Sitting on a park bench in the center of Erbil, northern Iraq with two local Kurdish men, I'm deep in conversation about violence against women. My long-standing work on women's rights with my charity Project Monma has brought me to northern Iraq twice now. The first time was to learn about the endemic of honor killings in the region and this time to find out more about how the advent of ISIS has affected women and girls. Despite the presence of ISIS just a meer 30 minutes away, Iraqi Kurds move through the streets appearing unconcerned. I'm talking to Jihad Othman and Sardar Sattar, two young Iraqi students. As we sip small cups of coffee, they tell me that gender inequality is a big problem in northern Iraq. Pointing to the park square, Jihad notes it's almost completely filled with men.
"Women need to speak out," Sardar tells me.
The situation for women and girls in Iraqi Kurdistan is indeed abysmal. During my first visit to the region I met with women's rights activists, politicians and the Iraqi Kurds themselves, both male and female. What I learnt was that women and girls face pervasive violence, domestic abuse, honor killings and blatant discrimination. A situation which has only been worsened by the arrival of ISIS.
Thousands fled towards Erbil seeking refuge in IDP camps when ISIS appeared over a hill in 2014. The many displaced women I spoke with reported that ISIS is forcing citizens to convert to Sunni Islam. Women are ordered to completely cover themselves and one doctor from Mosul informed me that ISIS now has 'biters', a special female police force which sets about biting women, as a form of punishment. The Yezidi women have perhaps faced the greatest horror with the arrival of ISIS, being sold in slave markets as sex slaves.
However, arrival into the camps has not led to safety for women and girls. I met with Fatima Hashima, a caring and dedicated social worker working in the women's center in Baharka camp near Erbil housing around 3000 IDP's. Sitting in the small container like building on the outskirts of the camp, I asked her what the situation is like for girls living in the camp. Emotional, psychological and sexual violence against women is common she told me, even with girls as young as six years old.
Like in many parts of the world, sexual harassment is a frequent and a largely silent crime. Men hiss, leer and make degrading comments as women pass by in the streets and women are afraid to speak out against it. Such harassment is a daily occurrence in the camp according to Fatima and the other girls I interviewed, but most girls fear to report it out of fear that they will be shamed. It gets worse. There are cases of women being raped by their husbands and girls as young as 11 years old being married to men more than twice their age. Fatima tells me that parents are choosing to marry girls so young as a way of protecting them from harassment.
Wafaa Khalid a twenty three year old woman living in the camp came to join us in the centre. She fled Mosul after ISIS killed some of her family members. She married her cousin when she was 17 years old, she didn't want to, she told me but her father told her that it was better to marry someone that they knew.
After 8pm they close the tent door out of fear boys in the camp will try and come into the tent. She has a little girl sat on her lap and I ask her if she worried about her daughter. 'Yes of course,' she replies. Her daughter is 5 years old.
For the girls coming back from the slave markets in Mosul and Raqqua the situation is particularly difficult. Diana Kako, a dedicated women's rights activist I met on my first trip to the country agreed to meet with me again in her small office in Erbil. She explained that there have been girls who have been sent to shelters to avoid getting killed by their family because in Kurdistan, if a girl looses her virginity or gets pregnant before she is married, she must be killed. Girls who have been raped, must suffer the same fate. All in the name of family honor.
There are reports of girls committing suicide by burning themselves to death but Diana believes that it is really the families, killing their own daughters. I sat aghast. But the violence doesn't end there. 'Traditionally in Kurdish culture it was considered an honor for a man to beat his wife,' Diana tells me. New laws are being put in place against domestic violence but the problem is still widespread. I ask her what she thinks about this, as an Iraqi woman, 'there's no honor in beating your wife,' she says firmly.
In a country where honor is more important than a woman's life, there is much work to be done in the field of women's rights. Where sexual harassment keeps women living their life in fear, where a woman is afraid of her 5-year-old daughter being sexually harassed and where girls are killed just because they were raped, there is a very serious problem. Change is needed. Diana explained that the problem in Iraq is the culture. Yes, the culture. In my many travels around the world, culture has been a persistent excuse used by men to justify their violent attitudes towards women. Culture. As a cultural anthropologist I have continually failed to understand how the endemic physical, psychological and emotional violence that women around the world suffer can ever, be justified as culture. I don't understand how the lecherous leers of men as women walk in the street can be considered 'cultural' and I especially fail to understand how murdering your sister, wife or child, just because she fell in love, wanted a boyfriend or worse because she was kidnapped, sold in a slave market and raped, can ever be justified in the name of honor.
''We need awareness,' says Diana at the end of our interview. 'So that girls can live the life that they want.'