PROOF’s lens has turned to a new setting- Iraqi Kurdistan. With the help of a generous fund from Yale University, PROOF is recording the stories of rescuers- individuals who have risked their lives to save others. PROOF’s Executive Director, Leora Kahn, went from New York to Erbil to lay the groundwork of the project.
Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region in Northern Iraq. The Kurds are often called the world’s largest nationality without a state. There are 30-40 million Kurds total, scattered from Syria to northern Caucasus, 6 million of whom form a majority in Iraqi Kurdistan. The region’s framework today is partly an unintended consequence of Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurdish people, which also resulted in the killing of thousands of Kurds, and the forcible resettlement of others in northern Iraq. Kurds’ efforts to defend themselves from the Iraqi government served to bolster regional self-government. The Kurds won official autonomy in 1970, which was reconfirmed by Iraq’s 2005 constitution.
Iraqi Kurdistan has become a haven from the region’s conflicts. It is the home of a parliamentary democracy and a booming economy. The city of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, is remarkably secure by the region’s standards. New construction throughout the city attests to economic growth. Erbil is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and is considered to be a touristic hub. Still, there are sometimes brutal reminders of the city’s proximity to conflict. ISIS claimed an April 17th bombing that took the lives of 3 and injured 6 outside of Erbil’s American consulate.
The status of women’s rights in Iraqi Kurdistan mirrors the bitter irony of security in the region. Progressive dialogue and legislation contend with a legacy of social and cultural obstacles. Women sit on the government’s judicial bench, and in parliament, which reserves a quarter of the seats for women by law. For decades, women have served in the peshmerga, the Kurdish military. At the same time, John Leland and Namo Abdulla reported in the New York Times that from 1991 to 2007, more than 12,000 women died in honor killings in Kurdistan. Localized outreach efforts and governmental legislation have sought to curb widespread problems such as female genital mutilation and honor killings. A 2011 law criminalized female genital mutilation, and a 2008 law legislated that honor killings must be treated like any other murder.
Leora attended a conference in the city considering safety and resistance among women from the Middle East and North Africa region. The conference covered topics ranging from headscarves to laws threatening women’s rights, and featured a speech by Kurdistan’s governor. Representatives from national and international non-governmental organizations, women's groups, the United Nations and embassies attended the conference.
Some of the most fascinating moments of the conference were personal conversations with women from Yemen, Lebanon, and Baghdad. The women spent hours sitting in their hotel’s garden eating, chatting about kids, men, or clothes. They found that three in their number had raised a set of twins. As Leora continued to meet and talk with women, however, she learned that as many of the women went about their daily lives- raising children, living with their men, worrying about clothes- they encountered daunting threats and moral choices. A group of Kurdish Sunni and Iraqi Shiite women said they had helped 6 Iraqi soldiers escape from ISIS.
Leora said that many of the women wanted her to know stories from Kurdistan, from their city, and from the many refugee camps. Leora met a Sunni woman, who had lived on a date farm near the Iraqi border. When Shiite militia arrived in her city, and all of the men were forced to evacuate. A few months later, she received a call, warning her to take flight. She and ten female relatives packed a bag with a toothbrush and some clothes, and made it safely to a refugee camp.
In the coming months, PROOF’s friends in Kurdistan will work to record the stories of rescuers through photography and testimonials. Collected together, these stories will provide evidence of ordinary individuals’ extraordinary moral courage.