On women’s NGOs in Iraqi Kurdistan: military occupation, “imperialist democracy” and “colonial feminism”
This article by Shahrzad Mojab is taken from issue no. 16 of Eight March, the magazine of the Eight March Organisation of Iranian and Afghanistan Women. It is based on a speech she gave in Stockholm, Sweden, June 21, 2006 regarding her research into NGOs in some Middle Eastern countries and in particular Iraqi Kurdistan. We have translated only the second part of a two-part article. The explanations in parentheses are ours. Mojab is a researcher, author and activist on women’s issues. She is currently the director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute and an Associate Professor in the Department of Adult Education and Psychology at University of Toronto, Canada.
Before summing up my studies and research, I would like to point out the achievements of these NGOs. I think that those women who work in these NGOs are very courageous and fearless. They work in very difficult conditions and take very dangerous risks. So any small achievement is very important and I would not say that these organizations are completely useless. But despite their importance we should not avoid criticizing them, because we want them to advance, and also because we want the situation for women in the region and in particular in Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish Kurdistan to improve.
I want to talk particularly about the nature of these kinds of NGOs. I would say that they are active around civil services and the aid they provide is more of an individual character. In fact these NGOs are shouldering the kind of services that governments should be providing for their citizens.
But these all are the appearance of the issue; a more thorough examination will reveal greater complexity. At present most of these organizations work toward a specific stated goal. For example, they seek to fight violence against women. But this fight takes place in very limited forms and does not achieve the desired results. Because what they mean by this violence is limited to the most brutal forms carried out against women by the patriarchal, feudal and tribal system and in particular honour killings, and because the kind of solution they present to fight that violence, such as finding or building shelters for the women involved, and emphasising mainly that, actually contributes to directing this struggle away from its main targets.
These organisations carry out very short-term and limited projects in areas such as literacy. They make an effort to establish a kind of small and limited household economy (women working in their homes), such as handicrafts and sewing, in order to obtain some limited income for the women. They also conduct programs to aid refugees who have moved from other parts of Kurdistan, and to support Anfal widows (the estimated 6,000-7,000 women widowed during Saddam’s campaign against the Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s). Also they carry out short and limited educational courses--in the form of limited political training--with the aim of enabling women to manage a service-provider organization, and not with the aim of launching a social movement. However some NGOs have published papers on major women’s issues, reflecting women-related issues that are discussed in the official news and also interviewed authors, experts on women’s issues, poets and researchers.
In terms of organizational form, it can briefly be said that these organizations are controlled and run in the same way any classical administrative office is run or controlled. One person is responsible for the organization, another person is the secretary and others take the different jobs available to that organization. The boards of directors responsible for oversight consist of well-known personalities of the town or city, who usually belong to one of the two main Kurdish parties (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, KDP, which together run the U.S.-established government in Iraqi Kurdistan and play a fundamental role in the U.S.-backed alliance governing occupied Iraq). These connections facilitate access to more financial aid.
These NGOs claim and emphasize that they are politically independent. When I examined the relationships between them and the two parties more carefully, I noted that by independence they mean not relying organizationally or financially on any particular political party. But as was mentioned earlier, the influence of the various political parties through representatives on the executive boards of these NGOs, family ties between board members and important party members, and the special relations often established between such people, is what tends to give these NGOs access to the resources they need. Therefore it is necessary to consider more carefully what they mean by the term “independent.”
Another point I would like to raise is related to the dominant ideology in the U.S. and the importance the American government gives to these NGOs as a means for the promotion of this ideology. According to this ideology, the free market economy is equivalent to civil society and that is equivalent to democracy. According to a report from UNIFEM (the United Nations women’s organisation), there were 175,000 NGOs in the Arab world in 1995. After the occupation of Iraq in 2003, that number increased to 225,000. The report also points out that despite the varying political environment in different regions of the Arab world, and despite different political systems, NGOs in that region have not been able to play an influential and constructive role in determining the future of those countries or in their economic and political reconstruction. The existing NGOs in Iraqi Kurdistan are no exception to this general rule. We cannot claim that the women’s NGOs in Iraqi Kurdistan are able to play a fundamental role in the political environment there.
