In Translation: The Kurdish referendum and Arab Male Chauvinism
The In Translation series, in which we publish translations of commentaries from Arabic, is brought to you courtesy of our partners at the excellent Industry Arabic translation service. In this installment researcher Rasha Al Aqeedi takes to task the Iraqi newspaper Al-Nahar for its coverage of the recent referendum on independence in Kurdistan.
Al Hurra newspaper, September 28, 2017
By Rasha Al Aqeedi
The result of Kurdistan’s referendum, in which the “yes” vote exceeded 90%, was no surprise to observers of the Kurdish issue. The Iraqi response was also expected. Feelings of suspicion, fear, and legitimate anger were mixed with Arab chauvinism and abhorrent anti-Kurdish racism – practices that are easily denied yet experienced by every Kurd carrying an Iraqi passport at least once in his life. But as with all forms of defamation, the reaction of the Baghdad-based al-Nahar newspaper summarizes not only the tragic relations of the Kurds with their partners at home, but also the depth of nationalism’s moral decline.
An image implying a young woman’s gang rape by a group of men headlined the page. The page designer intended the young woman to represent Kurdistan, and the men the neighboring countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, in a vulgar and macho display unbecoming of a newspaper bearing the logo of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate or of a society calling for moderation. The controversial Al-Nahar newspaper does not represent the Iraqi press, but its choice to use that image requires all of us to face a difficult truth: Iraqi society is still chauvinistic from top to bottom, and the “female” is still used to insult the “male.”
Rape has historically been a deliberate military strategy used to strike fear into the hearts of societies and to instill a feeling of defeat in the enemy by insulting his honor, making rape, or even the threat of rape, a form of broad-based psychological warfare last used in Iraq when thousands of Yazidi women were abused. They were humiliated and repeatedly raped by ISIS militants in the name of religion after their men were slaughtered. What would prompt al-Nahar to brandish the image of the rape of Kurdistan in the name of nationalism?
Systemic anti-Kurdish racism is the legacy of generations of Arab chauvinism, which sees other nationalities as outsiders who do not deserve first-class citizenship. In an outpouring of racial spite, derogatory discourse is immediately invoked anytime the “intruders” do not please the “masters.” Even clerics do not hesitate to provoke rivalries overflowing with anti-Kurdish hate, as some call the Kurds “demons” and see it as their moral duty to fight them.
Interjecting women into the political debate to extort the “other” is nothing new. Eastern society is both obsessed with, and afraid of, sex. The issue most often revolves around the honor of women: violating it where it is associated with the enemy and seeking to defend it where it is associated with oneself. As sectarianism in Iraq deepened following the fall of the former regime, Saddam loyalists and Arab sectarian groups began to call Iraqi Shias the “sons of mutaa.” After a decade, the oldest Shia chauvinists fired back, calling Sunnis “sexual jihadists.” Both counteracted the other side’s disparagement by accusing its women of immoral and indecent behavior.
This is not the first time “free” pens in Iraq have expressed a political opinion about a region or sect by portraying the “other” as a sinful or raped woman. During the liberation of Fallujah, the hashtag #fallujah_washes_away_its_shame (الفلوجة_تغسل_عارها#) and a caricature of a young woman returning home, with her head down as her father waits to discipline her for the “shame” she has inflicted on him, spread across Twitter.
Rejection of the referendum and Kurdish independence can be expressed in measured words, a targeted image, or constructive criticism, but invoking this superficial notion of honor, designed to threaten and intimidate, reflects only the weakness of the argument and the weakness of the individual. It is not possible to see inside the mind of the designer, but one can make some assumptions as to the angry neighbors that await an independent Kurdistan.
The implication that rape and sexual violence is somehow a legitimate form of punishment is an expression of a societal malady deeply rooted in history. All human societies have suffered from this disease, which has not been fully treated but has been contained in many cultures. The culture of the Middle East, however, is not among them. Al-Nahar owes an apology to all Kurds, and to the countries whose names it has involuntarily attached to an offensive image. Print media is a source of reform: Iraq’s ills cannot be addressed if the media is a source of corrosion.