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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 13 Feb 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Female Sharia Law Judge, Nenney Shushaidah Who Decides If Men Can Take a Second Wife in Malaysia

New Age Islam News Bureau

13 Feb 2020

PHOTO: Judge Nenney Shushaidah rules on polygamy cases, and always wants to hear from the first wife. (ABC RN: Khaldoun Abou Alshamat)


• Iran's Clerical Rulers Ban Valentine's Day as 'Cultural Threat'

• Lawmakers Impressed After Muslim Woman Calls Out Rape Myths

• Why Are Israelis So Afraid Of This Female Arab Lawmaker?

• Saudi Princess Lamia Bint Majed, Goodwill Ambassador For The Arab World

• Inspired By Pakistani Women Serving As UN Peacekeepers in Congo, Says Wells

• Iranian Woman Dies of Suspected Coronavirus Infection: Media

• Arab Women Sports concludes in Sharjah

• New Jersey Woman Takes On Traffickers In Iraq's Kurdistan Region

Compiled By New Age Islam News Bureau




The Female Sharia Law Judge, Nenney Shushaidah Who Decides If Men Can Take a Second Wife in Malaysia

February 13, 2020

Nenney Shushaidah is the female face of Islamic law in Malaysia.

The country's first female sharia state high court judge, she decides whether a man can take a second wife.

Muslim men in the country can have up to four wives, and each year more than 1,000 men go to the courts to apply for a polygamous marriage.

Judge Nenney sometimes works to convince distressed or reluctant women to agree to it, a move she says ultimately protects their rights.

But she says her heart would be broken if her own husband ever wanted to marry another.

A simple question for first wives

The sharia high court of the state of Selangor is in the city of Shah Alam, 30 kilometres west of Malaysia's bustling capital Kuala Lumpur.

It's a modern, leafy administrative centre that feels a bit like a tropical Canberra.

The city is dominated by the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque.

Completed in 1988, it's the largest mosque in the country and is crowned with a spectacular 100-metre-high blue dome.

About 300 metres from the mosque, across landscaped gardens and a six-lane avenue, are the state sharia courts and Judge Nenney's chambers.

Sitting in the court library surrounded by shelves of beautifully bound legal texts, Judge Nenney explains the circumstances in which a sharia law judge will consider allowing a husband to take another wife.

Polygamous marriages are allowed if the first wife is not healthy, or cannot produce children.

They are also allowed if the husband's sex drive is higher than his wife's.

The judge must be satisfied that the husband can afford to support two families.

Unlike some judges, Judge Nenney always wants to hear from a first wife.

"I ask her, 'Do you really agree with your full heart or have you been forced to agree?'" she says.

She knows the answer simply from looking at the woman's face.

"If she is smiling, I say yes, she has truly given permission," Judge Nenney says.

"But if her face wants to cry in front of me I will ask her carefully, in detail, try to get the point — why actually [does] she not agree?"

Protecting women's rights

Some wives don't want to share their husband with another woman.

A recent survey by the feminist group Sisters in Islam found that while 70 per cent of women agree that a Muslim man has a right to a polygamous marriage, provided he can treat all wives fairly, only 30 per cent would allow their own husband to marry another woman.

Judge Nenney says while Sisters in Islam is entitled to its views, it is the Islamic Religious Council of Selangor that decides how the courts apply and interpret Islamic law.

She says she tries to convince reluctant women to accept the registration of the second marriage, in order to protect their rights.

"I just say, 'Your heart will be broken the same, just in this court you will get your rights — your maintenance, your children's rights, your inheritance,'" Judge Nenney says.

If the husband doesn't get permission from her court, she says, he can easily circumvent the decision by marrying in a neighbouring country.

On his return, he can register the marriage, and is simply made to pay a paltry fine.

"Better her husband go through this court case than he go to Thailand, Singapore or Indonesia to marry without the permission of the court," Judge Nenney says.

Judge Nenney, who was appointed in 2016, says 90 per cent of the first wives who appear before do agree to a second marriage.

The remaining 10 per cent of cases proceed to a full trial.

At these trials, Judge Nenney rules against the husband in about 60 per cent of cases, usually because the husband doesn't have enough money to support two families.

Moral offences and the cane as punishment

In addition to family law matters, the Sharia courts also have jurisdiction to hear what are known as moral offences.

