This article originally appeared in Kurdistan 24.
Perhaps the biggest barriers preventing more women in the Kurdistan Region from ascending to senior roles are the cultural expectations, norms, and values that can be a part of the Kurdish community.
At an open panel at Chatham House, an international affairs institute in London, Princess Reema Bint Bandar, daughter of a former Saudi ambassador to Washington and President of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports (SFCS), discussed the importance of encouraging more girls to consider careers in sports. With the aim of transforming the culture and boosting economic prosperity in Saudi Arabia, Princess Reema stated, “there is no more interesting and dynamic place to work than the sports sector. Any job you can imagine can involve sports; like sports marketing, sports medicine. It is more than the athletes.”
Within my own family, I am proud to see relatives making use of the several female-friendly gyms and centers available to them in the Kurdistan Region. However, involvement in sports is yet to be part of mainstream Kurdish culture and become normalized in public spaces.
There is symbolic significance that sports allow in the normalization of women taking traditionally male roles, and in the process, pave the way for female empowerment and reduce cultural conditioning.
An Arab News report stated there are currently 47 women’s gyms in Saudi Arabia. However, by next year, the Kingdom hopes that a further 500 would be opened as Princess Reema’s plan to legitimize women in sports will create 4,000 jobs.
She stated, “I need us to get over the word conservative being linked to a woman that is fully covered because I have found profoundly liberal women who are covered top to bottom and very conservative women that look and dress like myself.”
By investing in the sports sector and pushing for opportunities in early education, we in the Kurdistan Region would be equipping young girls with teamwork and leadership skills, and pushing for gender parity, which is essential in blurring gender-based expectations. And even more can be done to break down social barriers to women’s visibility outside the home.
Compared to my visit in 2015, there is no doubt there is greater acceptance in the Kurdish community toward Kurdish women in the media, a significant contrast to how the community previously reacted to female artists.
While it demonstrates a degree of social change, it remains that senior government positions are primarily held by men.
Symbolically, the absence of women in the political sphere contributes to political apathy and female disengagement. Despite some women taking on leadership roles in government, this remains a small minority, and many have been victims of harassment and abuse, pushing other women to hesitate to enter the political field.
I have found that in several conversations I have had with relatives when discussing my personal interest in politics, I was met with discouraging words warning me of a male-dominated field of work where it is difficult for women to thrive.
Addressing this issue is ever-more significant now as Kurdish women are careful to take part in the upcoming 2018 general election after previous experiences with verbal abuse and harassment. Pushing for gender diversity in the political sphere is critical to creating an environment that would challenge gender biases and push for policies that positively affect all diverse groups.
Studying in the UK, I was in an environment where successful government policies pushing for increased visibility of women in fields of science was evident, with programs such as Girls Into Science and Technology (GIST) and Women Into Science and Technology (WISE), which connect female students to role models that offer career advice and opportunities outside the school setting.
However, empowering women in Kurdistan can begin by expanding their rights and freedoms.
As a young Muslim woman living in the UK, I feel that I have far fewer obstacles with regards to my professional career than some of the women in the Kurdistan Region. I feel empowered by the fact I feel safe traveling with a male driver and can work comfortably in the public sphere alongside my male colleagues.
I have hopes that as cultural expectations evolve, and with more women seeking employment in the Kurdistan Region to help support their families during these hard economic times, that the position of women will gradually elevate and become a role model for other states in the Middle East.
I think that in order to support their developing positions, workspaces should focus on their own policies and create a safe working environment for women to flourish and reach their full potential.
Halima Galali was born in London and comes from a Kurdish background. She studies at Pimlico Academy and is hoping to further her education at University by studying Politics and International Relations. She is interested in global politics from a Kurdish perspective as the world becomes more fractured with the growth of nationalist states and the decline of humanitarian interventions.
This article was originally published in Kurdistan 24.