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  • Yaniv Voller

The struggle against gender-based violence in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region has witnessed some significant achievements since the late 1990s. A subject long excluded from public discourse in the region, it has now moved increasingly into the mainstream, compelling the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to take legal and practical measures against such practices as honor killings, female genital mutilation, and domestic violence. This article traces the sources of these shifts in the KRG's stance, looking especially at the role of transnational women's rights networks in the region. It highlights these networks’ successful strategy of binding their cause to the KRG's endeavor to legitimize and consolidate its contested sovereignty over the Kurdistan Region. In doing so, the paper addresses an underexplored subject in the literature on women's rights campaigns in the Kurdistan Region and contributes to the study of transnational advocacy as a source of normative change.

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Yaniv Voller is a Leverhulme Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, U.K.; e-mail:
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Author's note: This research was supported by the LSE Middle East Centre under the Emirates Scholarship. An earlier version of this article was presented at the International Studies Association annual meeting in 2012. The author wishes to thank the four anonymous reviewers for their comments.

1 The term de facto, or unrecognized, state is used in the IR literature to denote a separatist entity that has obtained some of the basic features of statehood, including a functioning government, a bounded territory, a permanent population, and the capacity to interact with other actors in the global system, but is not legally recognized as a state by most other states and international organizations. The use of the term has served to distinguish such actors from other forms of statelessness. In addition to the KRG, the term has been applied to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Taiwan, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and others. The de facto state was first introduced as a theoretical concept by Pegg, Scott, International Society and the De Facto State (Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998), 13, 3042. The most recent comprehensive study of de facto states, including the KRG, is Caspersen, Nina and Stansfield, Gareth, eds., Unrecognized States in the International System (Oxon: Routledge, 2011).

2 On the former, see Mlodoch, Karin, “‘We Want to Be Remembered as Strong Women, Not as Shepherds’: Women Anfal Survivors in Kurdistan–Iraq Struggling for Agency and Acknowledgement,” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 8 (2012): 6391; Tanyel B. Taysi and Sherizaan Minwalla, “Structural Violence against Women in Kurdistan, Iraq,” KHRP: Legal Review, ed. Kerim Yıldız and Mark Muller (2009): 87–120; and Mojab, Shahrzad, “Kurdish Women in the Zone of Genocide and Gendercide,” al-Raida XXI, no. 103 (Fall 2003): 2025. On the latter, see Fischer-Tahir, Andrea, “Competition, Cooperation and Resistance: Women in the Political Field in Iraq,” International Affairs 86 (2010): 1381–94.

3 al-Ali, Nadje and Pratt, Nicolla, “Between Nationalism and Women's Rights: The Kurdish Women's Movement in Iraq,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 4 (2011): 337–53.

4 Fischer-Tahir, Andrea, “Gendered Memories and Masculinity: Kurdish Peshmerga on the Anfal Campaign in Iraq,” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 8 (2012): 92114; Mlodoch, “‘We Want to Be Remembered.’”

5 Mojab, Shahrzad, “The Politics of ‘Cyberfeminism’ in the Middle East: The Case of Kurdish Women,” Race, Gender & Class 8 (2001): 4261.

6 Mojab, Shahrzad, “Gender, Nation and Diaspora: Kurdish Women in Feminist Transnational Struggles,” in Muslim Diaspora, ed. Haideh Moghissi (Abingdon, N.Y.: Routledge, 2006), 116–32.

7 Mojab, Shahrzad and Gorman, Rachel, “Dispersed Nationalism: War, Diaspora and Kurdish Women Organizing,” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 3 (2007): 5885.

8 Taysi and Minwalla, “Structural Violence against Women,” 87.

9 Rasmussen, Jennifer J., “Innocence Lost: The Evolution of a Successful Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Program,” 41 Valparaiso University Law Review 919 (2007): 929–31.

10 Meadowcroft, Michael, Kurdistan Elections for Iraqi Kurdish National Assembly and Leader of the Kurdistan Liberation Movement, 19 May 1992, Monitoring Report (London: Electoral Reform Consultancy Services, 1992), 4.

11 Geldenhuys, Deon, Contested States in World Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

12 Bartmann, Barry, “Political Realities and Legal Anomalies,” in De Facto States: The Quest for Sovereignty, ed. Bahcelli, Tozun, Bartmann, Barry, and Srebnik, Henry (Oxon: Routledge, 2004), 1516.

13 Caspersen, Nina, Unrecognized States: The Struggle for Sovereignty (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012).