Judges can impose penalties for personal behaviours that are forbidden under Islam: sex outside marriage, gambling or drinking.

Judge Nenney says every week she hears cases where a couple is charged for having sex outside marriage.

She always imposes a fine of 5,000 Malaysian ringgit (around $1,700) and six strikes of a cane.

The caning, she says, is not painful and is designed to be symbolic or educational.

She says the person who canes the offender always has their upper arm positioned firmly against their torso — it is only the movement of the limp wrist that powers the impact of the cane.

Asked if she hopes that one day no-one will be fined or caned for private behaviour, Judge Nenney says she would actually like harsher penalties.

She would like to increase the fines up to 20,000 ringgit ($7,000) and increase the canes from six up to 10 or 20.

"But education is important to me."

She says if people know the punishment is harsh, "they will not do it again".

She also wants bigger penalties for men who fail to pay maintenance, or who ignore other court orders relating to their family responsibilities.

As a woman, not a judge

I ask Judge Nenney how she would react if her husband told her he planned to take a second wife.

When she hears the question, she nods her head; clearly she has given this considerable thought.

She says she would have exactly the same feelings as some of the women who appear in her courtroom.

Judge Nenney says she would wonder why she wasn't enough, and be fearful for the future.

"He will change after marry. He will not love us like before," she explains.

But, like the women who come before her in the Sharia court, Judge Nenney says she would work to ensure her rights, and those of her children, were protected by law.

"The court cares about your rights after the second marriage," she says.



Iran's Clerical Rulers Ban Valentine's Day as 'Cultural Threat'

February 12, 2020

To the great dismay of Iran's religious and political establishment, the celebration of Valentine's Day has become so popular in Iran that even in in the holy city of Qom authorities have to warn shops not to sell Valentine's gifts.

Qom with its many seminaries and the Shrine of Fatimeh Masumeh, the sister of the eighth Shiite Imam Reza, is visited by thousands of pilgrims every day. It actually has a reputation of being the religious capital of Iran.

The religious establishment sees the celebration of the Day of Love as an element of the "cultural onslaught of the West" to corrupt the Iranian youth and has tried to prevent it for many years. But each February 14 young Iranians overwhelm mobile networks with Valentine's Day text messages.

Iranian law enforcement agencies issue warnings every year and sometimes even shut down businesses selling Chinese made teddy bears with red hearts on their chests, chocolate and candies tied with red ribbons, red balloons and even red roses. The hardest to control are the peddlers who sell Valentin's items and red roses in the streets.

On February 11 this year the Center for Reduction And Control of Social Harms of the Prosecutor's Office in Qom warned businesses that promote "anti-cultural symbols such as Valentine's symbols" threatening to shut them down from one to six months if they do not comply. The statement issued by Prosecutor's Office has also provided a number for the public to call to report "transgressions".

Young Iranians often celebrate Valentine's Day in cafes and restaurants. The government warns these establishments in advance to stop people from making a show of celebrating the banned Day of Love. No red candles or balloons, no exchange of gift, and obviously no special offers on the occasion.

Some secular Iranians who also do not approve of celebrating a non-Iranian holiday with roots in Christian tradition, have tried to offer an Iranian alternative to Valentine's Day.

The alternative they have tried to promote is the celebration of the day of Sepandarmaz, the goddess of fertility and earth in ancient Iranian culture and in the Zoroastrian religion.

Ancient Iranians celebrated the day of Sepandarmaz by offering gifts to women. The small community of Iranian Zoroastrians still ritually honor Sepandarmaz on her day and offer gifts to women.

This day falls on February 19, only a few days after Valentine's Day. In the absence of a commercial driving force, the celebration of the Day of Sepandarmaz has really not become a big challenge to its western rival, at least for now.

The Iranian religious establishment is obviously opposed to celebrating the Day of Sepandarmaz with equal fervor. After all, Islam came to Iran to eradicate Zoroastrianism and any attempt to revive ancient traditions is seen as working against Islam and Islamic traditions.

The Shiite establishment has tried to offer its own alternative, the anniversary of the marriage of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. Fatima married the Prophet's cousin Ali who then became the first Imam of Shiites and the fourth Caliph of Sunnis. On a few occasions, authorities held big celebrations at universities to promote the anniversary as the Day of Love, but that, too, has not proved a worthy rival to the celebration of the banned Valentine's Day.

