Immorality in the Streets!
Erbil. Kurdistan. It is spring, a new beginning. The trees turn green again, flowers start blooming in random patches, and there are overgrown grass forests all over town thanks to the seemingly endless spring rain. People dance around and jump over fires. The dead supposedly resurrect. There is more dolma to look forward to. Game of Thrones is back, to decide once and for all who will take the Iron Throne (if you don’t get the reference, shame on you). April has not been this cool in a while. You see, in this part of the world, the truly terrifying words to hear are “summer is coming”. Yet, despite all the positive change that has come with April, one thing remains hopelessly stuck in the long night of winter, still at large and ready to terrorise the people of the North: the backward mentality of the Kurdish people.
Between 5–6 April 2019, the annual Colors Festival was held at the Academy Park in Erbil, where thousands gathered to enjoy live music, games, food and of course, throwing coloured powder at each other. Families, mixed groups, men, women, boys and girls were singing and dancing. And it was good. Too good, in fact, for many people to accept, as reactions from social media suggest. There was outrage at the site of young men and women mixing and dancing together at a festival. The worst part is that many of these reactions did not come from an older generation that would be extinct within a couple of decades. No, these were millennials, the supposed future of the country, unable to comprehend other humans acting upon the basic human instinct of personal liberty.
A multitude of angry accusations were thrown around on social media: ‘The younger generations are too Westernised.’ ‘These women have no shame, hanging out with other men.’ ‘These festivals are poisoning our society.’ Even more shockingly, there was ample amount of victim blaming after videos emerged of a girl unfortunately being groped from behind by a group of unknown men. Rather than supporting the victim and condemning the harassers, the poor girl bore the brunt of public indignation because it was “her fault for being there in the first place”. Of course, there were words of support and encouragement overall, but they just seemed to be drowned out by the overwhelming howls of negative comments and outrage. Yes, we are still at this stage. It’s a damning testament to the primitive state of Middle Eastern society that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is considered one of the most liberal and progressive regions in the Middle East. There are still many in this region who view any sort of freedom as negative Western influence, as if living freely and expressing oneself is strictly a Western value. It’s also easy to forget that this is a society where honour killings still occur. Any hint of men and women mixing at public events is met with scorn and considered an insult to traditional values, if not worse for some women. It would be inaccurate to say that this reaction applies to the whole population, but if they’re loud enough, then they’re big enough to cause concern.
We don’t have to worship the West, but we can certainly learn a thing or two from them. It is astonishing that people feel the need to waste their time and energy criticising and blaming others who live and think differently, regardless of how harmless they may be. Nobody is obligated to participate in any event that they deem wrong, and that is the beauty of a free society. Yet, many Kurds tend to think that people who have a different way of life are evil, deserve contempt and lack shame. Shame. If there was ever a word more embedded in every thread of the Kurdish social fabric, it is “shame”. It is “shame” that makes even the most liberal women hesitate before going to a café or bar to socialise within mixed groups. It is “shame” that makes them look left and right before ordering a glass of wine, to confirm that none of their relatives or “other friends” are around. Of course, I am not encouraging the consumption of alcohol, but I advocate for it to be a choice regardless of gender. Every society has its liberals and conservatives. Diversity of thought, expressed publicly or privately, is the natural result of a free society. Unfortunately, we are still far from attaining such a degree of freedom, or rather acceptance of such freedom.
In a country plagued by many pressing concerns, people often choose to focus on the most trivial and harmless matters. Rather than expressing outrage at insufficient electricity or dreadful roads that are partly responsible for the deaths of hundreds every year (602 people were killed in traffic accidents across KRI in 2018, according to traffic directorate statistics), people are more concerned with the “shameless” youth attending a festival. Instead of directing anger at the state of poverty and underemployment in an oil-rich nation (87% of KRI households earn a monthly income of less than 1 million IQD — roughly 850 US Dollars — according to a demographic survey in 2018), it is the “immoral” boys and girls who seem to pose the biggest problem. What about the high prices of rent? What about the lack of proper public transport? What about the regulation of construction (why on earth do we have a higher density of mosques than Saudi Arabia, despite having a far smaller population)? What about the embarrassing state of education that rewards memorisation skills rather than critical thinking? However, life would be much easier if the only problems we had were related to basic services and infrastructure. The tribal and ultra-conservative elements of Kurdish society certainly do not help, and a collective effort from both people and state is needed to combat this issue.
Now, it would be unfair to only criticise the keyboard warriors on social media without addressing the problems on the ground. Observing the central stage of the Festival concert in Academy Park, I noticed that almost all the people on the stage were male, with the women and mixed groups standing mostly around the sides of the park square. When I asked why this was the case (I had arrived late), my friend explained that there was plenty of harassment happening in that area and girls simply felt uncomfortable. Unfortunately, some men welcome such events for the wrong reasons, their intentions made easier to carry out with a relative lack of punishment meeting them. Such festivals are still new in the region, and gaps in security and organization will be addressed further over time. For now, it seems like a quick fix has been applied, with the event organizers announcing that next year’s Festival will only admit families, which I assume also includes mixed groups of friends. It is unfortunate that taking such a measure should become necessary to address these problems, but until society opens up — which includes accepting that men and women can enjoy events and outings together — and redefines its twisted idea of “morality” or exlaq, extreme solutions will remain in place.