Women in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq are represented in the new national assembly and hold some ministerial positions. But in the tribal, male-dominated society of rural areas, women are often treated as second class citizens.  The women in the city of Sulaimaniyah are trying to change the status quo, and help women caught in difficult and often violent situations.

Five years ago, the Asouda shelter for abused women opened in Sulaimaniyah.  Since then, this independently-funded center has helped dozens of women victims of domestic violence, offering shelter, legal services and counseling.

Asouda also offers literacy and sewing classes, with the aim of helping the women to help themselves.

Shireen is 23-years-old. When she was a teenager, she says, she was kidnapped by a gang of criminals and forced to marry one of them, who abused her. One day Shireen decided to risk everything and run away.

She made it back to her family's home in another village, but she has been unable to divorce her husband, because her family could not afford to pay a lawyer. When her father told her she must remain married, she ran away again, this time to the Asouda shelter, where she has been living for nearly one year. Asouda's legal team has been working to secure her divorce.

Khanim Rahim Latif is Asouda's director.

She says, in many cases, Asouda is successful in mediating women's domestic problems, and they are able to return to their husbands and families.

Asouda is not the only women's advocacy group in Sulaimaniyah.  Runak Faraj Rahim is a social worker and researcher at the Rewan center for women's issues. She has written extensively on the issue of honor killings in Kurdish society, women who are killed by their fathers or brothers, if they suspect she has had extra-marital relations with a man.

Rahim says, before the 1991 Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime, it was accepted that men had the right to kill women.

But Rahim says, after the uprising, women began to question how honor killings could continue when their society was supposed to be free. Women's groups began to form to raise awareness of the issue, and to advocate for new legislation to punish those who commit honor killings.

However, Rahim says, despite their efforts, honor killings have not decreased significantly, and few perpetrators are caught or punished. She says statistics show between 60 and 70 women were reported killed last year in the Kurdistan region. But she cautions that the real number is likely higher, as many cases are not reported.

Rahim and other women are also working to end the practice of female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, which is prevalent in the eastern parts of the Kurdistan region. They say the practice must end, as it is both physically and psychologically harmful.

Treefa Ali Saeed is a women's activist and writes for the Rewan Center's newspaper, which focuses on women's issues. She says, the tradition of female circumcision is partly rooted in Islam, and people do not question their faith, so the practice continues.
But women's groups are having some success in ending this practice, performed on girls ages four to seven.

Runak Rahim says, even as recently as 1991, in some villages near the Iranian border, 100 percent of girls were circumcised. But, now, researchers have found that only a few girls in these villages are still being circumcised.

Women in the Kurdistan region are committed to improving their lives and their daughters' futures, and they hope their work will be the catalyst for change.