14 Clark, Ian, The Post-Cold War Order: The Spoils of Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Fawn, Rick and Mayall, James, “Recognition, Self-Determination and Secession in Post-Cold War International Society,” in International Society after the Cold War, ed. Fawn and Jeremy Larkins (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), 193220.

15 Fawn, Rick has described this as the “Kosovo effect,” in “The Kosovo—and Montenegro—Effect,” International Affairs 84 (2008): 269–94.

16 An example of this campaign is a booklet published by the KRG for the purpose of encouraging foreign investment in Kurdistan. See KRG, Kurdistan: The Other Iraq, 2006, (accessed 22 December 2010).

17 See, for example, a report issued by the KRG's representative body in the United Kingdopm, The Status of Christians in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, December 2009, (accessed 12 March 2010). It should be noted that although the situation of Christians in the Kurdistan Region is much more secure than in other parts of Iraq, some Christian communities have been subjected to harassment by Islamist elements and, at least in the disputed territories, by the KRG's security forces. See Human Rights Watch (hereafter HRW), On Vulnerable Grounds: Violence against Minority Communities in Ninveh Province's Disputed Territories (New York: HRW, 2009).

18 See, for example, Horowitz, Donald, “A Right to Secede?,” in Secession and Self-Determination, ed. Macedo, Stephen and Buchanan, Allen (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 5076.

19 Avdeyeva, Olga, “When Do States Comply with International Treaties? Policies on Violence against Women in Post-Communist States,” International Studies Quarterly 51 (2007): 881–82.

20 Salih, Ruba, “Transnational Public Spheres from ‘Above’ and from ‘Below,’Anthropology of the Middle East 5 (2010): 5370.

21 Moghadam, Valentine, Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2005), 4.

22 Keck, Margaret and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists beyond Borders (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997).

23 Ibid.; Avdeyeva, “When Do States”; Risse, Thomas, Ropp, Stephen C., and Sikkink, Kathryn, eds., The Power of Human Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Risse-Kappen, Thomas, ed., Bringing Transnational Relations Back In (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

24 Moghadam, Globalizing Women; Salih, “Transnational Public Spheres”; Mojab, “Gender, Nation and Diaspora.”

25 Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink, “The Socialization of International Human Rights Norms into Domestic Practices: Introduction,” in Risse et al., The Power of Human Rights, 5.

26 Checkel, Jeffrey, Ideas and International Political Change (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997).

27 Thomas Risse-Kappen, “Introduction,” in Risse-Kappen, Bringing Transnational Relations, 23–26.

28 Salih, “Transnational Public Spheres,” 54.

29 Mojab, “The Politics of ‘Cyberfeminism,’” 50.

30 Brand, Laurie, Citizens Abroad: Emigration and the State in the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press), 78, 17–18.

31 Moghadam, Globalizing Women.

32 Salih, “Transnational Public Spheres,” 56.

33 Moghadam, Globalizing Women, 4

34 Ibid., 5–7.

35 Rasmussen, “Innocence Lost,” 934–35.

36 Keck and Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders, 192–93.

37 UNGA, A/RES/55/66: “Working towards the Elimination of Crimes against Women Committed in the Name of Honour,” 31 January 2001,; UNGA, A/RES/57/179: “Working towards the Elimination of Crimes against Women Committed in the Name of Honour,” 30 January 2003,

38 A copy of the SBS is available at (accessed 21 September 2009).

39 Rasmussen, “Innocence Lost,” 940.

40 Fran Hazelton, “Land of Hope and Glitter: Fran Hazelton Examines the Fledgling Feminist Movement in Iraqi Kurdistan,” The Guardian, 25 June 1992, 21.

41 Mlodoch, “‘We Want to Be Remembered,’” 73–74.

42 Mojab, “The Politics of ‘Cyberfeminism,’” 47.

43 Fischer-Tahir, “Competition, Cooperation and Resistance,” 1383.

44 This also included rape victims. Mojab, Shahrzad, “No ‘Safe Haven’: Violence against Women in Iraqi Kurdistan,” in Sites of Violence: Gender and Conflict Zones, ed. Giles, Wenona and Hyndman, Jennifer (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2004), 120.

45 The destruction of agriculture affected women even more negatively than men. Women in rural Kurdistan were integral to the workforce in the agricultural sector. In the towns and cities, working women were deprived of access to most occupations and were stigmatized and sometimes even attacked. The most extreme example is that of Anfal wives, who were often compelled to find jobs due to the absence of male providers and government support. See Mlodoch, “‘We Want to Be Remembered,’” 73–75.

