Jerusalem Online, 2016
On 22nd June 2016, Dr. Widad Akreyi gave an exclusive interview to Jerusalem Online’s Ms. Rachel Avraham (RA) about the plight of the Kurdish nation in general and Kurdish women in particular within Iranian Kurdistan, a region that the Kurds call Rojhelat.
The major topics of discussion consisted of:
1. The plight of Kurdish women in Iran
2. The plight of Kurdish political prisoners
3. The Iranian regime’s efforts to erase the Kurdish identity and culture
4. Human rights violations against the Kurdish community
5. Kurds’ response to the increased pressure
6. How many Kurds support the creation of an independent Kurdistan? and
7. How can Israel and the West help?
The interview was conducted in English and can be viewed here.
RA: Please describe the plight of Kurdish women in Iran. How bad is it?
Widad: Good afternoon Ms. Avraham, and thank you for this opportunity. I am pleased to send cordial greetings to all the people of Israel.
The plight of Kurdish women in Rojhelat (Kurdistan’s Eastern part, which is occupied by Iran) involves chronic societal and political problems. Women and children suffer daily from discrimination, gender inequality, economic inequality, police abuse, domestic violence, lack of political voice and healthcare and other barriers that influence their lives. They face these challenges because of their ethnicity, outgoing nature and their cultural heritage and identity.
To give an idea of how bad it is, if a Kurdish woman believes in women’s rights, or has secular views or is passionate about the essence of her Kurdish identity, she will most likely be convicted of being a mohareb, i.e. an “enemy of God” and risk spending her life in prison or sentenced to death. Shirin Alam Hoolo and Zeynab Jalaliyan are only two examples of many others who confronted death penalty for daring to think freely.
Accordingly, the promotion of gender equality in Rojhelat is problematic because the protection of women’s rights in most cases comes into conflict with the outdated Islamic traditions and laws applied by the central government in Tehran. As women in the Islamic, Iranian society Kurdish women are obliged by Sharia to be inferior to men – an obligation in a stark contrast to their Kurdish culture, which has survived against all odds.
Times and times again we have heard Iranian officials saying that men and women are treated equally in the Iranian society, but facts on the ground seem to speak of another reality. For example, Sharia gives men the right to marry up to four permanent wives and to have an unlimited number of temporary wives in Mut’a marriages. Thus, various forms of inequalities are prevalent and poisoning the society. In many ways, the regime shares the same core religious beliefs as ISIS.
Here is another example of how bad it has gotten. Although women play a major role in the economic and social development, their impacts remain invisible and overshadowed by a visible political agenda shaped by the government’s lawmakers. For instance, the Iranian Parliament has passed a new draft law, which aims to treat domestic violence as a private matter, restrict women’s divorce and reproductive rights and disadvantage childless women in the labor market. This is a discriminatory bill against females, and it is not supposed to exist in the 21st century. It underlines that women in the Iranian society are not seen as human beings with equal value, free will and inherent human rights. Such discriminatory practices can never be justified because they further reinforce the marginalization of women through the masculinization of rules.
We might be witnessing the starting point of an alarming cycle, characterized by all sorts of harmful policies that are based on an even more pronounced concentration of an ultra-religious culture in laws that could lead to the disintegration of society. That the Iranian authorities are encouraging, fostering and facilitating this culture is totally unacceptable.
Keeping in mind that affordable modern contraception is no longer available in Iran, it is likely that the number of unplanned pregnancies would rise, putting more women at risk of going through unsafe abortions. In a country that plans to double its population, the daily pressures on women are expected to increase, especially on those who have progressive views and value the supremacy of individual rights.
RA: Please describe the present plight of Kurdish political prisoners. How does the Iranian regime treat them in comparison to other political prisoners?
W: The number of Kurdish political activists affected by violations of human rights in Iran are enormous. There are severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Prisoners of conscience continue to live behind bars and serve prison sentences for peacefully exercising their legitimate right to express their opinions. In comparison to other political prisoners, Kurdish prisoners are serving unreasonably long sentences designed to keep them in prison for as long as possible. The Iranian criminal justice system discriminates systematically against Kurdish victims and critics of the regime. Capital punishment is the regime’s answer to Kurdish activists’ calls for change. Unfortunately this has become the norm.
