Saturday, February 11, 2012

On the Road

Snow on the mountains outside of Sulaimaniya
           I’ve done a lot of travelling over the last couple of weeks.  We had an international consultant from Bogota, Colombia here to conduct advanced training.   She is a law professor as well as a human rights advocate, particularly for women.  Colombia’s constitution is very similar to Iraq’s and she speaks from first-hand experience about how to handle cases involving deprivations of human rights and constitutional and other challenges.

First, she visited the Legal Help Desk in Sulaimaniya where in addition to meeting with and discussing matters with the lawyers and social workers, we accompanied members of the team who, as I mentioned in my last blog, conducted a Mobile Legal Clinic outreach session in Halabja.  Then on to Erbil where we met the WEO Access to Justice team that runs the Legal Help Desk in the Investigation Courthouse in the capital of the KRG.  I was able to go to a court hearing which was actually held in the judge’s office (with about a dozen or more people lined up outside the door – some with lawyers, most without).   Apparently there are not enough court rooms pending completion of new courthouse being built.
Then on to Duhok where in addition to meeting and speaking with the Access to Justice team, we did several outreach sessions.  Two were held in secondary schools, one for boys (an Arabic school) and one for girls.   At both sessions, the Kurdish “Misuse of Communications” law was discussed.  As in so many other countries, mobile phone harassment (e.g., threats, calling at all hours, lewd messages) as well as internet misuse (e.g., sexually explicit photos) is a significant problem.  The difference here is that a woman is often victimized twice – first as the recipient of the harassing calls and then as a target of family members who think she has been in contact with men.  In fact, the local media have published daily reports about women attacked by relatives on suspicion of contacting or being contacted by strangers.
LARGE (poster size) framed photograph hanging in the
Secondary School of Girls in Duhok (as I've mentioned many times before,
the Kurdish people are good friends of the United States).
Also discussed was another topic which is particularly relevant to high school students:  the stiff penalties for driving underage (less than 18) without a license and other traffic offenses.  If caught driving without a license, the defendant (and his or her parents if they allow it) can be jailed for one to six months.  On the other hand, the punishment for yelling at the traffic police (who take the place of stoplights at busy intersections) is one to five years in jail!   Driving without a license must be a relatively frequent occurrence because there were LOTS of questions trying to find loopholes in the law. (“Can I drive if my father is sick, it’s an emergency and I need to drive him to the hospital?” The answer, by the way, is no.)
With members of the Kurdistan Handicap Union
           We also met with the Kurdistan Handicap Union of Duhok and as in Sulaimaniya talked about the proposed legislation the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament is considering. This new law would take steps in protecting the rights of disabled citizens who, as one article states, “historically have been underserved, underrepresented and too often subjected to institutional neglect.”  Fittingly, just a days before this outreach session, Iraq ratified the UN Conventionon the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 
Tower of Babel
            Following these meetings with all three UNDP Access to Justice teams individually, we held a three-day retreat in Erbil with all teams conducted by the Project Coordinator, the international consultant and me. I describe it as being a bit like the Tower of Babel (which, by the way, is supposed to have been in Mesopotamia, now Iraq).   The consultant speaks only Spanish so she had a Spanish-to-Kurdish and Arabic interpreter.  I speak only English so I had a Kurdish and Arabic-to-English interpreter.  The Sulaimaniya and Erbil teams speak the Sorani dialect of Kurdish and the Duhok team speaks the Bedini dialect of Kurdish.  Both teams speak Arabic.  It was a mini-UN session.
Dancing in traditional Kurdish dress.
           While in Duhok, our administrator there invited us to a pre-wedding party.   Of course I jumped at the invitation. The party was held in a big hall and everyone was dancing to VERY loud music – it was so loud that it was impossible to have a conversation so I did the only logical thing which was to join in the dancing.  I felt a little out of place – not only was I the only Westerner there (and as is so often the case, the only blonde) but I was also the only woman who wasn’t dressed to the nines in traditional Kurdish outfits with lots of gold jewelry (when I was in Dubai recently, I was told that brides insist on receiving a gold belt as a wedding present from the groom; that way, if there is a divorce later, she can sell the belt, which you can see from the picture is quite large a heavy, and live off the proceeds--I'm not sure if that's also the case here).
Hands with henna designs.
The bride and groom, along with the bride’s mother, were sitting on ornate chairs on a platform in the front of the hall.  People would come and pay their respects.  Apparently, the focus of the evening was to decorate the hands of the bride and other women in attendance with ornate henna patterns. I was eager to get my hands done too but regrettably, the volume of the music forced us to leave before that activity began.  I’m told that the really BIG pre-wedding party was going to be the following night.
The bride's mother, the bride, the groom. 
The two men on the right are my friend, Rfa'at (far right)
and his cousin who invited me to the party.
I was reminded once again that although there are significant differences between the Iraqi people and Americans (or in this case, the British), there are many things that unite us.  Sitting in the hotel lobby in Erbil one night working, I looked up to see that a hotel employee had turned on the Chelsea-Manchester United football match which was being broadcast live from London’s Stamford Bridge, Chelsea Football Club’s home, which is just a mile or so from my old flat. Chelsea is my team so I started rooting for them as others who were watching backed Man U.  I scoured the shots of the crowd looking for my friend and former partner, Bruce Buck, who is President of Chelsea Football Club. Thanks to him, I was able to attend a number of matches.  Regrettably, in this match, though Chelsea was ahead 3-2 with just minutes to go, they gave up goal and had to settle for a tie.
Chelsea-Man U match