The Kurdish Globe
By Goran Sabah
Her pale face covered with permanent stitches and scars reveals only a fraction of what Jamilia Awni, a divorcee, has suffered in the past few years. "I've experienced a lot of agony, stigmatization, mistreatment and manipulation by relatives, neighbours and even close friends," she stated, adding, with a heart full of sorrow and distress, 'My first year, after I left my husband, was a real hell."
Awni, 35, left her husband for reasons of domestic violence in 2006 and is only one example of thousands of divorcees and widows in Kurdistan Region, where male dominance continues to engulf everything and the chance for them to remarry is highly unlikely.
"My husband ruthlessly thrashed and bashed me every day; I would squirm at night because of the harsh pains in my whole body." She expressed to us unflinchingly, 'he was ruling the family with an iron fist."
Despite the fact that the region is on the fast track to economic, social and political developments, women are still subject to discrimination, violence and inequality. Widows, for instance, in Kurdistan are seen as "second-hand women", and looked upon scornfully by a society whose values merely connect honor to virginity, destroying the opportunity for these women to find happiness in re-marriage.
"Second hand woman means deprivation of happiness in life," said Awni, who now raises her two children, a son, 11 and daughter, 9 alone.
Even divorced women are called widows in Kurdish society where people, especially men have a negative stereotype towards widows and divorcees.
Jwan Karim, a feminist, informed us that there is a big difference between the terms "widow" and "divorced" and the Kurdish society often misunderstands the two.
"Divorced means the husband and wife are completely separated and no longer live with each other but are both still alive. However, widow means the husband is dead for any reason or disappeared or missing in a war."
Divorcees and widows in Kurdistan are called second-hand women by the Kurdish society where men often make fun of them, Karim reiterated.
"I can't marry again because of men's mentality as they refuse to marry a divorcee. I left my husband to choose one myself," Awni claimed, whose father arranged the marriage and forced her to marry the man he wanted.
Many women NGOs are fighting to reduce the impact of male dominance through raising awareness amongst women via various workshops, conferences and other activities.
"Society has bad judgments and wrong understandings towards women," said Shadya Hassan, who founded an association for widows in Kurdistan called "Sabat" in 2003.
According to the data collected by Sabat there are 600 thousand widows in Kurdistan region whose population is 6 million. Having said that 59.2 percent of the young Kurdish society is female and 40.8 percent is male.
"Sabat has more than 500 members," Hassan said and added that despite this, widows in general do not join Sabat because "they feel shy or belittled."
A widow from Sulaimani city said she did not know even there was an association for widows otherwise she would have joined it a long time ago.
Hassan noted that due to the lack of support from the Government it is difficult to get Sabat promoted and publicized across Kurdistan.
There are different reasons why women have become widowed in Kurdistan. In general, women have become widows due to wars in the region, car accidents and disease.
"The civil war in Kurdistan between 1994 and 1998 left 70, 000 women widowed," said Karim.
Hassan, who describes a widow as a bird with broken wings, addressed the two main problems for widows: lack of money and love.
"Widows live badly because they have no or low income and there is no one to hug, make love and listen to them," she added.
"I wish my death every single day as I live alone and have no income to feed my two kids," Awni said in a husky voice.
Fatima Kanabi, a widow with three kids whose husband died during the civil war, said "The worst thing is that I feel my kids are growing up without the feeling of fatherhood."
Halima Ali, whose husband died because of cancer, described losing one's husband as having your house collapse around you, adding that you cannot fully realize the significance of a man until you lose him.
Although not a widow herself, it's for emotions such as those described and from observing women leading miserable lives that Hassan decided to have her association work as a matchmaker for widows.
"Sabat has matched ten widows with ten men successfully since 2007," Hassan said who could not give names of those men or contacts to talk to.
The International Red Cross Organization-Iraq's latest report says there are two million widows in Iraq. However the Iraqi government says it's four million.
Iraq's population is now 31 million people. The feminists and observers think that the US-led Iraq invasion in 2003 doubled the amount of Iraqi widows.
In regard to the financial difficulties faced by widows, the Kurdish government used to pay each widow 30, 000 IQs a month, that equals to (25 USD). This is not enough for even three days living per person, stated Azad Tofiq, senior government official who works in the social affairs section in the KRG ministry of Works and Social Affairs.
"We have increased that amount to 100,000 IQs (85 USD)," he added and noted that the government needs to raise awareness and provide widows and divorcees with education so that they can have a degree and work to depend on their own income.
Hassan said the local NGOs, Sabat and the Red Cross often buy furniture, food and other things for those widows who have many kids and no monthly income.
"People and NGOs are giving us food, furniture and clothes, without them we have no life," said Ali.
According to Hassan, the "birds with broken wings" would have a better future if they were given the chance of education and then she referred to some who have their own jobs and scrape a living with no support from anyone.
Taban Salah, 36, whose husband was killed in Baghdad in 2004, earns 700, 000 IQs (600 USD) a month and does very well in feeding her two children.
"Compared to the jobless widows, I live much better but I still feel the same loneliness and impact of a prejudiced society as far as having the opportunity to get married again is concerned," claimed Salah.