Iran is not the only country where the celebration of Valentine's Day is banned. Lovers have to celebrate it behind closed doors in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan and surprisingly, in Belgorod region of Russia where officials banned it for "going against Russian cultural traditions".



Lawmakers Impressed After Muslim Woman Calls Out Rape Myths

February 13, 2020

A Muslim woman's submission on the challenges ethnic communities face when confronted with sexual violence and the "myths" that surround rape has impressed a group of lawmakers.

Fariya Begum, who works at the Shama Hamilton Ethnic Women's Centre Charitable Trust, praised parts of the proposed Sexual Violence Legislation Bill, aimed at improving the justice response to victims of sexual violence.

But she asked the Justice Select Committee to go further and make more interpreters available for victims of sexual assault in ethnic communities who she said are often too afraid to even come forward.

"Understanding and communication will be most effective," Begum said, adding that having access to an interpreter for those in ethnic communities is "vital".

Under-Secretary to the Minister of Justice (Domestic and Sexual Violence Issues) Jan Logie, who is leading the law changes, told Newshub Begum's request for more interpeters is not part of the legislation but will be considered.

Begum also discussed the myths that surround rape victims, such as the "clothing women wear, enticement, and men not being able to control themselves and drinking alcohol".

She told the committee: "We urge you to consider that there are additional things that people from diverse cultures are subject to in relation to sexual violence.

"We know there are stereotypes such as Latin women being easy, Asian women doing anything for money, Indian women being naturally submissive, and that people who have migrated here recently will lie in order to stay in the country."

She also touched on "myths about virginity and purity that mean women who are sexually active have already broken the social contract that keeps them safe from rape".

Tim Macindoe, National MP for Hamilton West, described Fariya Begum's submission to the Justice Select Committee as "compelling" and thanked her for the work she does in his electorate.

Begum said she appreciates the efforts the Bill makes to address rape, but said more needs to be done, because racism is "embedded in sexual violence".

She said she had members of ethnic communities come to her and admit they had not disclosed sexual violence out of "fear of losing their visa status and this fear is likely to be higher now".

Begum expressed concern about an international student in New Zealand who nearly had her visa cancelled recently following an alleged rape.

The unnamed woman who moved to New Zealand from China in 2015 had her enrolment at Auckland University terminated in December last year, following her admission to a mental health unit where the rape allegedly occurred.

She was then told by Immigration New Zealand (INZ) that she no longer met the criteria for her student visa and that she had five days to leave the country. INZ later said her deportation was put on hold while she sought advice.

"The situation highlights the ways our systems are failing these people," Begum said.

She said ethnic communities - those other than Pakeha, Maori and Pasifika - need to be able to understand the options available to them when they are faced with sexual violence.

"We cannot afford to let down our most vulnerable people."

Recent research in New Zealand showed that for every 100 sexual violence incidents reported to police, just six people were imprisoned. And for every 100 sexual violence incidents, only 31 made it to court, and 11 resulted in a conviction.

Logie announced the research in November and said the results were "not good enough".

The Green Party MP is leading the proposed changes for how the justice system responds to victims of sexual violence in New Zealand.

The Government announced $320 million over four years in Budget 2019 to fight family and sexual violence, $32.8 million of which is to improve the justice system's response to sexual violence victims.

The Government is already progressing with some recommendations made by the Law Commission, including tighter rules around evidence about a complainant's sexual history.



Why Are Israelis So Afraid Of This Female Arab Lawmaker?

13 February, 2020

When right-wing Israeli politicians began a campaign to disqualify a Palestinian member of the Knesset it was initially seen as a marginal issue by a fringe group.

But when the majority of Knesset members joined the attacks on MK Heba Yazbak, it became clear that this was yet another sign of some Israeli lawmakers' increasing animosity towards female Palestinian politicians.

The Israeli high court ruled Sunday, 9 February that Yazbak will in fact be allowed to run in the 2 March Israeli elections, despite an overwhelming vote in Israeli Knesset.

Gender studies experts point out that this is a prevailing phenomenon in Israeli politics, one that sees strong, articulate Arab women, who challenge stereotypes of Palestinian women, instill fear among Israeli lawmakers. 

