By: Johanna Rivera, she works at ICSSI and as a volunteer for People Development Association, which is one of Zhiyan Groups members.

A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult. Melinda Gates

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. For the past weeks, as women activists prepare for the 8th of March, I would like to make a contrast between last year’s 8th of March in Suleimaniya and what makes this year different.

For the last year, women activists have been working on the issue of honor killing. Honour killing means that a woman is killed to clean the family’s honor; this honor could have been stained if the woman was doing something that is disapproved by her family. That could include marrying a man not approved by her family, or not marrying one that is chosen for her, and even rape is seen as dishonor to the family. Honor killing has a long history in the Kurdish society, especially since 1991. At that time, there were no institutions, court or police. The law favored those who kill women for honor.

Nowadays, there are institutions, judiciary and police, yet they are not successful in protecting women. Moreover the same laws that are supposed to protect women still discriminate and stigmatize them. Despite the Kurdish Parliament high number of women representatives (36 of 111) and the Domestic Violence Law approved last June 21, 2011, which criminalizes domestic violence, Kurdistan is far from achieving justice for women who are victims of violence. The law has been approved but in reality is not enforced as it has proved difficult to implement these reforms in a society governed by tribal honor codes, where tribal leaders continue to be the most powerful and influential actors when resolving family conflicts.

Demonstration on 8th of March 2012, Suleimaniya, Iraqi-Kurdistan

Many things have changed in a year, although most of the time I am frustrated because I see no progress in the situation of women here in Iraq, there IS a difference. Last 8th of March we had a demonstration in front of the Suleimaniya court. We had banners demanding the end of women killing, the establishment of shelter and support services for women in the villages, and condemning violence against women. We were very few, maybe 25-30 people. We had more Assaish (Kurdish security) than demonstrators. Last year, the government had declared the 8th of March as the Kurdish national clothes day. News coverage showed women in their Kurdish traditional clothes, dancing to the traditional Kurdish music; women organizations were furious. How was it possible to use a day for advocacy for women’s rights to display women wearing traditional clothes?

At that time the women’s movement was divided, and despite there were other events, all were with scarce participation. Yet the murder of Mamosta Sakar Hamdamin was the drop that filled the glass. Sakar, a 28-year-old teacher from Rania, was killed by her father on February 4th 2012. Mobilization was necessary and immediate; “Not for Honor Killing under the Name of Tradition and Culture: Mamosta Sakar Campaign” started in mid-February and has since then transformed the women’s movement in Kurdistan. The campaign took Sakar’s murder case as a means to advocate for the prosecution of perpetrators of honor killing and to denounce the lack of implementation of Law No. 8: the Law Against Domestic Violence in Kurdistan. Moreover, the campaign is demanding government’s action to stop violence against women. Women activists criticize the lack of a true place of shelter for women victims of violence and the neglect in handling court cases of violence against women.

Activists and women rights advocates met with the Justice Minister, the High Committee of Women, wrote articles in the newspaper, appeared in TV programs. By the summer 2012, the campaign published a report documenting their efforts: “Not for honor killing in the name of tradition and culture” which included publishing the results of a survey about perceptions of violence against women.

November 25th-International Day to End Violence Against Women, Suleimaniya, Iraqi-Kurdistan

 On July 20th, a 15-year-old girl named Nigar Rahim from Kalar, was murdered by her brother. Nigar’s case was horrendous; one of her brothers raped her, she was pregnant, gave birth to a child, was living in a shelter, where she was under the protection of the government, while her brother’s case was in the court. Then, her family pledged not to hurt her if she was sent back home. The shelter made an agreement and the family signed the consent. A few weeks later, she was murdered by her other brother.

Members o Zhiyan Group visit the tomb of Nigar Rahim, killed by her brother,July 20th in Germian, Iraqi-Kurdistan

Nigar’s case outraged the women’s movement. They called for demonstrations in Germian, denouncing her murder and accountability from the government. By August 2012, Zhiyan group, a coalition of around 60 NGO’s was established to speak out against honor killing and to follow up these cases. This coalition is composed of women activists, and lawyers who took on both Sakar and Nigar cases. They have been present in the hearings, and actively followed up the cases. Zhiyan Group members are men and women who are taking a stand to speak out about this sensitive topic, much of a taboo in Kurdish society. The groundbreaking nature of Zhiyan Group is that it seeks long-term solutions and accountability from the government putting pressure to prosecute those who commit crimes against women.

The establishment of Zhiyan Group did not happen on a vacuum but is the response to the atrocities and crimes against women. It has been the product of long months of work of women organizations that have been able set differences apart and create a “women’s movement” on the basis of the zero tolerance for honor killing. Under Zhiyan, organizations have been able to mobilize, call for demonstrations, and attend cases hearings, creating a strong voice that has already been heard by government officials.

Demonstration in Germian, after Nigar Rahim’s murder

 All of this has been welcomed by a bittersweet taste to activists, that have been criticized by conservative sectors of the society, especially from the villages where these crimes are committed. It has also been challenging from the judicial perspective, as it is the first time that women NGO’s are engaging the legal system, and both judges and lawyers are under pressure by civil society.

 It has been incredible to see how much has happened in a year, how from a few we have become a lot. The work is not easy, speaking against honor killing is not seen as something approved by society and some of my colleagues have been threatened; yet that doesn’t discourage them to keep working for justice and the end of violence against. Now, I can’t wait for Friday.

Remember the dignity of your womanhood. Do not appeal, do not beg, do not grovel. Takecourage, join hands, stand beside us, fight with us. Christabel Pankhurst

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect ICSSI policy.