The challenges involved in defending and supporting the victims are also enormous. There are risks associated with campaigning for the release of detainees. To name only a few, Rojhelatian human rights organizations are often unable to mobilize due to intimidation, imprisonment, torture or executions. The safety of their families is at stake too.
We at Defend International have launched the campaign “Towards Abolition of Death Sentence and Enhanced Protection of Human Rights in Iran” to call on the authorities to review hanging and the human rights situation in light of International Human Rights Law. The campaign have several objectives, including raising awareness about the harassment, imprisonment and persecution of political opponents, defenders of human rights and other civil society activities.
We have observed the effects of inequality, repression, torture and public hangings under President Rouhani’s- and Ahmadinejad’s leaderships. And therefore, we have called on all UN Member States, irrespective of whether they consider executions to be lawful or not, to urge the Iranian authorities to adopt a complete ban on public hangings, stoning and all forms of violence against citizens.
RA: Please describe how the Iranian regime systematically discriminates against the Kurds, trying to erase their identity and culture.
W: The main goal of the Kurdish movement, not only in Rojhelat, but in all parts of Kurdistan, has been to protect their culture and identity. The Iranian authorities discriminate systematically against the Kurds in the exercise of their cultural, civil, economic and social rights. For example, Kurds are not allowed to use their own language in education or broadcasts. It is extremely challenging, if not almost impossible, for a Kurd to have a fulfilling career in most fields or to be treated fairly and paid a fair wage. During peaceful demonstrations, the police and security forces are particularly targeting those wearing traditional Kurdish clothing, using unnecessary or excessive force, which is troubling.
Under the Iranian Civil Law, the age of criminal responsibility for girls is nine. This means that a Kurdish girl as young as 9-years-old can be whipped or detained for not wearing the hijab. It is forbidden for Kurdish women to wear their own Kurdish clothes or European-style dresses. The level of debate in the country is so low that we heard Iranian clerics saying that women’s clothing is causing rivers to run dry, encouraging the morality police to crack down on women who fail to follow the Islamic dress code. To say that women’s choice of dress was adversely impacting the environment is not only ignorant, but can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of those women. These statements are incredibly misleading and constitute an insult to the intelligence of the citizens.
When the Kurds demand respect for their cultural and social rights they are called the “enemies of Allah.” As mentioned earlier, the security forces are specifically repressing those who are aware of their Kurdish identity. Civil society activities who are brave enough to demand their civil and linguistic rights become victims of the illegitimate use of the unjust “justice” system.
The worst part is that Kurd’s dreams for a better future have been shattered, their hopes are barely shining, and many are left with simple yet hard questions to answer: Why should we live inside the borders of a country that controls what we wear, where we work, what to eat, when to eat (during Ramadan), which language we speak, how long we live, when we will be executed, and how many children to have?
RA: Please describe some of the systematic human rights violations that the Iranian regime commits against the Kurdish community.
W: The violations range from arbitrary detention and amputations to extortion of confessions by torture and the illegal gathering of so-called “evidence” using threats or unlawful acts.
We are greatly worried about the reports that are coming out of Iran, indicating that there is no moderation during Rouhani’s Presidency. On the contrary. Flogging and executions are widespread, and there is a significant rise in the number of acid attacks and the use of indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment of journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and other civil society actors. Police and security forces are creative in finding excuses to arrest or punish Kurds. The excuses may vary from having another religion than Islam to publicly breaking fast during Ramadan. If accused of the latter, the person may be looking at a death sentence on charges of insulting Islamic sanctities. Civil society- and human rights activists have little trust in the judicial system, with its courts and penal institutions being routinely accused of political bias, political influence, incompetence, misconduct, corruption and bribery.
