Kurdish Parliament Turns Blind Eye to Prostitution
An opposition party push to amend the prostitution law, so providing more equality for women, has been rejected by the two ruling parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan government, who claim prostitution is not a big enough problem to discuss in parliament.
“Prostitution is not a phenomenon in Kurdistan,” said Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) lawmaker Dilshad Shehab. “If we said it was, it would be an injustice against Kurdistan.”
Opposition parties requested the discussion of a bill amending the prostitution law, but the Kurdish parliament rejected it. This follows the parliament’s 2009 rejection of another bill, designed to clamp down on prostitution, before it even got to the discussion stage.
Although there is general consensus among government officials, rights groups and the general populace in Iraqi Kurdistan that prostitution is not as widespread here as in other Middle Eastern countries, some say Iraqi Kurds have swept the issue under the carpet, often dismissing it as “an Arab problem.”
There are few statistics on prostitution in Iraqi Kurdistan available but, because of the high incidence of honor killing in Kurdish society, prostitution is a particularly high-risk occupation for women in Iraqi Kurdistan, and so, officials and observers say, the role is more often taken up by Arab and other foreign women.
However, Bilal Sulaiman, a senior lawmaker from the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG, known locally as Komal) – the party that drafted the amendment bill – told Rudaw that, through reading Kurdish author Khandan Hama Jaza’s 2007 book, “An Ocean of Crimes,” he had only recently become aware of the large number of prostitutes in Kurdistan and their “terrible” situation.
“We want to confront prostitution in Kurdistan,” said Sulaiman. “There is a shyness in Kurdistan around prostitution, but that is no reason not to discuss it.”
Ms. Hama Jaza, who had to flee Iraqi Kurdistan to live in Germany because of numerous threats to her safety, had revealed in her book the involvement of Kurdish officials and police in the country’s prostitution trade.
Sulaiman said the existing Iraqi government law, passed in 1988, had “some shortcomings” which needed to be amended, adding that any amendments would only apply to the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
“The law only talks about women,” he said. “We have proposed to include punishment for both women and men, which would include people selling prostitutes and their customers.”
However, the KDP’s Shehab said that, because the existing law “banned prostitution entirely,” no one of either sex was permitted to be involved in it.
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) lawmaker Gasha Dara Hafid – head of parliament’s Committee to Protect Women’s Rights – said there were legal gaps in the Iraqi law, as it only dealt with women and homosexual men and failed to make customers accountable.
“If you want to eradicate prostitution you must deal with both sides,” said Ms. Hafid, who, contrary to most PUK lawmakers, voted to discuss the bill. “If there is no body buyer, there will be no body seller.”
She said there was no legal justification for rejecting the discussion of the bill in parliament, and that the chief opponents to the bill – the ruling PUK and KDP – claimed the issue of men and customers involved with prostitution was covered by other existing laws.
“The bill only has a few amendments and will make no difference, so we don’t need it,” said the KDP’s Shehab. “There is not such a big problem with the existing law.”
However, Ms. Hafid pointed to Iraqi Kurdistan’s need to guarantee more equality between males and females, which the law amendments would have addressed.
“We need to make both women and men accountable,” she said. “Women’s souls should not be bought and sold. If the law had been amended it would have decreased prostitution.”
Both Ms. Hafid and the KIG’s Sulaiman stressed that the original law and its proposed amendments were chiefly about reform and the solving of social problems, rather than punishment and retribution.
“We want to reeducate [prostitutes] and teach them how to live normally again,” said Sulaiman. “We want to oblige the government to assist them.”
He said there were both social and religious reasons for the law amendment proposal.
“Prostitution exists because we have so many social problems in Kurdistan,” Sulaiman said. “According to Sharia law, prostitution is a crime, but Sharia is conditional on social problems…Our government should put money into solving these problems.”
Sulaiman said the amendment bill made a distinction between women who were forced into prostitution, whether physically or through poverty, and those who were “willing” to practice it.
“There are women who are rich and just want to be prostitutes,” he said.
However, author Ms. Hama Jaza said in October that, according to her own research interviewing over 1,300 Kurdish prostitutes, 98 percent of them were “victims,” who were forced into the profession.
Sherizaan Minwalla, country director of Heartland Alliance, a United States-based human rights group that is setting up Iraq’s first ever shelter devoted to human trafficking victims in Iraqi Kurdistan, also said people in Kurdistan often did not realize the coercive nature of prostitution.
“They view prostitutes as criminals, [or] think that women do this because they like it,” said Ms. Minwalla, adding that she had seen Iraqi Kurdish girls as young as 14 who had been forced into prostitution.
“There are some cases [in Iraqi Kurdistan] of husbands or fathers forcing their wives and daughters into prostitution,” said Ms Minwalla. “It is almost impossible to reintegrate these women back into the family in Kurdish society.”
Ms. Minwalla stressed that, because of the social importance of the Kurdish family unit, a lone female forced out of the care of her family was extremely vulnerable to human trafficking.
“There’s nowhere to go,” said Ms. Minwalla. “She might even say she wasn’t forced [into prostitution], but was she sexually abused and then had to run away from her family?”
The PUK’s Ms. Hafid agreed that most Kurdish people did not have compassion for prostitutes.
“If a man in this society goes to a prostitute, he doesn’t think of himself as bad; he just looks down on the woman,” she said. “Kurdish society in general, including women, contributes to this looking down on prostitutes. Men are not held accountable for prostitution because there is no law holding them accountable, but in Islam it is clearly stated that both male and females are accountable.”
The KIG’s Sulaiman said he believed there were political goals for the ruling parties rejecting the bill’s discussion.
“All the opposition parties supported it,” he said. “Maybe there are other political reasons too, but that is only my opinion.”
But the KDP’s Shehab denied any political agenda behind the bill’s rejection.
“Some KDP lawmakers voted for the bill,” he said. “There was only a two-vote majority, which is a good indication that there was no political motivation behind it.”
Ms. Hafid said a further attempt to discuss the bill in parliament would be made after some adjustments to the bill had been completed.