With Islamic State committing daily atrocities in the Middle East, aid and support of those affected is more important than ever.
But with so much confusion about what can be done in a region deeply divided by perpetual war, sectarianism and regional disputes, it has been hard to find a practical solution.
Artefact spoke to Gona Saed, of the Kurdish & Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation, about the history of the region, and how the contemporary issues have exacerbated years of suffering.
Gona, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?
I work for an organisation called Kurdish & Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation in London. It’s a charity for women who face domestic violence and other forms of cultural and religious violence.
I’m also a member of the Worker’s Communist Party of Iraqi Kurdistan, a broad organisation. Here, we try to bring the message or the voice out of socialists and the progressives and the left out of Iraq and Kurdistan.
We have been struggling there for over two decades now for better living conditions, for equality between women and men, for the progression of working class people. And also to mobilise working class people and women against the atrocities that happen in Iraq against the continuous conflict of the ethnic and religious division.
You came here as a refugee?
Yes, I had to come here in 1998 as a refugee because, as a woman, I was working for a Socialist progressive radio station belonging to the Worker’s Communist Party of Iraq and I was making reports about women’s rights, about stories of women who were killed because of so-called ‘Honour Killings’.
In 1998, there was a big conflict between us as communists and an Islamic group and a very influential Islamic Mullah who challenged us for a TV programme over women’s freedom.
We were up to the challenge, but just before that, two of our members were assassinated by a plan. I had to kind of come away after that.
Socialism used to be very popular in Northern Iraq?
What happened in the ’40s and ’50s in the last century. Socialism was a very popular way for political parties to gain support because we had the Second Block, the Soviet Union. Many political parties in the Middle East and Arabic countries were influenced by the socialism model of the then-Soviet Union.
We did have the Communist Party of Iraq which existed in the 1940s and 50s, we had many women struggle. I wasn’t alive then, but it was a mass Iraqi organisation then. It mobilised millions of people, but then came the big political changes in 1958 with the Ba’ath Party which came to power, and I think they slaughtered many of the Communist Party’s members.
The Communist Party exists as well, but it’s shrinking into a smaller party, but I still think it has a lot of influence among the worker’s unions that were established.
It’s quite a religious region, but Communism doesn’t have the best views on religion?
Worker’s Communist Party is an Iraqi party basically, and the whole of Iraq was much more secular in that time than now. But then, generally, North Iraq is populated by Kurdish people because historically there are other religions that influenced them. Also, the nationalism has been very, very strong among Kurdistani people because of the long term persecution over their nationality.
But even in the 1970s, North Iraq was influenced by the Soviet Union. The first revolutionary parties were claiming that they were Marxists, they were Communists, they were Socialists. I think that had a lot of influence on the people’s culture and attitude.
It’s been a secular society up until now, but for two decades there has been a lot of religious influence over the area.
Obviously a lot of people in the UK would agree that we need to help women’s rights across the world, and in Kurdistan, but not everyone is so enthused about Socialism?
That’s absolutely fine. Socialism is what I believe, but what is before that is the belief in humanity, equality, personal freedoms and freedom of speech.
All the human rights I want for myself and for every other person in the world, whatever their belief is.
I’m not saying that everyone who helps us has to be a socialist or anything, but if you’re a person who wants to help out, who wants to support, wants to be part of a bigger thing, then there are thousands of people who need help, thousands of people that you could do very small things to help. No one has to be a socialist.
How would you compare the situation now, with Islamic State there, to the past?
It is much worse, because you see, when your very fundamental basic needs are met, for example water, food, safety, then you are able to struggle for a better life. But you are only able to struggle for a better life when there is actually a life.
Now, people are not sure if they’re going to be alive tomorrow if Islamic State attacks them. They’re not sure if their families will stay alive, so I think the situation is so much worse that there is this big issue of a barbaric terrorist group that doesn’t recognise any kind of international treaties.
You could be struggling against a government like a dictatorship, a totalitarian government, a democratic government. You can still struggle for equal pay and this and that, but it’s a normal life where your basic needs are met and you want a better life.
