"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 ekurd.net 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.