One of my conclusions is that these organizations lack a feminist consciousness. By feminism I mean science, knowledge, theory and social movement. The NGOs activities are more inclined to provide aid on the level of civil services to individuals, and they do not take as their political and economic target the patriarchal, feudal and tribal, nationalist and religious capitalist system of Iraqi Kurdistan. At best they are demanding a series of legal reforms and even that in limited forms. Regarding change and development in Iraqi Kurdistan, available documents show that since 1992 (when the U.S. effectively set up the PUK-KDP government there), the only legal reform carried out concerns honor killing. Even that very limited legal reform was due to increasing pressure from Kurdish women inside and outside the region, and also international pressure, in the face of honor killings committed outside the region. (For instance, the notorious case of a young Kurdish woman killed by her father and brother in Sweden.) These officially authorized reforms have not influenced the situation, since there is neither the executive power nor the political will to implement the law.
In other words, at best these organizations will promote the liberal feminism favoring a series of officially authorized reforms, and even these have been very limited so far.
The second problem concerning the NGOs is their organizational structure. If we examine them thoroughly, we see that these organizations are a mixture of classic charity organizations and classic administration offices with all the bureaucratic elements of governmental offices. So however they may deny it, this is the reality of their relations and hierarchy, their formation and management. All the NGOs, even the progressive ones in the Western world, share this same form of hierarchy to some extent… In fact, these NGOs have become the basis for an intellectual and professional section of Kurdish women to improve their social position and financial situation.
Another problem is the kind of programmes that these organizations put forward. In all cases the programs are short-term and are carried out project by project, and not part of a long-term all-around effort towards eliminating patriarchy. In fact, these programs tend to simply provide social services in the form of short-term projects. In feminist literature, it is said that the leaders of the women’s NGOs have become “femeaucrats” (like bureaucrat). The women who work in the framework of these bureaucratic relations and the organizations themselves do not have a feminist outlook, and as result lack any perspective of contributing to the fight against patriarchy and male domination.
At the same time the same phenomena that have emerged in other parts of the Middle East, from Palestine to Jordan, Turkey and Syria, can be seen here… For example, when it is asked “What are your goals?”, they answer “gender mainstreaming” or “women’s empowerment.” It is worth mentioning that there are thousands of “women’s empowerment” schemes all over the Middle East that include literacy promotion and small-scale economic projects like the production and selling of handicraft items. This setting up of workshops for the production of these goods for export is a particularly common example of what is meant by “women’s empowerment.” When I carefully examined this phenomenon in Iraqi Kurdistan, I found that many women are fed up with these workshops and refer to them as unworkable and useless.
I was in Iraqi Kurdistan at the time when the draft constitution was written (under U.S. supervision), and according to the NGO women, they complained that they were kept especially busy in certain workshops. When I asked why, they replied that the USAID (the American government agency responsible for non-military foreign “aid”) had handed 10,000 U.S. dollars in cash to some of these organizations to produce and distribute advertising in favor of the new constitution and get people to vote to approve it in the referendum. These women also complained that no one wanted to listen to what they had to say concerning results of the meetings to discuss the constitution and the referendum they held with people in the villages and various towns and cities. They were also unhappy that Islam had been made the basis of the constitution, and feared that as a consequence they could be robbed of their social involvement.
In short, the circumstances of the NGOs in today’s Iraqi Kurdistan are the same as are dominant in other regions of the world, including Asia, Africa and Latin America. All of them have been engaged in three processes:
1) The bureaucratization of the women’s movement.
2) The professionalization of the women’s movement, i.e. the provision of civil services for women by another section of women, who take up this activity as their profession, with the corresponding “professional” skills and methods.
3) The institutionalization of the women’s movement, i.e. turning the women’s movement into a private and petty institution instead of a social movement.
Sara Roy, who has worked on Palestinian questions, raises a point on NGOs that can be extended to Iraqi Kurdistan. She says that NGOs choose a social problem and then compete with each other over whose issue is most important. In effect, what they are trying to do is pour water on the particular social problem. That is why I say that NGOs have no established program to struggle against patriarchy. They take some of the social phenomena such as honor killings and the circumcision of women as their chosen acute social problem and then try to organize some projects on these issues to pour water on the fire of religious and feudal patriarchy. However, these fires will not die out so easily.