But this Islamic State now, it’s mass destruction basically, it’s destroying a whole society. It’s destroying everything. There is just no room for struggle there.
So how would you classify ordinary Kurdish people’s views on women, equality, honour killings, etc, before IS came along?
Kurdish people – our society is very modern and very progressive, and people are much more modern than our political parties. The political parties, they do still have a lot of courtesy to religion and the political Islam, and they are bringing them into the government, into Parliament. So they influence discriminatory laws against women and all of that.
But I think most people are quite progressive, and they want equality for women and men.
So what is your organisation doing right now to help?
At the moment, we want to organise and mobilise a big campaign to raise the voices of the thousands of Yazidi, Christian and Shabak women who were kidnapped.
They are not only women, they are women and children, and they were kidnapped and enslaved by Islamic State under the ideology that these are gains of war and they are non-Muslim women so therefore they could be taken as slaves and they could be sold to other Muslim men who might need them. We want to raise a global campaign about that, and that’s our priority basically.
And, of course, there’s the fundraising and fundraising events, collection for refugees, humanitarian aid, medicines, anything. Our office is open in Archway, or people could contact us via our email info[at]kmewo.com, if people want to contribute or help out and we will definitely either support them in that or show them the way to provide their support.
How would you say the Kurdistan Regional Government has been responding to the humanitarian crisis? They have been buying some women back off the market?
Yes, I’ve heard that. Recently there have been 154 women and children who have come back from IS. Now I don’t know how exactly they came back, but it’s a good thing. So yes, there has been some attempts to buy back the women, and attempts by the clans and tribes in the area. But I think that’s not the only way.
What we want is to put this issue on the agenda of those who are discussing the whole conflict. For example, if it’s the world leaders, if it’s G8, if it’s the United Nations, when they discuss IS they need to discuss the thousand women and girls that have been kidnapped, where they are, how to rescue them, how they’re going to be brought back to their families.
So I think that will be the voice that we will be raising in the next few weeks hopefully, and we are calling for anyone who can help contribute to that campaign as we need a lot of human resources.So how would you say the current Western governmental approach to IS is faring? There’s been some drone strikes, some aid drops.
I think the Western governments should be pressured or asked to only support progressive groups, those who want or fight to build a better life for people – for example in Kobane.
The governments should be very honest about giving weapons to groups, and also do as these people are asking: They’re asking for weapons, food, shelter, shelter for refugees and backup strikes. It should be done in that way.
Also, if they believe IS is a terrorist group, they have to say that clearly. If they are a force that has to be eliminated as soon as possible as they are a threat to humanity, then they need to do that. Not use them in political deals or to see what’s going to happen in Syria, what’s going to happen in Iraq.
They shouldn’t be used as a tool to gain political influence or economic resources in the area.
Would you agree that Turkey has been doing this?
I think Turkey most of all has been a direct supporter of IS, and that’s for two reasons. One: to use them as a tool against the Assad regime, as Turkey has long been against the Assad regime and wanted it to go; and two: Turkey doesn’t want the Kurdish people to have a lot of power or take over any land, because then it would be a threat to Turkey.
There is a lot of evidence that the Turkish army is supporting Islamic State, and that Turkey is providing markets and places for IS to stay in Turkey, along with ways to cross the border and camps to be trained in. These are all things we hear.
For example, Turkey stood opposite Kobane with their armies, not doing anything while IS was attacking all these people. Instead, they closed the border on refugees. I am in no doubt that Turkey was a great supporter of IS, but now maybe they are trying to get out of that, which is good.
Would you see this as an opportunity for Kurds to establish some level of independence?
I’m not a nationalist myself, but we have two different nationalist parties in the Kurdish area. The Kurdistan Democratic Party are very passive, they’re not revolutionary any more, they will just do any political deals that have some good resources for themselves and their members. Then we have the PKK, who are very nationalist, but they want to create independence for Kurdistan.
So there might be opportunities there.
The Kurdish & Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation campaigns for women’s rights on issues such as domestic violence, honour based violence, forced marriages, FGM, rape and sexual harassment and violence against children and young girls, their website can be found here.
Featured image courtesy of Gona Saed