By Shnyar A. Hassan
On December 22, pictures and posts about the ambiguous death of a 21 years old girl named Sarwin Nobadar dominated social media in Kurdistan. Many people wrote about it, and some were so quick to cast the blame on the family members, especially the father. The location of the incident and the contradicting statements by police officials of Mergasur district, north Erbil, and the lack of the due process of investigation by the law enforcement in the past divided the people of Kurdistan. The topic has been politicized now which is not a bad thing because, in Kurdistan, nothing can get the attention of the media and the government until it is politicized and also it is rooted in the political system. However, the debate should not be about a particular incident though, but the negative role of the government in promoting gender-based violence by preserving and empowering the tribal norms that undermine women rights.
Sarwin Nobadar was from Ble subdistrict of Barzan area. She was a college student at the University of Ishik in Erbil. She was from a conservative and somehow middle-class family. Her family belongs to the Barzani clan, which makes the case even more sensitive. According to multiple reports and her father confirmed that on Rudaw TV Sarwin was in a relationship with a young man whose identity not known, but some sources said that he is not from the same social class of the girl. According to Sarwin’s friends, the man asked for her hand multiple times, but her father refused his marriage proposal.
On December 15, Sarwin was transferred to Erbil’s emergency hospital because up to 90 percent of her body was burnt. Some unconfirmed reports indicated that she was burned by her father, but a brother, who was at the house, tried to stop his dad, but he was hurt by the fire as well. Others, such as police officials said a different thing. Mergasur police said that she was dead because of generator’s fuel explosion in the house. The latest update on the case is from the brother, who was partially hurt by the fire, who said that she set fire to herself. The case became a self-mutilation now. This is the background of the case so far, but what I want to talk about is the root causes of growing gender-based violence and making Sarwin’s case as an example.
If we accept the latest update from Sarwin’s brother, who was interviewed by Kurdistan24 TV, which is funded by Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani’s son, we can draw a conclusion that the case is a gender-based violence (GBV) and the girl experienced a tremendous amount of pressure before setting fire to herself.
In Barzan area, a conservative society, many tribal norms rule the region, not the government. For instance, the Barzanis are environmentalist and love their nature; hunting and cutting trees are forbidden, there are harsh punishments for the violators. In social issues, the tribal norms overrule the state laws. There are unregulated shelters overseen by tribal leaders to hosting many men and women who are running from persecutions from other parts of Kurdistan. The tribal leaders protect them from the outside threats. Even the government cannot intervene. These are good things, but there are dark sides of these tribal norms as well.
The Barzani clan is divided between the Shaykhs and the “people.” The Shaykhs are considered religiously and socially as an upper-class group while the “people” are regarded as the inferior group. Also, the Barzani tribe, in general, closed to themselves and does not consider other tribes equal to themselves. So, the boys and girls of the Barzanis should think the tribal norms before getting into a relationship. For example, a girl from Shaykh class is not allowed to marry a guy from other classes, let alone other tribes. But men from Shaykh class can marry anyone, even girls from other tribes, but preferred to marry girls from their class. Therefore, Sarwin and many unheard voices may become the victims of these tribal norms, but others did not have a chance to get the public attention.
These norms dominated the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) vision about women affairs because a well-known Barzani family from the Shaykh class rules the KDP. We rarely see Barzani women in public and little is known about them. We have not seen Kurdistan’s first lady or first daughter, but every day a new Barzani male emerge.
Many women killed, and self-mutilations and GBV victims are rising, but during his presidency, I have not seen Masoud Barzani appear on TV and specifically talk about of any of the women or so-called honor killing, except some general statements. On the contrary, Barzani has granted amnesty orders that led to the release of many murderers of women and those involved in GBV cases.
These tribal norms are not only specified to the Barzanis, but many other tribes across Kurdistan undermine women rights. To gain their support, the ruling parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), are becoming the protectors of the tribes. However, the other tribes are more vulnerable to the rule of law and the government pressure than the Barzani one. The civil society organizations were able to bring some changes to the society and hold some of the perpetrators to justice. But, unfortunately, in Barzan area, the work of women and other independent organizations is restricted.
Unless we understand the root causes, we continue to publish the death rates and statistics of the GBV victims. The bad news is that we should not count on the current political system because it promotes the tribal norms and tolerates murderers of women. Therefore, Sarwin’s case is a political issue and should create a political debate, not a women issue alone.
*Shnyar is a social worker and expert on women affairs in Kurdistan. Shnyar has masters in sociology and has several years experience working with the women affairs organizations.