- International Conference on Kurdish Women for Peace and Equality, March 8, 2007, Erbil, Southern Kurdistan
The first International Conference on Kurdish Women for Peace and Equality, hosted by the Kurdish National Congress (KNC) in cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), took place on March 8, 2007, International Women's Day. Because of the heavy security at the entrance of the hall and the limited capacity of the auditorium, attendance was restricted to high officials in the KRG, the heads of certain NGOs, guests of the KNC, and dignitaries. I attended the conference as a doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, researching NGOs and women's movements in Iraq. What I got was a closed meeting representing only a fraction of Kurdish women's voices, towing the official line of the occupation and of the KRG. The conference was a celebration of the achievements of Kurdish women in sustaining the Kurdish nation with the help and support of the Americans and the KRG. This being the case, it was difficult to engage in meaningful debate about the complex issues facing Kurdish women under conditions of war and occupation.
Most of the papers presented were coming from the perspective of what Ellen Meiskins-Wood calls "Democracy as Ideology of Empire." This approach allows for war and imperialism to be justified by the principles of freedom, equality, and universal human dignity. Here, "democracy" is synonymous with "free market." According to this logic, as long as the "market" is open to multinational corporate investment in the "reconstruction" of Iraq, democracy is considered to have been restored. Within this approach, women's NGOs play an indispensable role and the [End Page 105] voices and interests of these NGOs dominated conference discussions. It is important to distinguish between professional women's NGOs and the wider Kurdish women's movement which includes many oppositional voices that were not represented in any capacity at the conference.
In reviewing the contribution of the conference to the women's movement of Kurdistan, it is essential to look at the title, "International Conference on Kurdish Women for Peace and Equality," and whether or not the conference proceedings addressed the title. The papers and discussions relating to "peace" remained focused on the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime and how the Kurdish nation fought against it. This nationalistic thrust running throughout the entire conference obscured the negative impact of the current war, occupation, and militarization of Iraq on Kurdish women, and more generally Iraqi women. The United States and Britain often hail the Kurdish region of Iraq as an example of democracy for the rest of Iraq and the Middle East to follow. It is presented as a separate entity, unaffected by the ongoing war and occupation of Iraq, where people enjoy security and freedom. This picture was presented throughout the conference by the organizers, the presenters, and most of those in attendance. The reality is that as a direct result of war, occupation, and the destruction of basic infrastructure, people in the Kurdish region of Iraq, much like those in the rest of Iraq, suffer from a lack of the basic necessities of life, e.g. a continuous supply of clean water, electricity, and gas. Despite this stark reality, the conference provided no space for an open, critical debate on the impact of war and occupation on women and the role of women in making peace an option.
The rather restrictive view of gender equality that saw women and men entrenched in specific, unchallenged gender roles was symptomatic of the limited range of debate at the conference. Minister of State for Women's Affairs Dr. Jinan Qasim noted that there has been an increase in the number of women in administrative positions within the government. Other papers discussing women's roles were "The Importance of Women's Role in the Kurdish Economy" (in Kurdish) by Ferda Cemilpasha and "Using Your Talent in the Marketplace" by Charmaine Jamieson, both of which discussed the essential and gender-specific role women play in opening up the Kurdish market to foreign investment and in "reconstruction." This market-determinist view of women's [End Page...