Yazbak, who has a Ph.D. from Tel Aviv University in sociology and anthropology is a member of the Joint List for the Balad party, was threatened with disqualification for her support of Palestinian and Arab nationalists and former prisoners. Right-wing Israeli attackers consider her to have praised terrorism on social media, and had asked the Israeli high court to remove her from the Arab Joint List for the upcoming elections.

Yazbak responded on her twitter page by saying  that all of the allegations raised against her "were debated and rejected by both the Central Election Commission and the Supreme Court." She noted in Hebrew that "this is a request for disqualification whose sole purpose is populism and delegitimisation, which will serve the Liberman campaign."

She vowed to "continue to work for political and civil justice, against the occupation and against racism, discrimination, and incitement."

Dr Afaf Jabari, a lecturer in gender and migration at the University of East London believes that Israeli lawmakers fear such independent women because they threatens one of the tenets of worldwide support for Israel.

"Israel has worked on gaining world sympathy precisely on the basis of being a democracy that respects human rights and that they are dealing with barbaric backward people. Women like Yazbak and before that Haneen Zoubi, Ahed Tamimi and member of the Palestinian legislature, Khalida Jarrar, destroy that narrative."

Former Israeli Knesset member Haneen Zoabi notes that in comparison to male politicians, "Palestinian women in politics have different challenges and face much bigger forces in opposition because Israelis are trying to deny them a chance to be a role model. The normal balance of profit and loss is different for women who have to deal with internal and external forces attempting to deny them their voice and the chance to break a ceiling that has been artificially created for them."

Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens agrees that there is an common attitude towards Palestinian women who are willing to challenge the ruling powers. "We see this targeting often focused on Palestinian women who are articulate and independent. Educated Palestinian women surprise them and they become much more violent towards them."

Farah says that these Israeli lawmakers are angered because Yazbak argues in a convincing way. "She makes a powerful logical argument and has a strong command of the Hebrew language and this surprises them because they have built-in their mind an image of a weak woman, a woman who breaks down when a man screams at them."

Left-wing Israeli journalist and political analyst Anat Saragusti suggests the issue here is discrimination and a struggle over narratives. "It is sad to see how opinionated and strong Palestinian women get a misogynist attitude as if they are not entitled to have an independent world view."

Saragusti says that such women "intrigue the hardcore of the Israeli alpha male, and they become the ultimate witch, the symbol of evil, and they lose their humanity." She argues that "political scrutiny of Palestinian women is much stronger than their male colleagues and partners."

Dr Jaabari notes that while in Israeli politics, the battle is to discredit women such as Zoabi and Yazbak, when it comes women in the occupied territories, the more brutal goal is to demoralise them:

"In the occupied territories it is clearly a masculine overpowering attitude using the military as the main conduit for attempting to break a community. They believe that if you break a woman then you break the community, they want to show that their men can't protect them and therefore this targeting aims at demolishing their honour and breaking their will.

"Women are therefore targeted because they don't want Palestinians to appear as civilised with a strong and logical narrative. Such women are challenging the very masculine presence of the power that is based on the military might, they think that every time you can target these groups then you are targeting what is seen as the weakest and most vulnerable" Jabari says.

Rula Abu Daho, leading gender studies professor at Birzeit University, says that in fact, Israeli politicians want to destroy Palestinian nationalism, regardless of gender. The fact that Palestinian female prisoners come from all backgrounds and ideologies frustrates their attempts to have a singular anti-Palestinian narrative.

"There is a male stereotype in their mind but this stereotype fails when Palestinians of all walks resist them. The women in prison are secular and religious leftists and Islamists and they come from all political parties and factions." Abu Daho says that Israel wants to perpetuate a narrative that can "break the idea of a Palestinian female heroine."

The Israeli Palestinian political battle is now much more of a battle of narratives. In this struggle for ideas that prevail, the projected role and attitude towards women now reflects a general attempt to deny Palestinians the right to their land, as well as to their own narrative.



Saudi Princess Lamia Bint Majed, Goodwill Ambassador For The Arab World

February 13, 2020

Princess Lamia bint Majed, secretary-general and a member of the board of trustees of Alwaleed Philanthropies, has been appointed as the first regional goodwill ambassador for the Arab world by the UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat).

Her appointment came during a press conference held on the sidelines of the 10th session of the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Princess Lamia will advocate for sustainable urbanization, helping UN-Habitat to address urban challenges in Arab states and advance sustainable urbanization as a driver of development and peace.

