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Haunted by online sexual harassment, Iraqi-Kurdish women fight back

With the government repeatedly failing to curb cyberbullying, women from different professions and backgrounds are holding perpetrators accountable one lawsuit at a time
Iraqi-Kurdish women attend a music concert at the Erbil citadel on 10 March 2018, in Erbil (AFP)
By in
Sulaymaniya, Iraq

Faced with a rise in online sexual harassment and the government's failure to act, Iraqi-Kurdish women are increasingly filing lawsuits against perpetrators, but their road to justice is long and teemed with challenges.

Decades of devastating wars and internal conflicts, a male-dominated culture, conservative social and religious environments and government inaction have left women unprotected against defamation and online sexual harassment across Iraq.

'I have been cyberbullied or threatened because I refused to be some kind of doll owned by him'

- Dashni Morad, artist and activist

With the government repeatedly failing to curb cyberbullying, women from different professions and backgrounds have decided to hold perpetrators accountable by seeking justice, one lawsuit at a time.

Dashni Morad, a Kurdish artist and humanitarian activist who is also known as the "Shakira of Kurdistan", has suffered from depression for years due to cyberbullying and harassment from her former employer. But she now vows to fight like a “fearless warrior” against the mentality of those who sit behind keyboards to harass her and her female compatriots.

“I am sad and depressed for years! I never got justice for what they did to me 2013 - 2017. This picture is one my former sponsor stole from the photographer when the wind blew my skirt up," Morad tweeted late last month after a picture of her resurfaced on social media. "This time I want justice even if it means the end of me.”

“That specific picture was [leaked] in 2015 by my former boss, who now has a humanitarian non-governmental organisation and claims to seek freedom, justice and equality,” Morad told Middle East Eye.

“I have been cyberbullied or threatened because I refused to be some kind of doll owned by him.”

Morad described online sexual harassment as a major issue in Iraq that has yet to be dealt with despite its prevalence.

“It stems from our culture, religion, male-dominated society, and a region that has been facing war and trauma for over a decade.”

Morad is in talks with her lawyer in order to know her rights and file a lawsuit against those behind the cyberbullying she has undergone.

She urged other women who are targets of online sexual harassment as well as other acts of extortion, to seek justice according to the law.

Lawsuits

In Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the speaker of parliament is a woman, as parliament and other government institution have a 25 percent quota for women. Yet traditional norms have still prevailed as women are often seen as weak and dependent on males.

Under the pressure of women's rights groups, the region’s parliament in 2008 passed a decree on misusing electronic devices, through which defamation and threats are punishable with one month to five years of imprisonment, in addition to financial penalties.

However, online sexual harassment, defamation, and threats have been on the rise in recent years, as the region’s judiciary system lags behind in dealing with thousands of legal cases.     

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Shadi Nawzad, a former female lawmaker with the New Generation Movement (NGM) bloc in the Kurdistan Parliament, accused party leader Shaswar Abdulwahid and some of his aids in April 2019 of attempting to blackmail her by circulating doctored ”explicit videos” recorded without her consent in a bugged apartment.

Abdulwahid, who first emerged as a real estate businessman, gained political fame when he and others rallied for the “Not for Now” campaign against a failed Kurdish referendum for independence from Iraq in 2017.

He later founded NGM, winning eight seats in the general elections that were held in September 2018. 

After the blackmailing incident, Nawzad and three fellow MPs left the NGM parliamentary bloc and raised legal complaints against Abdulwahid, who was eventually arrested but later freed on bail.           

“My legal case against Abdulwahid has been stuck in the Erbil court of cassation for almost six months; sorting out the legal cases takes so much time that you nearly forget about it,” Nawzad, who is now an independent lawmaker, told MEE.

Citing 2019 data by the Kurdistan Region Government's (KRG) directorate of combating violence against women, she said the number of lawsuits filed by Kurdish women has increased fourfold.

“This is a positive gesture that indicates more women trust KRG’s judiciary to bring perpetrators to justice.” 

She cautioned, however, that if in the next few years these legal cases could not be sorted by the region’s courts, women would feel reluctant to raise new legal cases and might return to an old alternative - seeking “tribal peacemaking” with the perpetrators.

Justice system

On 1 April, several men, including a policeman and another man believed to be a member of the Popular Mobilisation Units, gang-raped a 40-year-old disabled Kurdish woman near the town of Altun Kupri in Kirkuk province.

The assailants filmed the crime and posted the video on Facebook. The violent act shocked Iraqi society.

Iraq still lacks legislation to combat domestic violence, yet the parliament of the Kurdistan region passed such a law in 2011.

On 19 April, Malak Haider al-Zubaidi, a 20-year-old Iraqi woman, died of severe burn wounds days after hospitalisation in the southern city of Najaf.  Her husband, a police officer, had allegedly set her on fire.

The incident made Human Rights Watch call on Iraqi lawmakers to pass a law against domestic violence.

Najaf
Iraqi women chant as they take part in an anti-government protest in the central city of Najaf, on 19 February 2020 (AFP)

Shokhan Hama Rashid, an advising lawyer and manager of the Women's Legal Assistance Organisation, told Middle East Eye that the majority of online sexual harassment victims are women.

“The reasons behind the rise of this phenomenon are the lack of censorship on social media, the lack of a good law in the Kurdistan region to punish those who commit such crimes,” Hama Rashid said.

“Another factor is that most women fear being looked at differently [being defamed] by society, thus they remain reluctant in filing legal cases after they’ve been cyberbullied and keep silent on intimidations against them.”

'When women do things or say things that are not consistent with some mentalities, they face all kinds of violence and intimidation'

- Pakhshan Zangana, activist

Additionally, Hama Rashid noted that while many legal cases have been filed, a large number of criminals have not been arrested because they hide their identities by using pseudonyms on their social media accounts.

The region’s courts lack the technological expertise to identify and find the people behind the social media pages or accounts used to launch the harassments, according to the lawyer.

“Dealing with the issue requires better implementation of the related laws, raising more legal awareness for women to not fear filing lawsuits, and to learn how to collect proof to support their cases,” she said.

Middle East Eye contacted the KRG’s general directorate of combating violence against women, but it was not immediately available to speak on the issue.

“In traditional societies, including Kurdish society, being a woman is considered a weakness. When women do things or say things that are not consistent with some mentalities, they face all kinds of violence and intimidation,” Pakhshan Zangana, an activist and former chairwoman of the High Council for Women’s Affairs in the KRG, told MEE in a phone interview.

Zangana said the implementation of a national strategy to protect women should come hand in hand with bolstering sectors like education and culture, reducing unemployment, and boosting the role of women’s rights groups - “especially when we see lockdown measures due to the coronavirus pandemic have led to increased violence against women and children,” she said.

However, as the Kurdistan region faces a financial crisis, high unemployment, and internal political conflicts, it might be a long time before Kurds see the government tackling violence against women and guaranteeing that social media will no longer be a dangerous space for them.