By Ruwayda Mustafa Rabar
30 January 2013
Men dominate religious discourse in Kurdistan. People accept their interpretations, often reminiscent of prevalent views in neighbouring Arab countries, as unquestionable and sovereign.
In mosques one sees Imams present, but no female scholars. Even if there were female theologians in the region, they would have difficulty finding a job since the Imams would not want to share their function with women.
Thus Imams interpret Islamic texts as they will and exclude women entirely from the opportunity to engage in the scholarly exploration of religion. In the rare instances when Imams include women in discussions, they use gender as a point of attack to (falsely) illustrate that women lack the logical capacity to comprehend the Quran. This form of discrimination causes psychological and social damage to women.
It is an incremental assault on their self-esteem and contributes to a culture of patriarchy that indoctrinates men and women to believe that femaleness comes with lower intellectual potential. The functionality of patriarchy owes its success to mass compliance and obedience from women. When we sit on the margins of society nodding to authoritarian figures who insist on our inferiority, we approve our own subjugation. Of course many women stand idle because they depend on men to survive.
Herein we find the vicious cycle of patriarchy: To make autonomous decisions women need financial stability to manoeuvre, but in Kurdistan many rely wholly on spousal support. This inherent problem reminds us that only education can assure complete independence for girls when they reach adulthood. The problem of women's social delay in Kurdistan is multidimensional and-because they influence society so greatly-the clergy could play a significantly positive role in improving conditions for women. For this reason we must find ways to open discussion with Imams and recruit their help in teaching people that women and men are beings born with equal potential for leadership.
People blame religion for much of women's delayed progress in Kurdistan; but religion itself is not the culprit of the ills of human society. For a very long time people have pointed the finger at Islam, for example, to justify women's oppression in the Middle East; but we forget that it is the way human beings conceptualize an idea that sets a precedence for the expression of values-and how these in turn manifest in the homes of people. People misconstrue religion to incite shame and prevent women from expressing themselves. For example, many have cited religion to claim that women, who walk alone in the evening or converse with unrelated men, are amoral and dishonourable.
Hence from a subjective interpretation of religion comes a corrupt value that manifests in society as a cultural stereotype. With great power the negative stereotype grows to be accepted as a universal truth that delineates the morality of women. The labyrinthine nature of this destructive stereotype requires calculated treatment because it is embedded in the personalities of people.
We are inevitably the product of our societies, and when we grow hearing the same stories and statements, we integrate their value in the fabric of personal identity. To begin to address the problem properly, we must enlist clergy support in promoting a positive, autonomous image of women, along with their scholarly participation in religious education. The latter may take the form of women offering viewpoints different from the widely accepted interpretations of sacred scripture, which currently place women in a position inferior to men.
With all things considered, the fact remains that few Kurdish women make an effort to participate in religious meetings, where they may share new perspectives to counteract repressive notions of women's behaviour. One of the reasons for this may lie in the public perception that a woman interested in the study of religion is not attractive.
Men in Kurdistan admire women who are modest, cultured and gentle. They prefer women who contain their rebellious streak on the surface and never use it to defy authority. Such image of women is one of contradiction, and it is common in Erbil where most men run from the idea of women having an intellectual discussion about religion. The situation is unfortunate because it distances talented women from clerical circles and lessens their opportunity to influence Imams.
A case in point is that of women who have memorized the Quran-an astonishing feat-but never engage in debate or propose alternative, contemporary interpretations of the sacred text. Their silence is a disservice because these are the women in the best position to engage people in thought and show that negative beliefs concerning women are vastly unrelated to the wisdom put forth in the holy Quran.
There are women who are actively trying to change the way religion is perceived, and the social constraints placed on women due to patriarchal interpretations of religion. One organization that has tried to challenge societal constraints on women is the Women Empowerment Organization (WEO) in Ainkawa which gives women free legal advice, and counselling. One young woman who reached out to WEO in the past expressed her outrage at the lack of attention given to the progress of women in the region, and the detrimental role societal ignorance has on the liberation of women.