Princess Lamia has also worked as the secretary-general of Alwaleed Philanthropies since March 2016. She also worked as executive manager of media and communications at Alwaleed Philanthropies between 2014 and 2016.

Princess Lamia has a bachelor’s degree in public relations, marketing and advertising from Misr International University in Cairo, Egypt.

In 2003, the princess founded Sada Al-Arab, a publishing company operating from Cairo, Beirut and Dubai.

Princess Lamia also co-founded Media Codes Ltd. in Egypt and the Fortune Media Group in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

She was editor in chief of Rotana magazine between 2004 and 2006. She held the same position at Mada magazine between 2002 and 2008.

In 2017, she was awarded the prestigious Arab Women’s Award for her charitable work.

In 2019, Princess Lamia was appointed as a champion of Generation Unlimited, a global partnership that aims to boost the productivity of young people. Her Twitter handle is @lamia1507.



Inspired By Pakistani Women Serving As UN Peacekeepers in Congo, Says Wells

February 13, 2020

United States’ Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells on Wednesday said she was inspired by the Pakistani women who were serving in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a tweet, Wells said: “Inspired by Pakistani women serving with distinction in the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC.

“The first Pakistani all-female group of 15 peacekeepers received medals last week for their work performing a range of services to the conflict-affected eastern DRC.”



Inspired by Pakistani women serving with distinction in the @UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC. The first Pakistani all-female group of 15 peacekeepers received medals last week for their work performing a range of services to the conflict-affected eastern DRC. AGW 📸credit @UN

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03:08 - 12 Feb 2020

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Members of the first-ever Pakistani Female Engagement Team (FET), which is deployed with the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), were recently awarded the UN Medal at a ceremony in Adikivu in South Kivu, one of the provinces of the central African country.

This team was the first-ever Pakistani Female Engagement team in any UN peacekeeping mission around the world.

The officers were psychologists, stress counselors, vocational training officers, gender advisers, doctors, nurses, operations officers, information officers and logistics officers

UN Peacekeepers rely heavily on engaging with the local community — which feels more comfortable liaising and sharing information with military troops that include women alongside men, the mission had said.

“Throughout their deployment, the Pakistani female officers worked hard to win the trust of the community,” it added.

The Pakistani FET, according to the mission, has implemented many successful projects including vocational training, medical outreach, regular sessions of support for students, local women and teachers exposed to trauma; and psychological workshops for Congolese police personnel.



Iranian Woman Dies of Suspected Coronavirus Infection: Media

12 February 2020

An Iranian woman has died of a suspected coronavirus infection, the state daily newspaper IRAN reported on Wednesday, without citing any sources.

The 63-year-old woman died in a Tehran hospital on Monday, the newspaper said, and an investigation has been ordered into the cause of her death.

A spokesman for Iran’s Health Ministry, Kianush Jahanpour, denied the report.

“There have been no cases of coronavirus in Iran,” he said.

Iranian health authorities have repeatedly said there were no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country.

The coronavirus now officially named as COVID-19 has killed more than 1,100 people in China, with total confirmed cases there topping 44,650 as of February 11.

Hundreds of cases have been reported in dozens of countries and territories around the world.



Arab Women Sports concludes in Sharjah

February 12, 2020

Sharjah: The concluding day of the Arab Women Sports Tournament (AWST) was marked by a series of exciting play-off encounters in volleyball competition.

Tunisia’s Club Sportif Sfaxien clinched a three-set win against Sharjah Women’s Sports Club to clinch the third spot. The Tunisian athletes entered the first set with full force to win 25-12. Sharjah athletes tried to clinch the second set but the Tunisians had the upperhand to end it 25-16 in their favour. In the final set, the Tunisian team dominated the court and finished it 25-7. The one hour, six-minute match ended with 75-35 scoreline at the final whistle.

Fighting for the fifth position, UAE’s Al Wasl put up a strong challenge against Jordan’s De La Sal and secured a three-set win with a final score of 77-65 on Wednesday morning. The local team dominated the first two sets 25-19, 25-21 despite a strong showing by the Jordanian athletes. The close contest continued in the final round as De La Sal tried to force the match into the fourth set. However, Al Wasl players wrapped up the match with a nail-biting 27-25 finish to their advantage.