46 Natali, Denise, The Kurdish Quasi-State (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2010), 2425.

47 WADI Foundation, Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan: An Empirical Study by WADI (Frankfurt: WADI, 2010), 1217.

48 Mojab and Gorman, “Dispersed Nationalism,” 74.

49 After taking power in 1968, the Baʿth government retained the 1958 constitution, which criminalized, at least nominally, honor killings. Brown, Lucy and Romano, David, “Women in Post-Saddam Iraq: One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?,” NWSA Journal 18 (2006): 54.

50 These were Narmin Othman and Nesreen Berwari, who held the women's affairs and public works portfolios, respectively. The Iraqi National Accord nominated Leila ʿAbd al-Latif as minister of labor.

51 Egypt is also a notable example of this. See Howard-Merriam, Kathleen, “Guaranteed Seats for Political Representation of Women: The Egyptian Example,” Women and Politics 10 (1990): 1742. See also Tripp, Aili Mari and Kang, Alice, “The Global Impact of Quotas: On the Fast Track to Increased Female Legislative Representation,” Comparative Political Studies 41 (2008): 338–61.

52 Fischer-Tahir, “Competition, Cooperation and Resistance,” 1385.

53 Rasmussen offers Egypt as another example in which public pressure has hindered the government from taking steps against FGM on the grounds of religion and tradition. See “Innocence Lost,” 943, 960.

54 Mojab, “No ‘Safe Haven,’” 124.

55 Hamid, Surma, “The Moon Rises After Sunset,” in Fire, Snow and Honey: Voices from Kurdistan, ed. Lennox, Ginna (Rushcutters Bay, Australia: Halstead Press, 2001).

56 Mojab, “Gender, Nation and Diaspora,” 122.

57 Khalid Khayati, “From Victim Diaspora to Transnational Citizenship” (PhD diss., Linköping University, 2008).

58 Stansfield, Gareth, Iraqi Kurdistan: Political Development and Emergent Democracy (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 122–23.

59 Mojab, “Gender, Nation and Diaspora,” 124. See also Mojab and Gorman, “Dispersed Nationalism.”

60 Mojab, “The Politics of ‘Cyberfeminism.’”

61 Khabat, “al-Marʾa al-Kurdiyya fi al-Muʾtamar al-ʿAlami al-Rabiʿ li-Huquq al-Marʾa fi Bekin,” 5 November 1995, no page number.

63 Emanuelsson, Ann-Catrin, “Shall We Return, Stay or Circulate? Political Changes in Kurdistan and Transnational Dynamics in Kurdish Refugee Families in Sweden,” Journal of Migration and Refugee Issues 4 (2008): 148–49.

64 al-Ali, Nadje and Pratt, Nicola, What Kind of Liberation (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2009), 55120.

65 Natali, The Kurdish Quasi-State, 76–79.

66 Ibid., 77.

67 See, for example, Rahim, Runak Faraj and Shwan, Hana, Statistics on Violence Used against Women, trans. from Kurdish into English by Abdulkhadir, Tanea (Sulaymaniya: Women's Media and Education Center, 2004).

68 Nicholas Birch, “Ancient Practice Still a Threat to Iraqi Women,” Washington Times, 22 August 2005, A15.

69 WADI, Female Genital Mutilation.

70 Fischer-Tahir, “Competition, Cooperation and Resistance,” 1383.

71 Asuda, “Profile of Asuda,” 3 July 2006,

72 Ibid., 5.

73 KHRP, Charter for the Rights and Freedoms of Women in the Kurdish Regions and Diaspora (London, KHRP, 2004), 11.

74 Mojab, “Gender, Nation and Diaspora,” 126.

75 Tahir-Fischer, “Competition, Cooperation and Resistance,” 1390.

76 Azeez Mahmood, “Call to Strengthen Laws Protecting Women,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 22 April 2010,

77 Mir Zebari, Tahir Hasso, Dawr al-Marʾa al-Kurdiyya fi al-Musharaka al-Siyasiyya (Erbil: Dar Aras li-l-Tabiʿa wa-l-Nashr, 2006), 18.

78 Ibid., 65.

79 This is how she is described in Samira Kanun, “Akhbar wa-Nishatat Ittihad al-Nisaʾ al- Ashuri,” Zahrira News Network, (accessed 10 November 2009).

