Currently dispatching from Iraqi Kurdistan

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Lone Woman

I've been out of the house most of this trip, which was a sharply different experience from the 10 months I lived here. At that time, I was an editor, stuck in the office that was also my home.

The one thing I've noticed about being at government offices or out on the street is that, at least after dark, I'm the lone woman. The sun sets at about 4.30 or 5pm these days, and I was often reporting until that time. The other day I walked through the bazaar with my friend/translator after finishing up some interviews. The normally traffic-clogged streets were dead, except for a few men with carts selling boiled turnips and men in barber shops. They open at night because that's when the government gives a few hours of power.

The Kurds pride themselves on their female Peshmarga fighters, but in reality, Kurdish women don't hold a lot of power in the public sphere. The Kurdish government appointed a 33-member cabinet (that would be for a population of 4 million) with just three women, two of whom are ministers of state (general ministers.) The power structure may be different in the home, but that of course depends on the family.

I am often the only woman I see out at night, except at the more expensive restaurants. There isn't a lot to do here, so women's patterns are usually home-work-visit family. The secular men drink, a lot, at bad bars. Being out at night as a woman feels like being in another world, but I actually have a pass as a foreigner -- no one much cares what I do and there's no honor to defend. During the day, there are also all-male spots: at the teahouses, or one of Sulaimaniyah's lunch spots. Women often work in civil service jobs that end at 2pm.

It would be easy to blame this all on the men, but women don't always push to be in public spaces. For example, I offered to take two of M's sisters to a coffee at a new cafe that opened up in the popular Zagros supermarket, but this was an entirely foreign -- apparently too foreign -- concept. We went back and forth on it for a while, until they insisted on meeting in a house. We finally ended up at an office and had a brief, and somewhat uncomfortable, chat, which was entirely different from our time in Halabja.

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