Meanwhile, Bahrain’s Al Ahli Club clinched seventh place after a win against KSA’s Princess Nora University 75-38 in a 3-set match. The Bahrain athletes sailed through the game with ease securing 25-9, 25-19, and 25-10 at the final whistle.



New Jersey woman takes on traffickers in Iraq's Kurdistan region

Amberin Zaman

February 12, 2020

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — At the Kurdistan Regional Government’s newly minted trafficking in persons unit, three Ghanaian women sit in a reception area toying with their mobile phones. Their faces light up when a tall young man walks in. Karwan — he asks that his full name be withheld because of the sensitive nature of his work — is a member of SEED, a local nongovernmental organization whose core mission is to empower and protect women, and he is helping the Africans free themselves from abusive employers. SEED set up Iraqi Kurdistan’s first ever shelter for trafficked men and women in November and the Ghanaians will be housed there until they find new employment or return home.

Many credit SEED’s co-founder Sherri Kraham Talabani for badgering Iraqi Kurdish authorities into establishing the department for combating trafficking in persons in 2018, and which became operational in June 2019.

Since its inception, authorities have blacklisted and shut down at least 38 recruitment agencies, including one belonging to a very big local fish, said Sardar Fadhel Yayha, the youthful police major who heads the unit. “SEED has been instrumental in our work,” Yayha told Al-Monitor during a recent interview at the Erbil headquarters of the Directorate of Combating Human Trafficking, as the outfit is formally known. “The most vulnerable are the Africans.”

The Kurdistan region of Iraq is more often associated with the misery of its own people — mass slaughter by Saddam Hussein, and more recently the nightmare inflicted by the Islamic State. But an oil boom changed the face of war-wracked region, with sleek high rises mushrooming across Erbil, the administrative capital, and fancy restaurants catering to an emerging class of prosperous Kurds who don’t want to do menial labor. And so Sri Lankan, Filipino, Bangladeshi and African migrant workers are doing it for them.

“2003 to 2013 was a golden age when foreign workers began pouring in,” Talabani told Al-Monitor over coffee at SEED’s roomy new office in Erbil. Unsurprisingly, horror stories of the likes heard in the Gulf sheikhdoms began filtering through. Talabani recalls the recent case of an African housekeeper sent into various cleaning jobs. “She felt unsafe and unprotected and people attempted to have sexual relations with her. And then when she went back to the agency that recruited her they locked up all the women in the bedroom all night, every night to prevent them from leaving. They were forced to pee into a bottle. She was also missing pay.”

One of the women’s employers reached out to Talabani after hearing her speak on a radio show and asked her to intervene. Exploitation typically occurs almost immediately after victims arrive, when traffickers fail to register them with authorities and hold them hostage, confiscating their passports and threatening them with exposure — and imprisonment — if they don’t heed orders.

As word of SEED spreads, victims have been seeking help through its hotline from as far afield as Baghdad. At least two traffickers, one Kurdish, one Ghanaian, were arrested over the past two weeks. “They had trafficked our cases,” Talabani said.

While SEED responds to emergency needs, victims rarely if ever get full justice. “The few cases that make it to the court are frequently prosecuted under other laws," Whabiya Zrar, a human rights lawyer, told the Iraqi Kurdish media outlet Rudaw.

Agencies that are shut down are often able to reopen under a new name. “The victims generally believe that many of the perpetrators are powerful and would still be able to harm them,” he said.

One of Talabani’s clients, a foreign female worker, is a case in point. She was violently raped by her employer’s son and reached out to her embassy in Baghdad, which in turn reached out to SEED. The foundation found temporary lodgings for her and a co-worker who was also being sexually harassed by the man and helped them file charges with the police. But the man tracked them down at the hotel and raped his victim a second time. The man’s family then filed charges against the women accusing them of theft. The women were arrested and the family only agreed to drop the theft charges if they dropped the rape charges. They did. It later emerged that the perpetrator had a relative working for the police.

The foundation has a dedicated program to train police officers to combat violence against women. This starts with confronting their own violence at home. “Almost half of all women in Iraq suffer intimate violence at home,” Talabani said.

Her foundation receives up to $150,000 from US donors and support from local benefactors in Iraqi Kurdistan. She declines to identify them by name. The US, British, and Canadian governments, among others, have supported SEED programs.

