Freedom for women in Halabja
Music’s pumping, a techno mix. Sunbeams are coloured pink by the red curtains. Arms reaching up in the air, to the side, downwards. It’s work out-time at the women’s center in Halabja, a small town in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.
We drive through the town, the streets full of life. A man is balancing a pile of freshly baked circle shaped loves of bread, the kind that’s characteristic for the Kurdish regions of Iraq. Men are drinking tea, talking. A woman hurries by dragging a child by the hand. School girls, their hair covered in white cloth, run down the sidewalk, the high mountains as a back drop behind them. An ordinary day. It could have been any small town. It’s difficult to grasp the fact that many of the people in these streets were attacked in the genocide campaign launched by Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish people in the 80’s.
- People are depressed. Many, chiefly women, stay at home and struggle to move on with their lives. Society has also become more conservative. For example, nowadays it’s considered shameful for women to leave their house without covering their hair. We try to break this evil circle and get women to participate in public life, says Najat Salah Kareem, head of Amez Center in Halabja.
Poison from gas attacks
Through the years, the population of Halabja have been subjected to much violence. So when they heard the planes in March 16th 1988, they thought it was just another in a long row of attacks. But this one proved to be different. The bombs the planes dropped were filled with chemical substances and the effect was devastating. Thousands of people died and even more were wounded.
The scars are still there, in the form of health problems and traumas. People are litterary living on the remains of the attack – with their land, water and bodies filled with poison. Miscarriages are common, as are deformations, and the inhabitants still, in spite of numerous reminders, haven’t gotten any compensation for their sufferings. Najat was a child when the bombs fell. She made it, but her 7-year-old sister died.
On the way to Amez Center we pop into Najat Salah Kareem’s dad’s small shop, filled with bed covers, duvets and pillow cases.
- Dad is proud of my work. Sometimes I joke about leaving my job and every time he gets upset, says Najat Salah Kareem and laughs.
Education and meeting place
Amez Center is a place where women come to socialise and to participate in different classes. When the center first was opened, many didn’t appreciate it being there. It took a while to gain trust and to get the women and girls to come, but their endurance payed of. Xonce Abid, who’s in charge of the sewing classes at the center, says that an important part of them being accepted is that they are politically independent and don’t recieve any money from either side.
- To learn how to sew means a lot. Not having to ask their husbands for money to buy a dress, gives the women a sense of freedom. And many of the participants start their own businesses and become self sufficient, says Xonce Abid, who herself have won many awards for her sewing talents.
Apart from sewing classes the center also have classes in English and Computering. And of course the very popular work out sessions. The goal is to increase the possibilities for women and girls to participate in public life.
Afraid to change clothes
There’s music coming from the exercise room and arms and legs start moving to the beat. Najat Salah Kareem tells us that the first women that showed up for the workout were shy and too ashamed to change into training clothes. There were rumours in town that there were hidden cameras in the changing room, recording everything. Something that would be devastating, if not life threatening, in a culture were women’s honour is crucial to the family’s reputation.
- To stop the women from worrying, I changed clothes first of all and walked through the premises scarcely dressed, with a tail of young women behind me. I said: if there are any cameras here, I’m the first to be shamed!
The anxiety diminished and after a while so did the shyness.
Feeling of hope
The women we meet at Amez Center all give off a feeling of hope. And for Najat Salah Kareem it’s clear that their programs are making a difference for the women.
- They build self-esteem, she says.
Updated in: 2013-03-22