Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Culture Clash for Returning Kurdish Women

Many young women who have lived abroad find it hard to adjust to social strictures as well as economic difficulties when they come back to Iraqi Kurdistan.
By Aziz Mahmoud
After six years in Germany, Fenk Kamaran returned with her family to Sulaimaniyah last year. But she now finds herself fantasising about going back to a country she didn't much like.

"They called us 'black heads'," said Kamaran, 20, "and they blamed everything bad that happened on the 'black heads'. We returned to Kurdistan because we couldn’t get along with them. They don't behave like us, and even though we are Kurds, we couldn’t live as Kurds."

Yet recurring electricity cuts, the shortage of water and what she sees as the restricted freedom enjoyed by young women in northern Iraq are often too much for Kamaran to bear. She is now weighing whether to leave her family and return to Germany.

Kurdish families living in the West have begun returning to Sulaimaniyah, widely considered the safest city in Iraq, to resume their lives in their homeland.

The adjustment from Europe and North America is particularly difficult for Kurdish girls and young women, who have often been torn between the conservative values inside the home and the western way of life outside it.

Many have returned together with their families, who did not want them to stay abroad on their own, fearing they would adopt western values and abandon their traditional values.

Young women interviewed by IWPR said they were still caught between the two worlds. And as they get older, they are torn between remaining with their loved ones and seeking opportunities and freedoms that they do not believe exist in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Shnyar Jabar, 18, attends the Gasha ("shining") school, a private English-language institution for returnees in Sulaimaniyah. The school, which offers elementary to preparatory level education, opened last year and has about 300 students.

Jabar's father decided in 2003 that the family should return to Sulaimaniyah after living in the Netherlands for 10 years. She wants to study fashion design but like many girls at the school, feels that schooling in Iraqi Kurdistan is not on a par with education in the West.

"My living conditions were much better there, but because my father decided to return I had to agree with him," said Jabar. There was no question of her remaining behind in the Netherlands, as "they were worried about me getting into trouble".

Bakr Rashid, 45, a taxi driver in Sulaimaniyah, returned in 2004 after living for a decade in Sweden. As the father of two girls, he decided to come back because he did not believe that Sweden was good for them.

"Kurdistan is better for us, because in Europe the girls might deviate morally and culturally when they grow up," he said. "We returned so that we wouldn't lose my girls. We couldn't behave like the Swedes."

Binayee Abas' blonde hair and green eyes attract unwelcome attention whenever she enters Sulaimaniyah's market. The youngest of four children, she lived in the United States for 14 of her 17 years.

Her mother has hidden her short skirts and all the other clothes that are popular with teenage girls in California, where they lived. Although Sulaimaniyah is one of the most liberal cities in Iraq when it comes to the way women dress, Abas is frustrated that she can't wear what she likes or walk around the market alone.

She speaks with disdain about the stares and insults she gets, "I'm sick of people looking at me. If you wear something different, people look down on you, and you cannot block their gaze…. When I speak to my sister in English, they think it's weird."

Abas said she was an alien in the United States, but she also feels like a stranger here.

"I can't live in Kurdistan," she said. "After I complete my studies, I will return to the States. The American lifestyle is now part of me."

Bekhal Rauf, 47, had the reverse experience. She lived in Britain for three years but never really adjusted, and has returned to Sulaimaniyah to head the nursing department in the technological institute.

Rauf, who has been engaged for two years, said that although she cannot get married because of the rising cost of housing in Sulaimaniyah, and she suffers without electricity and water, she still prefers life here.

"Europe doesn't suit Kurdish women," she said. "European family values are quite different from ours, which is why I returned."

Fourteen-year-old Zaynab Muhammed, on the other hand, has already decided that when she finishes school she will head back to Turkey where she was born. Her mother is from Sulaimaniyah, and her family returned this year.

She said she was "less proud to be a Kurd in Turkey," but that she enjoyed her life and friends there.

"I wouldn't have returned to Kurdistan if my father hadn’t brought me back, because life here is uncomfortable," she said. "There is no oil, water or electricity. My parents are the ones tying me to Kurdistan."

Aziz Mahmoud is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

More IWPR's Global Voices