Talabani first moved to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012 with her husband, Qubad Talabani, who has been the KRG's deputy prime minister since 2014. He is the son of Kurdish leader and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who died in 2017. Sherri Talabani, who has a law degree from George Mason University and who had a high-flying career with the State Department, was determined to put her experience to good use. She had worked with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, and had assisted in US-brokered peace talks between her father-in-law and his political rivals from the Kurdistan Democratic Party. That is when she met and fell in love with her husband. She, however, remains fiercely independent and refuses to leverage the family name.

The couple are something of an oddity in Erbil, which for all its veneer of modernity remains deeply conservative and stubbornly patriarchal. The wives of the president and of the prime minister, Masrour Barzani, are never seen in public. “People gossip about Sherri, they don’t approve of her going around everywhere with her husband,” confided the wife of a government official, on condition that she not be identified by name. It’s this culture of “ayeba” or “shame” that frowns on women being assertive that Sherri Talabani, a native of Jackson, N.J., is up against. It’s a veritable minefield. But the feisty Talabani has waded in eyes wide open, saying she is inspired by her equally iconoclastic mother-in-law, Hero, who took up arms against Saddam Hussein, among other exploits.

“I think that for many Kurds, younger Kurds especially, Sherri and Qubad Talabani represent the promise of a new, better, Kurdistan. A more modern Kurdistan. A more egalitarian Kurdistan,” said Kenneth Pollack, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute with deep knowledge of Iraq, in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.

When she set up SEED with Tanya Gilly-Khailany, a former member of the Iraqi parliament, Talabani said she wanted to set up an organization, “plant a seed” that would foster women’s empowerment, economic development and good governance “and then the ISIS [Islamic State] thing happened.” The jihadis hauled 5,000 Yazidi women and children into captivity, subjecting them to sexual violence, torture and murder. Six years on, more than half have either escaped or been freed.

“When women suffer sexual violence in war, it not only has disastrous consequences for her and her family, but it tears apart the fabric of society. So if we want to end the cycle of violence in Iraq, we must support them, and we must address the pervasive violence against women,” Talabani said.

SEED’s team of psychologists has been working with Yazidi victims in separate camps in the province of Dahuk, near the Syrian border, helping to reduce depression, anxiety, nightmares and suicide ideation. SEED also assists them with medical services, government benefits and reconnecting with their communities. Talabani said “people can’t access medical help here easily because the system is under siege and cannot cope with demand. Yazidis suffer the most because they are very marginalized and often rejected.”

Yazidi women and girls face rejection within their own community if they seek to bring children fathered by their IS captors back with them. Many have been pressured to leave their children in orphanages in Iraq or in Syria because they are not accepted as Yazidis by the community’s religious leaders. “It’s not our decision, it’s the decision of our holy majlis. We are also mothers, but we can’t do anything,” said Leyla Ibrahim, who helps run the Yazidi House, a community center in Amude in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria, in an interview with Al-Monitor.

The center is helping care for some 40 Yazidi orphans born from IS fathers. There are some babies. The oldest is 5½ years old. “The [holy] council is still debating their future,” Ibrahim said. Meanwhile, mothers forcibly separated from their children are suffering a whole new layer of trauma that needs to be urgently addressed. Yazidi mothers who refuse to relinquish their “children of war” have opted to remain in the al-Hol camp where the wives and children of IS fighters are being interned.

Set against such suffering, the agony of young teenagers exploited by sexual predators on social media may seem almost trivial. But it’s not. A growing number are being blackmailed by people who photo shop their pictures in compromising ways. “They cut your head and transpose it to a naked body, and then say, ‘If you don’t give me money I will spread your pictures on social media,’ and surprising as it may sound, half of the victims are boys,” explained a SEED counselor to a group of young men and women during a recent workshop in Erbil. SEED devised the program to help youngsters fend against such exploitation. The event is being hosted by the local branch of the Preemptive Love Coalition, a global NGO combating violence. The consequences can be deadly for victims whose families deem they have stained the family honor.

Some 120 women died in gender-based violence in Iraqi Kurdistan last year. Some 13 of them were the targets of honor killings. None of the cases make it to court. SEED is co-sponsoring an exhibition that launched this week in Erbil to create greater awareness around the long taboo issue. Kurdo Omar Abdullah, the head of the Directorate of Combating Violence Against Women, said matters actually are improving despite the deaths. “In previous years, 60-70 women would be killed due to honor,” she said.




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