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"Change Starts From Within"

Fridays have their special sacredness in Iraq. Muslims come together, often at mosques for group prayer every Friday. This is one of the most important religious rituals in Muslims lives. This is also the time when religious leaders called imams offer teaching to Muslims. Unfortunately, some extremist imams abuse the authority given to them and make judgments and opinions that are far from the real teaching of Islam. In one Friday, Suzan heard some imams on the radio condemning working women and women who do not cover their heads, and imparting other judgments that are not in line with the Iraqi and Kurdish laws. Suzan felt sad, frustrated, but never reacted aggressively. She peacefully thought and, peacefully wondered, “Why did this happen?”, “How can I change this?”, “Where do I start?”

Today, Suzan Aref is the founder and director of Women Empowerment Organization in Kurdistan region of Iraq. Kurdistan is a region with rich history and culture, deeply rooted traditions and norms that are highly valued by people. Unfortunately, the women of this region have experienced discrimination and gender biased, for example women are not allowed to travel without a man accompanying them, and education was more accessible to men than women for many years. The same time, some women like Suzan Aref refused to remain silent and accept the injustice. They looked for possible solutions to liberate women and fight for their rights.

According to online news site, around 532 violence incidents against women have been reported in Kurdistan in only four months in 2012. Studies from Kurdistan Institution for political research have shown that over 50% of women in Kurdistan have suffered violence. Miss Aref Chose to be there for those violated women and fight for their rights
Suzan Aref also had her share of discrimination and stereotype when she was trying to prove herself in her community. Ms Aref faced judgments and criticisms, but never gave up her dreams of being independent. She insisted to become a working woman despite having a family to look after, she wanted to acquire more experience, and she realized the power inside her. She appreciated the community despite the fact that it is an unfair community to women like her. She found herself a job and was involved in community works with NGOs in late 90s.

Suzan Aref has a unique personality. She has a solution oriented thoughts, self empowered soul, and ambitious goals for future. She was a woman of vision and action. For me, she was a role model for positive change. She started her own organization in 2004 aiming to directly involve in women issues, fight for women rights, and be their listener and their voice. Her organization targets women who faced domestic violence, gender discrimination, arranged marriages, and other women issues common in the region.

Ms Aref organization focuses on bringing about gender equality and women empowerment through workshops and trainings, rescues and shelter women suffering domestic violence, and many other programs that shifted women rights toward a better direction. Her organization enforces and calls for women rights not only on the community level, but also on the legal reforms and community change.

The question is, how did she grow and how did she manage to accomplish her goals? She had deep values to fight for, peace, determination, and persistence. She refused to accept her stereotype; she did not want to accept her fate as discriminated women and worked so hard to reach her goals. One of her values was peaceful communication. She believes in the human capability to negotiate and understand, and this is how she approached the issue with the extremist imams. Ms Aref thought that responding to religious people aggressively would make things worse. She used her organization as a tool to communicate with imams. She suggested hearing sessions and workshops to train the imams to take the laws under consideration, when issuing rules that concern women. She succeeded, and she had supporters, despite the criticism and disappointing opinions she received from some people.

Today, Women Empowerment organization offer training, workshops, and leadership programs for women in Kurdistan. Kurdistan constitution now includes more laws favoring women rights than before. Suzan Aref could enforce women laws in the constitution. She managed to apply for major changes, such as changing women legal marriage age from 14 years old to 16 years old, limit polygamy, and other terms that changed so many women lives.

Religion and culture are still one of the biggest challenges for Suzan Aref to face while running her organization, yet, with her faith, determination, and self empowerment, she could come along way, and will manage to overcome other challenges in the future. Her faith in her inner strength is enormous. No one made her, she made herself. True, she had supporters, like family and few friends, but the bigger community was her challenge. “If we want to change, we must start with ourselves, because change start from within” –Suzan Aref.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.


Greengirl's picture

Hi Shahd

I live in a country that has witnessed more than what one can call a fair share of religious extremism and discrimination against women. As a matter of fact, not too many people have the courage to stand up and speak out against it. I admire Suzan for her courage and faith that the tides of extremism and prejudice against women could be turned around for good.

