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Kurdish Woman’s Fight against Cancer Goes beyond Own Ordeal

By Judit Neurink 25/10/2013
“I use my own case to get attention for the fact that cancer still is a taboo, and it is increasing in Kurdistan,” says Goli Abdurahman, who lost a breast to cancer in 2007, and through her Pena Center supports cancer patients in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Judit Neurink
“I use my own case to get attention for the fact that cancer still is a taboo, and it is increasing in Kurdistan,” says Goli Abdurahman, who lost a breast to cancer in 2007, and through her Pena Center supports cancer patients in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo by Judit Neurink


ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – “’Is your husband still with you?’ Kurdish women ask me,” says Goli Abdurahman. “They know that many men take a second wife when their spouse gets breast cancer. My husband understands and supports me. I am lucky.”

Since being chosen as the Amsterdam citizen of the year in 2011 for her work on educating migrant women in the Netherlands about breast cancer, Abdurahman is now doing the same in her native Kurdistan.

“I use my own case to get attention for the fact that cancer still is a taboo, and it is increasing in Kurdistan,” says Abdurahman, who lost a breast to cancer in 2007, and through her Pena Center supports cancer patients in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Her center offers information and support, organizing meetings across the Kurdistan Region and handing out brochures in Kurdish about cancer and its treatment for young and old. It receives some financing by the Erbil government, but mainly depends on volunteers.

“As I am a victim of cancer Kurdish people find me pitiful. They see a cancer patient as someone who will die and who is not equal to others,” she smiles, sporting a pink ribbon pinned to her blouse as a symbol of her cause.

The culture of shame in Kurdistan leads to people not talking about the illness. Mothers with daughters who get cancer worry about their prospects for marriage if their illness becomes known, says Abdurahman, 46.

This leads to denial. Very often cancer is only discovered in a late phase when treatment is no longer effective. In this way it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Cancer is a taboo because it kills, and therefore people hide it so long that curing it becomes impossible.

Abdurahman is herself an example of successful treatment after early diagnosis.  Although she is doing well, she is planning to have her other breast removed as well, as a preventive measure. Her doctors in the Netherlands told her there is a 60 percent chance the cancer will come back. “I am not lucky with my health, so it’s better not to take chances.”

These preventive therapies are almost unknown in Kurdistan. The DNA-test, needed to find out if a person is genetically prone to cancer, is not available. Nor is the scan that shows if the cancer has spread. The waiting list for a bone scan to check on cancer cells is long. For bigger tumors operations are not possible. The right medicines are often not available.

“This is the big problem in Iraqi Kurdistan. Cancer is increasing, but there is no good treatment,” says Abdurahman.

Many people go for treatment abroad, but this again leads to hardship. “I know of a husband who wanted to sell his house to get his wife treated in Turkey. But she was postponing treatment because she wanted her daughter to get married first. Now, if he sells the house, no treatment can save her anymore. He will lose the house and his wife.”

Ignorance about cancer is widespread. Many people do not realize that it is a deadly disease if not treated early. People even go to the imam for honey and herbs to treat it, Abdurahman fumes. “There is so little I can do, I feel so powerless.”

She has heard many complaints about bad treatment of cancer patients at the hospitals, which she thinks is another consequence of the way cancer patients are regarded. “Yet, nobody wants to complain for fear of revenge. They are afraid of the power of the medical staff.”

There are no real statistics about the increase of cancer in Kurdistan. Because official figures are unavailable, Abdurahman asked doctors for figures and got some. But the numbers do not give a clear picture. The little research available shows an increase, showing women over 50 as the highest patient group.

As the problem is not acknowledged, neither is the need for breast prostheses, which are not available in Kurdistan. Abdurahman is the first to bring them in.  From her home, she supplies patients with prostheses that she brings from abroad, a gift from a cancer foundation in Holland. Kurdish hospitals send patients to her. “We need a specialist shop here, because many people now can afford to buy them,” she says.

She would like to work in a more professional manner, for instance as a social worker to help patients and their families. But her Dutch nursing certificates have been refused by the Kurdish commission which registers foreign diplomas. “People like me are seen as a threat,” Abdurahman thinks.

 “Everybody looks at his own interest first,” she laments. “For me, other peoples’ interests have always been my first concern.”