In order to go deeper into the discussion, I will refer to new research by Sabina Lang on NGOs in Germany. Lang says that the existence of numerous women’s organizations does not at all mean building a feminist platform, neither at the basic level in society nor at a national level. While the activities of these organisations may improve the life of individual women, they remain silent--and can only remain silent--about the violence of patriarchy as a whole. Thus the individual decisions of a small group of professionalized women replace a powerful women’s movement. These observations may be about Germany, but Lang says that this is an international phenomenon today.
Haifa Zangana, who has done some of the best research on NGOs in Iraq and in particular women’s NGOs, writes that as opposed to the male chauvinist violence of U.S. military attacks and the war in Iraq, which she calls hardware, the NGOs and in particular the women’s NGOs have been acting as social software. She says this software, which is also destroying the entire social structure of the society, can be considered another kind of violence against women. There has not been much discussion about this. But in my study of the impact of the war on women, I have concentrated on this aspect. I have not concentrated solely on the military aspect and how women have been the victims of militarism and the war, but more on the consequences of the war and violence, which have more impact on women…
The last point I want to raise is that in the last three decades, U.S. imperialism, in order to counter revolution in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the former Soviet bloc countries, has resorted to NGOs in an attempt to replace social movements--such as those of student, women, workers, peasants and youth--by developing and extending these NGOs, not only to control these movements but even to prevent them from taking shape in the first place. In fact when the top officials of the Bush regime and the imperialist financial and banking institutions and United Nations emphasize civil society, by which they mean a collection of NGOs, they have two aims: On the one hand to crush social movements which have an anti-imperialist and anti-reactionary character, and on the other to establish a social and political base for advancing their ideological goals in these societies. This last point is very important.
How does this happen? I can give an example of how this is happening in Kurdistan. After the overthrow of Saddam, the Bush regime invited Iraqi women, including Arab and Kurdish women, to the U.S. for “Democracy Training.” One of the institutions that provide “Democracy Training” is the American Enterprise Institute, an extremely conservative, anti-woman, anti-feminist and racist organization (in fact, the Bush neo-cons' current main think tank). The U.S. State Department allocated $10 million for controlling the women’s movement in Iraq. This money was given to the Independent Women’s Forum, an organization that like the American Enterprise Institute is extremely anti-woman and anti-feminist. This organization opposes the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women--CEDAW, the most important UN document on discrimination against women. If we have a look at this organization’s Web site, we see their 10-point answer to the question of why they consider the Convention “an enemy of women.” For example, they claim that this Convention intends to spread “socialist ideas.” The Independent Women’s Forum is an anti-abortion Christian fundamentalist group in the U.S. One of its leaders is Lynne Cheney, the wife of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. And this is the kind of organization that is training Kurdish and Arab women in Iraq in democracy.
In criticising the NGOs and U.S. imperialist programs, I do not mean to say that every single NGO or every NGO activist is dependent on that imperialist power. There is no doubt that NGOs can turn into a battleground of struggle between social movements, oppressed classes and sections of the people on the one side and regional states and the imperialist powers on the other. Some of them have already turned into such battlegrounds. We have seen, for example in India, NGOs that fight for the rights of 40 million Indian widows. And we see that there are organizations that have won important achievements. But what is important in Kurdistan is how Kurdish nationalism will react to these imperialist programs and to what extent these nationalists will rely on them. It is also important to note that at present many Kurdish nationalists are happy about and satisfied with the U.S.’s attention to them.
In such a situation, the new section of women intellectuals and women professionals can turn into a social base for U.S. imperialist domination, i.e. a force that works as an indirect instrument of the conservative, anti-feminist and anti-woman U.S. in the current situation in Kurdistan, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. For this reason we should not underestimate these projects and take them lightly. Kurdish women who have been trained in “democracy” by the enemies of democracy, i.e. the U.S. conservatives, have been appointed to high posts in the Iraqi national and Kurdistan governments and have taken the path of the modernization of patriarchy and the male chauvinist system. We must dare to raise these points. I emphasize again that my criticism of NGOs doesn’t mean that they all are taking this path consciously. If we don’t criticise they will not notice what path they have taken and that is my aim.