Suzan is a true symbol of change and her Non Violent Approach is most commendable.! I am Inspired!


shahd's picture

I agree. I am so into

I agree. I am so into peaceful approaches. Its very smart, very human, and represent how power can take many shapes.
thanks for your comments dear

Extremist views of some imams is something even the Maldives faces in the current day.
Somehow, they try to box women into a very confined space, forcing this and that in the name of religion.

And yes, many women cage in to the authoritative speeches and ideologies.
There are women who naively believe everything that is preached. After all, who wants to be in hell! :)

Men use religion to control women and it should not be so.

It is good that there are people like Susan who are strong minded to speak out against such injustice.
More power to her and you Shahd.


shahd's picture

Yes Aminah, It is sad how

Yes Aminah, It is sad how things go with some Muslims. one of the most important thing about Islam, as you may know, is to have an open brain to question and analyze, which is why God has selected human beings to be successor (khalefa) on Earth. As you said, its very unfortunate for some Muslims to believe everything been said by such imams

bitani's picture

religion matters

I really liked your start because friday prayers are very critical in the arab world. You probably know that many governments censor the sermons and/or pay to the sheikhs so they say things that make people obey the government. Not only some sheikhs have so patriarchal interpretations but the worse is that people including women are believing them.

i know it is very difficult to stand for women's rights in our societies, so indeed the work of this lady is inspiring.

"Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else."
—Judy Garland

shahd's picture

Yeah, well the beautiful

Yeah, well the beautiful thing about her, is that she was smart enough to create that link between government laws and community. We really need more women like her.

shahd's picture

Yeah, well the beautiful

Yeah, well the beautiful thing about her, is that she was smart enough to create that link between government laws and community. We really need more women like her.

pelamutunzi's picture

religion is a tool

religion is a tool perpetuating injustice and abuse among women. information is usually changed to suit the personal gains of man. here there is an apostolic church where girls are forced into early and polygamous marriages. the prophet will say that the holy spirit has told him to take so and so as a wife. so for susan to speak out and openly challenge such a system is bravery. many people do not want to oppose god and his earthly messengers but they are people and also succumb to human weaknesses and their own opinions.
good background and really enjoyed your story

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest.

shahd's picture

Pela, I believe no religion


I believe no religion ever call for discriminating women rights, its as you said, people who misinterpret the verses from Bible or Quran for their own advantage. I believe there will be time when more women will be more rational and refuse to be victims.

Klaudia Mexico's picture

we are the change

how right is Suzan? change start from within, we are the change. We have to lead by example, we have to start by ourselves. If we remain the same, we have no hope. I admire brave women like Suzan who have had the courage to change their reality. Thanks for sharing such enlightening interview.

Klaudia González

shahd's picture

Thanks for your comment dear,

Thanks for your comment dear, you are right. Its all about how we see ourselves and how much fauth have we got in our capabilities
Shahd majeed

JaniceW's picture

A great subject to interview

You chose your subject well. You also provided good background and context to her story which helps us understand the challenges she faced in establishing her organization. I also like that you shared her solutions with us as I believe that many believe that fighting injustice requires force and aggression, whereas peaceful communication can be just as effective.

Thank you for sharing Suzan's story with us. She is indeed a role model.

shahd's picture

Thanks janice, Yiu are right,

Thanks janice,
Yiu are right, i believe more kurdish and iraqi women like her exist, they just need to step out of their comfort zone and say NO

Iryna's picture

Peaceful communication

You draw a beautiful profile, Shahd! Very light style and Suzan is a very interesting person. I also believe that peaceful communication can make much more than agressive protests. Suzan is very wise, and she understands that changes begin from yourself.

Greetings from Ukraine,

shahd's picture

thanks dear, She is a role

thanks dear,

She is a role model for change.She is so patient and as you said, wise.


Unfortunately there is unjust social perception of the idea of women equality throughout the world. Although it is status quo, it doesn’t have to continue to be that way. It takes strong inspiring woman like you, Suzan, and Malala Yousafzai to stand up and make a difference. I would like you who posted today to know that there are men out there who believes in gender equality. Who believes the better half (his girlfriend, fiancée, or wife) should walk beside him and not behind him. Who believes that gender does not dictate role within a relationship. Keep up the good fight Shahd and I look forward to reading your post.

shahd's picture

Thanks Justin! Yes, We do

Thanks Justin!
Yes, We do believe that there are men who are different and supportive, and we are so thankful for the few ones like you to be there for us. We, at World Pulse do not attack men but rather empower women to challenge discrimination. Thanks for your support, Much appreciated.