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KurdBijiKurd | 25/10/2013
This uncompassionate and ruthless behaviour of finding another woman when the wife is sick comes from quran, a man can get up to 4 of them, it sounds like buying 4 goats but it is the reality of Islamic culture, Surah al-Nisa, Ayat 3 says وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تُقْسِطُوا فِي الْيَتَامَى فَانْكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُمْ مِنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَى وَثُلاثَ وَرُبَاعَ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَلَّا تَعُولُوا. "Translation: If you fear not justly with the orphans ... then marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four, you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly or proprietary lowest not count"
Civilian | 25/10/2013
KurdBijiKurd Why are you magnifying a verse of Quran and hide the completion of it? In Quran it also says "فإن خفتم ألا تعدلوا فواحدة أو ما ملكت أيمانكم ذلك أدنى ألا تعولوا ( 3 ) ) "but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice." Don't ever try to hide the truth. It's yet better to marry 4 women than having sex with 4 women out of marriage. It's even better to marry more than one women as Women's population is 2 times bigger than men because of all war and other reasons.
KurdBijiKurd | 26/10/2013
Civilian, one of the Islamic sharia laws is telling lies to promote islam is halal, that is called "Taghia". As a typical stubborn muslim you can not accept the truth, you only believe in false explanations written by idiots, if you understand Arabic just read Surat alnisa Ayat 3 and try to understand the textual translation what says. quran considers women as objects and not human beings, get 4 of them, what are they? sheeps? Donkeys? is this you call religion? Islam considers women inferior to men, it is all over quran, don't fight with me, just go and read them, Qur'an (4:11) - (Inheritance) "The male shall have the equal of the portion of two females" (see also verse 4:176). In Islam, sexism is mathematically established. Qur'an (2:282) - (Court testimony) "And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not found then a man and two women." Muslim apologists offer creative explanations to explain why Allah felt that a man's testimony in court should be valued twice as highly as a woman's, but studies consistently show that women are actually less likely to tell lies than men, meaning that they would make more reliable witnesses. Qur'an (2:228) - "and the men are a degree above them [women]" Qur'an (5:6) - "And if ye are unclean, purify yourselves. And if ye are sick or on a journey, or one of you cometh from the closet, or ye have had contact with women, and ye find not water, then go to clean, high ground and rub your faces and your hands with some of it" Men are to rub dirt on their hands if there is no water to purify them following casual contact with a woman (such as shaking hands). Qur'an (24:31) - Women are to lower their gaze around men, so they do not look them in the eye. (To be fair, men are told to do the same thing in the prior verse). Qur'an (2:223) - "Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will..." A man has dominion over his wives' bodies as he does his land. This verse is overtly sexual. There is some dispute as to whether it is referring to the practice of anal intercourse, which it has been used historically to justify. If this is what Muhammad meant, however, then it would appear to contradict what he said in Muslim (8:3365). Qur'an (4:3) - (Wife-to-husband ratio) "Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four" Inequality by numbers. Qur'an (53:27) - "Those who believe not in the Hereafter, name the angels with female names." Angels are sublime beings, and would therefore be male. Qur'an (4:24) and Qur'an (33:50) - A man is permitted to take women as sex slaves outside of marriage. Note that the verse distinguishes wives from captives (those whom they right hand possesses).
Atheist | 26/10/2013
Dear Goli you are my hero! I wish you complete recovery from this disease. Keep fighting it! And what a wonderful example you are to millions of women!! Your brother, Atheist.
Russel Check | 26/10/2013
@KurdBijiKurd I think the main challenge here is that the Quran has both "good" and "bad" parts which has served the Arabs very well, they can kill, rape, pillage, conquer and oppress, rationalizing and defending it with the "bad" parts and keep their subjects inline many whom are good with the "good" parts. Now match that with the fear installed in every Muslim from birth that if you question the Quran in ANYWAY you will go straight to hell and you have a very good recipe to keep big masses of ignorant subjects inline for a long time, until it becomes the culture of a nation, then it is very very difficult to undo. The enemy of Islam is rational educated people who can think for themselves and question, because then they will immediately recognize that the Quran is contradicting itself on many issues and that alone will discredit the book immediately. That's why the more Islamic a country or group the more they are against education and knowledge, not just for woman but for everyone, many actually believe that they ONLY need the Quran to run a society.
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