A Kurdish Syrian woman outside a women's meeting in Arbat, Iraqi Kurdistan. All photos by James Haines-Young
Saturday, March 8, was International Women’s Day, a commemoration of the rights of women that each year focuses the world’s attention on the continuing struggle for women’s equality. Outside the small Iraqi Kurdish town of Arbat lies a small tent city that serves as the makeshift home of 513 Syrian Kurdish refugee families, who celebrated the day with tentative hope. The camp's women participated in workshops led by NGOs and planted olive trees near the site of a new refugee camp, being built on the outskirts of town, that will hold up to 50,000 people. The Syrian civil war has thus far displaced more than 2.5 million people, nearly half of whom are women.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, dislocation presents a unique challenge to women—namely the increased likelihood of gender-based discrimination and violence. We spoke to a few women gathered in the small tent city in Arbat about what it’s like to be a woman in conflict, and what their hopes are for female refugees in the next year.
HERFETA MOHAMMAD HUSSEIN, 64
We want to eat and dance, and we want to have a picnic and wear nice clothes. We want to talk about women’s rights. We want to make our own decisions, and we want our homes. Everything is harder as a female refugee—psychologically, physically. We want all our mothers to be happy on this day, and for their children and families to appreciate them and be happy beside them. We used to have fences, walls, faucets, roofs. Now all the women carry their own water. It’s breaking my knees. I’m just tired. In Syria, when there were no celebrations anywhere else in the Middle East for International Women’s Day, we had them in Syria. But they were only for Arab women. As Kurdish women, we couldn’t even wave our flags or wear our traditional clothes.
Today, we get appreciation. We get appreciation from all the men and the children. They say women are 50 percent of society, but I don’t believe that. A woman is all of society. We are 100 percent of it. Who else raises kids? Women are the ones who suffer the most in their lives, and heaven is for mothers. We’re tired as refugees, so we’re happy we get one day of appreciation. In Syria, we had our houses and all our things. This is a new life, and we’re still not used to it. I can’t sleep from the pain in my back after carrying water for my family. It’s hard, but we have to carry the burden. We have no choice.
RABIHA QASSEM MUHAMMAD, 43
This is the worst life. Only today, because we left all of the cleaning, the dishes, and the cooking, it’s an enjoyable day. I don’t have my rights. What am I missing? Everything. I felt like a stranger even in Syria, and I was poor. Now I’m here. I demand from everyone to at least respect women. In our eastern culture, it’s very rare for men to respect women—even pregnant women get beaten by their husbands. Awareness isn’t just for women—it’s the men who need it. There’s no point in my going to a seminar and then telling my husband, because it’ll go in one ear and back out the other and he’ll still beat me.
It’s better here. The tents are right next to each other, so our husbands can’t beat us, because our neighbors will know. In Syria, there were walls, and they could beat us all they want. Now, my husband comes into the tent, gets angry at me, but can’t beat me because the neighbors will hear him. Do we want a free Syria so we can all go back home and get beaten? This tent is a safe space. The women trust each other, and we can tell each other what happens to us.
I hope, one year from now, that every woman can celebrate together in Rojava [free Syrian Kurdistan]. I hope there’s freedom and education for every human being, equal with our brothers. Women’s rights should be exactly the same as men’s. We are strangers here, even though people treat us well. My sister… she is still in Syria. I haven’t heard from her in weeks. I don’t even know if she’s alive. On the next International Women’s Day, I hope I’m with her. They are our hearts.
She [pointing to another woman in the group] keeps saying we want a free Syria. We really just want a free Rojava. We're Kurdish, and that's our region, so we want a free Rojava. Who cares about a free Syria?
PIRWIN HASSAN ELIAS, 31
[Refused to have photo taken]
We’re not used to it. We’re tired, and we hope one year from now on International Women’s Day that we’ll be back in Syria. I hope I’m back there tomorrow. I’ve been here almost a year, in this camp. I can get as far as the main door without a man, but after the gate [to the camp], I can’t go anywhere alone. But there are even fewer rights in Syria now. If you are at a checkpoint with your hair uncovered and without a man, Jabhat al Nusra will cut off your head.