Another problem is limited or no access to medical care in prisons. Our local partners note instances where prisoners are denied admission to hospitals or deprived of necessary medication therapy as a means of punishment or for the convenience of the staff. A focus on medical care is important in light of the fact that the prevalence of serious and life-threatening diseases among prisoners is much higher than among the general population. Most prisons are dangerously overcrowded, poorly ventilated and unhygienic, which compromise the health and safety of prisoners. Under these poor conditions, many Kurds may end up contracting chronic, contagious diseases while behind the bars.
RA: How has the Kurdish community in Iran been responding to the increased pressure Iran is placing on Iranian Kurdistan?
W: Please allow me here to clarify that we do not call it Iranian Kurdistan. It is Rojhelat, which means Eastern Kurdistan. And Bashor is Southern Kurdistan, which is the Kurdistan Region in today’s Iraq. Rojava is Western Kurdistan, the Kurdish region in today’s Syria, and Bakur is Northern Kurdistan, the Kurdish region in today’s Turkey. The Kurds have a vision for tomorrow, and the future may be quite different from the borders we see today.
Certainly, where violations of human rights take place, tensions and opposition surface and sometimes run high, notably when tragic events take place. When the self-declared, semi-autonomous Republic of Mahabad collapsed in Rojhelat in 1947, many Kurds sought refuge in the Mountains to reorganize and restructure their movements.
By and large, the Kurdish Rojhelatian communities have been at the forefront in protesting against injustice and discrimination. They have responded to historical occupation and oppression with public protests and strikes, as well as by establishing their own social and cultural movements and joining Kurdish political parties. Despite the problems they encounter each day, they manage to keep their spirit strong. They have committed themselves to making their lives and families better by making their communities fairer, safer, healthier and more inclusive places to live, work and invest.
In all parts of Kurdistan, the Kurds are literally fighting for their right to exist as a nation with a distinct culture, language, history and geography. Today, both men and women are fighting on different fronts against tyranny, extremism and occupation.
It is time for the international community to work for the creation of an independent Kurdistan as they did once for the Jews after the Holocaust. The current war against ISIS, which is perceived by many as World War Three, can be compared to World War Two. After horrible wars, great changes can be brought about for those who have suffered extreme injustice.” ~ Dr. Widad Akreyi
RA: How do most Iranian Kurds view the regime? Do they want an independent Kurdistan and to join as part of one country with other areas in Kurdistan or do they want autonomy under a free democratic Iran?
W: Undoubtedly, the vast majority of Kurds wants an independent Kurdistan. Some statistics indicate that if a referendum was to take place in the last 6 months in Bashor almost 98% of Kurds would have chosen to live in a free and independent Kurdistan. It unlikely that Rojhelat would be much different from Bashor. The citizens have had it with the hardships, fear and traumas they have endured for so many decades.
However, it is true that the Kurdish political parties may appear to be divided between those who support an independent Kurdistan and those who support having an autonomy under democratic central governments. When it comes to those who claim that they want autonomy, their statements should be considered in the context of the current political landscape. Deep down, almost all Kurdish parties have been fighting for an independent Kurdistan. They may, for the time being, put emphasis on political correctness, but if the circumstances change they would be among the loudest voices calling for what their members wish for the future generations.
RA: What steps can Israel and the West take to help Iranian Kurds in their struggle against the regime?
W: Israel as a country can use its well-respected voice in national, regional and international arenas to advance positive change in the lives of Kurds in Rojhelat and other parts of Kurdistan. Israel and the West can support the Kurds politically, technologically and otherwise. The Jewish communities around the world, and in particular their lobby networks, can play a key and pivotal role in putting the Kurdish question on the agenda of the Western countries, to ultimately demand recognition of the catastrophic and devastating impacts the Sykes-Picot agreement had on Kurds, and the series of genocides that followed it. Being a Kurd means living with the painful memories of previous genocides and feeling that pain as an endless inner suppression.
We would be grateful if Israel and the West committed themselves more broadly to the emergence of a free Kurdish State that encompasses Bashor, Rojava, Bakur and Rojhelat. It is time for the international community to work for the creation of an independent Kurdistan as they did once for the Jews after the Holocaust. The current war against ISIS, which is perceived by many as World War Three, can be compared to World War Two. After horrible wars, great changes can be brought about for those who have suffered extreme injustice.