80 Dizayi, Shahbal Maʿruf, al-ʿUnf didd al-Marʾa: Dirasa Qanuniyya Muqarina fi al-Qanun al-Duwali al-ʿAmm wa-l-Qanun al-ʿAmm al-Dakhili (Erbil: Aras, 2007).

81 Nazand Begikhani, Aisha Gil, Gill Hague, and Kathwer Ibraheem, Final Report: Honour-Based Violence (HBV) and Honour-Based Killings in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the Kurdish Diaspora in the UK (Centre for Gender Violence Research, University of Bristol, Roehampton University, in partnership with Kurdish Women Rights’ Watch, London, November 2010), 18 (p. 13 in the Kurdish version).

82 Ibid., 19.

83 Ibid., 98.

84 Taysi, Tanyel B., Eliminating Violence against Women: Perspectives on Honor-Related Violence in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Sulaymaniya Governorate (Sulaymaniya: UNAMI and Asuda, 2009), 89.

85 Ibid., 9–10.

86 Taysi and Minwalla, “Structural Violence against Women,” 87–88.

87 Cyrille Cartier, “Iraqi Kurdish Women Voice Hopes for Constitution,” Women's eNews, 25 April 2006,

88 Fischer-Tahir, “Competition, Cooperation and Resistance,” 1391; Al-Ali and Pratt, “Between Nationalism,” 341.

89 WADI, “Female Genital Mutilation.”

90 Quoted on the KRG's official website [hereafter KRG], “Kalimat Raʾis Hukumat al-Iqlim fi al-Yawm al-ʿAlami li-Munahadat al-ʿUnf didd al-Marʾa,” 25 November 2010,

91 Ako Muhammed, “KRG Criticizes UNAMI Report,” The Kurdish Globe, 9 January 2010; Mohammed Salih, “UN Human-Rights Report Sparks Uproar in Kurdistan,” Inter Press Service, 8 May 2007.

92 Taysi, Eliminating Violence, 44.

93 Al-Ali and Pratt, What Kind of Liberation, 142–44.

94 Mojab and Gorman, “Dispersed Nationalism,” 74–75.

95 Joshua Kucera, “Political Changes Reduce Kurdistan Honor Killings,” Women's eNews, 7 July 2002,

96 Fawzi al-ʿAtroushi, “Hawla Qatl al-Nisaʾ wa-l-Ihtilal al-Idari fi Kurdistan al-ʿIraq,” KRG, 7 July 2007,

98 KRG, “Sultat Iqlim Kurdistan Tuhawilu Tahjim ʿAmaliyyat al-Qatl al-Murtabata bi-ma Yuʿraf bi-Ghasl al-ʿAr,” 4 July 2007,

99 Shivan al-Sheekh ʿAlo, “Jaraʾim Ghasl al-ʿAr fi Iqlim Kurdistan . . . wa-ma Dawr Hukumat al-Iqlim Ittijahiha,” KRG, 14 July 2007,

100 HRW, They Took Me and Told Me Nothing: Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan (New York: HRW, 2010), 40.

101 Begikhani et al., Final Report.

102 Al-Sabah al-Jadid, “al-Barlaman al-Kurdistani Yastadifu ʿAshra Wuzaraʾ li-Muhajat al-ʿUnf didd al-Marʾa,” 5 July 2007.

103 Interview with Zangana, in Begikhani et al., Final Report, 63.

104 See Qassim Khidir, “Prisoners in Kurdistan Given a Second Chance,” The Kurdish Globe, 21 June 2007.

105 Maʿd Fayyad, “Iftitah Awwal Markaz li-Muʿalajat Qadaya al-ʿUnf didd al-Nisaʾ fi Kurdistan al-ʿIraq,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, 10 January 2008.

106 HRW, They Took Me and Told Me Nothing, 68.

107 Salih Waladbagi, “Anti-Domestic Violence Law in Kurdistan,” The Kurdish Globe, 3 April 2012.

108 “KRG to Enforce Laws Protecting Women from Violence,” The Globe, 17 June 2008.

109 Waladbagi, “Anti-Domestic Violence Law in Kurdistan.”

110 The Kurdish Globe, “US Representative Highlights KRG's Efforts on Women's Rights,” 31 March 2012.

111 AFP, “Women's Rights Law no Match for Kurdistan Tradition,” 18 June 2012.

112 Taysi and Minwalla, “Structural Violence against Women,” 88.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
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