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Climbing the Wall Between the Sexes

By Judit Neurink 18/2/2014

The waiter in the restaurant points to an empty section behind a screen: The family section. I smile a friendly smile while I walk past him and motion my friends to follow me. “We are not a family,” I tell the waiter as we walk to our table in the men’s section.

Kurdish restaurants still send women to sit away from the men. As soon as a group comes in that includes one or more women, they are told to go to the enclosed section that is called nicely “the family section.” But in reality it is like sending them in exile to Siberia.

From almost my first day in Kurdistan, I have boycotted the family section. I do not want to be tucked away, I want to see people and movement, and I do not want to be surrounded by crying kids. I want to choose my own best place in the restaurant.

Time and again I have had to explain to my foreign guests: Look, Kurdish women do not want men to stare at them, as is the habit here. So to protect the women, the restaurant owners made two separate sections. That is the simple explanation. But the reality is a bit more complicated.

It all starts with the fact that Kurdistan is a segregated society, even though it tries hard to join the modern world. Still men and women live in different worlds that may meet inside the extended family, and perhaps at school and university and later at work. But meetings between boys and girls, and men and women are watched with distrust – or should I say: full of expectations?

In my Western world, boys and girls meet everywhere, from the playground to the disco. It is very normal. But in Iraqi Kurdistan, they cannot meet alone unless they are married. In the West, friendships between men and women are common. In Kurdistan, they are not, and even more: They would be frowned at.

Here, all contact between men and women somehow has a sexual connotation. Being together just for a chat, being just friends – it is not considered possible.

Partly because of the wall between the sexes, there is a lot of staring going on. Men will stare at women as if they are a forbidden fruit, which is of course what they are. And women are made scared of men by their mothers, who portray them as animals – which is partly true as well. We all know about the touching that is going on in public places; hungry, frustrated young men getting their kicks.

In a society where contact between men and women is as limited as it is in Iraqi Kurdistan, frustration runs high. That explains why a third of all Internet use is for porn sites or chat rooms, and why sexy movies are so popular.

That is the flip side of the segregated society. I am often reminded of Iran, where everything that is forbidden, is happening behind closed doors. Mullahs will lash out at music channels with girls dancing and singing, but many people are sure they are secretly watching them like everybody else.

The fact that Kurdistan is developing, that people are getting wealthier, that they may travel or can see the world from their satellite dishes, and that at the same time the wall between the sexes is as high as ever, is leading to secret lives here, too.

The fact that still many marriages are arranged, or at least that many young people do not get the chance to really get to know their future partner, also has an effect. They cannot meet or talk without someone keeping an eye on them, and they are definitely not supposed to be lovers.

Kurdish men, like many in the Middle East, divide women into two kinds. The ones they marry, and those who can be lovers. For the second category, they may use the information they get from their hours on the Internet. For the first, they cannot. In the minds of many men, women who enjoy sharing the bed are strictly part of the second group. Which again leads to frustration, this time of women.

The combination of all the factors above have led to a secret circuit in Kurdistan, of men and women having relationships outside of marriage. And my contacts have informed me that this circuit is growing fast.

So this is the punch line: Could it be the walls between men and women are only there to deceive the society? Or perhaps to enable people to have secret lives? If this is what happens, isn’t it time to consider pulling them down?

And if the society is not ready to do so, let’s at least open up the Siberia section in the restaurants…


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Herdem Kurdman | 18/2/2014
It is a great essay there above ,for women and for men. The reality that the wealthy kurdish men spending their time without their family in holiday is indisputable. It is an other behavior of kurdish men in deed. The holy family and children are only a detail for our men and their small affair and their enjoyable time in the beach with an other woman. To be prosperous is not meant to be civilised. We need a good education system,more TV and radio programmes about sexes and perhaps a plan for more worksite for women.
Chnar | 18/2/2014
They don't send them away. They offer them if they are interested.
Nawxosh | 18/2/2014
You are fully right. Kurdish society rigidly defined traditional sex. I must add, 15 years ago, you could see men are walking a few meters ahead of their women, and women should carry shopping bags and children. fortunately not so often yet.
Stewee Guy
Stewee Guy | 18/2/2014
Good point. I think Kurdish women had more freedom in the past then now. Unfortunately political Islam is wining by changing our free Kurdistan into another Gaza or Egypt. What frustrates me is that our secular politicians,elite and civil organizations are following instead of fighting and making their point. Strict closed society doesn't make women safer.The latest studies shows that 99% of the women in Egypt are subject to sexual harassment in the street. Do want that to happen in Kurdistan ???? I was so embraced of being Kurd when I watched Erbil new year concert where you could barely see a female in the crowd.
Yezidi-Girl UK
Yezidi-Girl UK | 18/2/2014
As a 25 years old Kurdish Yezidi girl that live in London, I am extremely appalled by this new. “Kurdish women do not want men to stare at them”???? Really? So they “protect” the women by letting them sit in the “family” section. That is just degrading and disgusting! I can’t sit next to my male friends in a restaurant in Iraqi Kurdistan?? Wow, that is shocking beyond belief. You are not protecting the women, but your actually humiliating them and getting a hand on their “freedom”. Just like a man, a woman can do what she likes. Kurdish people need to get rid of this sick ancient mentality of theirs. This is why so many Kurdish girls run away from home or commit suicide. Kurdistan has one of the world's largest Honour-Killings rates! Enough is Enough. Things like this drive a young Kurdish girl to end her life. Give Kurdish girls their human rights, everyone deserve to be happy. Every woman should have the choice to choose who she marries, whether she wants to work or not, or to sit next to a male friend in a restaurant! Women deserve to be treated like Men do. We deserve to be happy too, Our place should not be in the Kitchen cooking 24/7 and giving birth to a child every year! Please get rid of this sickening mentality! Wash it away please :(
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