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…