Tara Celentano's picture

Legal Age of Marriage


Wow!! I didn't know that the legal age had been at 14, and now, due to Susan's impact, the age has been changed to 16. How do women feel about this? Is this age still too young, or are women relieved to have two more years of childhood and relative freedom? That is such a interesting part of your piece.

Great job!!

shahd's picture

Well it is more relieving I

Well it is more relieving I suppose. I believe it is still a young age for marriage, dont you think? I mean, I cant think of myself married 9 years ago after everything I have been through. My life taught me a lot while I am single, I dont think I could have learned the same stuff if I was married.

Usha RS's picture

Good choice and solutions oriented!

Hello Shahd,
Great to read your piece and learn so much about an activist doing such important work to transform Kurdish society. You picked a wonderful woman to profile. Good choice. I really appreciated Suzan's nonviolent approach to social change, engaging peacefully with the imams and the government. Great on being solutions oriented. I am left wanting to know more about the lives of the women she has impacted.
Usha xx

Let your light shine!

shahd's picture

Thank You dear Usha, I am

Thank You dear Usha, I am glad I was successful with my choice. I am impressed as well and I am sure there are a lot of women out there who have what it takes to be another Suzan Aref, but they are either forced to remain silent or chose not to do anything.
Peace and Love

libudsuroy's picture

What a soul you have

What a soul you have discovered and shared with us! How Suzan made change happen within her and within her community is so compelling, and reminds me of the rudiments of inner peace and faith. It is heart-warming to know of someone who has made use of religion as a resource for peace building and has made an impact in the daily lives of women and girls.

Keep on writing stories that magnify brave woman like Suzan!

libudsuroy/Lina Sagaral Reyes
Mindanao, The Philippines

''Every Day is a Journey and the Journey itself is Home.'' (Matsuo Basho)

shahd's picture

libudsuroy, Thank you so much


Thank you so much darling. I am glad you liked my piece. I wish we could more to empower women around us, If I could, I would write in every language the world could ever speak to deliver such women voices and messages to other women.
I am pretty optimistic to the future, I see gentle power made by women spreading soon.


Maura Bogue's picture

Great Job!

Congratulations on completing your first assignment! You included a lot of great details and background information in your profile. That’s really important, so great work.

I would suggest making sure all of the most important information is toward the beginning of your story. That way, readers have a clear idea about what the main point of the story is.

But overall, great work!


shahd's picture

many thanks

Thanks for your feed back Maura, I will follow that for my next assignment which already started to formulate.



Dear Shahd,

This is a wonderful, informative, enlightening piece of work and presented with professionalism. I'm so interested to read about Suzan and her peaceful -- and patient!-- approach to the enormous challenges faced by Kurdish women in Iraq. Not until last year, when I began to get to know my Syrian Kurdish Correspondent, "Hummingbird," did I feel the injustices committed against the Kurdish people, especially women.

Now, after reading your Module 1 assignment, I understand and appreciate all the more. Suzan sounds like a woman who is shining with dignity and resolve . . . as are you!

With Love,

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby

shahd's picture

Dear Sara, Thank you so much.

Dear Sara,

Thank you so much. That was very encouraging. I agree with you. Women in Kurdistan and Iraq have great leadership potentials and they deserve an opportunity to present it

Love and respect

Y's picture

Every great movement starts

Every great movement starts with a strong vision. Ms Aref is able to succeed because she has a clear mission and planned approach. "Ms Aref thought that responding to religious people aggressively would make things worse. She used her organization as a tool to communicate with imams. She suggested hearing sessions and workshops to train the imams to take the laws under consideration, when issuing rules that concern women."
Thank you for so well inspiring followers for her path to peace.
Blessings to you, Shahd.


shahd's picture

I am the one thankful that

I am the one thankful that you read and made comments this means alot to me

Y's picture

I would like to follow more

I would like to follow more of your posts.


shahd's picture

it would be my pleasure to

it would be my pleasure to share them with you

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