.
Under such rules and despite of, or because of, such misogynistic laws, this writer admires the dynamic and brave culture in Kurdistan that is trending towards progressiveness and is, slowly but surely, recognizing a woman’s right to safety.
This is a considerable shift from a culture that has always blamed the women who have been victims of sexual assault.
Political pressure, ironically, has and continues to create more awareness and a strong resistance among elite Kurds.
Demanding justice for Farinaz is not just about removing gender-based violence. Like most matters in the Middle East, it is a story with political repercussions.
Kurds in Iran are frustrated by the ever-increasing political, ethnical and economic pressures in the region. Maybe the Mahabad riot was an outlet, but at least these days a woman’s pain is reason enough for a protest.
The praise for Fainaz runs deep: she is acclaimed for choosing death over “indignity,” for protecting “namoos”– honor, for having worn Kurdish dress, and she is compared with the female fighters in Kobane.
But, would her life be less worthy had she found a solution other than suicide? Would she still be trusted, protected, accepted, respected and healed if she had opened up about the assault after the fact?

Ava Homa is a Kurdish writer based in the US.
The article was originally published HERE

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