The Americanization of a Middle Eastern City

Iraqi Kurdistan has an amazing nature and beautiful parks. But the capital Erbil was long a city with little infrastructure because of the many wars, and has only started to build up the last decade. Where other cities in Kurdistan had roads, sidewalks and restaurants, Erbil is still in many of it’s neighborhoods a city someone called “The wild west”.

So what happens when a region starts to rise up, especially if it’s full of oil? The international companies enters big-time, most of them American – and the urban planning of tags along. Kuwait saw the same development after the Gulf War.

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So in a city that copies the big cities overseas, before you plant trees you build villas guarded by fence.

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Or high-rise buildings before you finish the roads.

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…and no supermarkets to add some life to the suburban blocks. Internationalization has its benefits, but also its doubts.erbil 4

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Dina – Women’s Rights Activist in Iraq

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Dina Najem became an activist after finishing her degree in French at the university in Baghdad, when she started blogging and became active in social media and realized how invisible the women were in Iraqi media.

“Iraq has always been a closed society,” she says. “Even before the US invasion the society was controlling towards women, and after 2003 there was no security at all. Women couldn’t even walk outside alone.”

Dina, now 24, decided she wanted to work for women to be able to participate more in the society.

“I have myself no support from the society” she says. “It’s my husband and my family that supports me. The government has the ability to improve the lives for Iraq’s women, they have the financial resources, but they are not doing anything.”

After a few years as an activist within local NGOs and social media Dina applied in 2012 to the Swedish Institute’s academic program for human rights activists from the Middle East and North Africa, “Social Innovation in a digital context”. She was accepted as one of 15 participants, and so was her husband Hayder, who is also an activist.

“I wanted to focus on women” she says. “Men are already dominating trainings, the political life, everything.”

She believes many women have not been fighting for their own rights.

“The war made so many stay at home, they were prevented from educating themselves. Women don´t have the knowledge to demand their rights.The one that does are not a big number.”

Lack of technical skills is another reason for the absence of women in Iraqi media according to Dina.This makes them unable to compete with men who are in the same business. With the knowledge gained on digital media from the Swedish Institutes program Dina was able to start training others.

After the six months long course she returned in April this year to Baghdad and started the photography project “Rights Without Words” for young women in the ages of 20 to 30. She went herself to look for a sponsor and got International Media Support to fund the project. By publishing information about the course online she received an overwhelming number of applications. There are obviously many young Iraqi women that want to make their spot on the media scene.

Finally Dina chose to include 22 participants instead of 15 as originally planned. The training was divided into three courses: human rights, photography and social media.

“I want to promote human rights in a creative way in my project. The participants have learned how to express themselves by photography, and how to illustrate the declaration of human rights without using any words.”

Dina has already been able to show the photos in the Iraq National Theatre, when the Iraqi musician Nasser Shamma was hosting a concert, a previously rare but nowadays more frequent happening in the capital.

Dina hopes that the world is interested of the positive development that is taking place in Iraq. She and her husband are not planning to move abroad – they want to continue with their activism despite the insecurity in Iraq. Even though she criticizes the domestic politics she thinks that there is hope in the expanding civil society. The many applicants to her project are a sign of willingness to change.

“I’m hopeful” she says. “I see so many girls that want to study and participate in everything.”

Next up in her work is to focus on women bloggers, and she also wants to work with mixed groups of young women and men. In a country where the sexes often are separated she thinks it’s crucial for women and men to work together and get to know each other.

The struggle for women’s rights is the core of her activism and she openly calls herself a feminist despite the resistance she often encounters. At the same time she is a Muslim and proud of that.

To the ones who question Dina’s commitment to human rights in a country where civilians are killed every day, she usually says:

“Well, but you can’t just sit on your chair. You have to defend your own rights.”

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Participants in “Rights Without Words”

Photos: Copyright Dina Najem

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

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Umayyad Mosque in the heart of Damacus old city, an ancient building completed in year 715. Photos are taken during a Friday evening in June 2013.

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Also an excellent place to spend a Friday night at, for prayers and socializing. Or a playground, with it’s shiny floor perfect for sliding on…

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Let’s hope it will remain throughout the war.

Photos: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Ruth Benyamin – The Real Miss Iraq 2013

Getting hold of Ruth Benyamin, the 67th Miss Iraq and winner of this year’s Miss Iraq competition, is not easy. The competition is no longer accepted by everyone, why in recent years Iraq’s beauty queens has stepped down one after another after death threats from hardcore religious groups, the competition had to move abroad – and Talat model agency that are handling the contest are careful. Over the course of a few months I exchange e-mails with the agency and upon request e-mail the questions that I want to ask in advance. Then all of a sudden I am in touch with the current Miss Iraq of 2013, or, as she boldly calls herself on Twitter and other social media: The Real Miss Iraq.

Ruth Benyamin was chosen in June this year after the first winner stepped down, but not due to death threats this time, according to Ruth it is because she wanted to get married – there seem to be many reasons for the Iraqi beauty queens not being able to hold on to their title. Ruth tells me that she in general is discouraged from giving interviews for security reasons, but she takes her time and writes me several e-mails with long replies to the questions. Born to an Iraqi father and a Hungarian mother, Ruth is actually one of the few Iraqis winning the last years’ competition.

“Miss Iraq is an old competition, being a titleholder is a great honor” she says. “I am the 67th titleholder, 66 previous amazing women have worn the crown, and they have represented different Iraqi ethnic backgrounds and have done well in their lives.”

This year’s competition was held in private and not advertised, why Ruth was officially crowned in a private cocktail party in Heidelberg, Germany. She explains that not many people know about the contest since the organizers keep a low profile due to the threats, and because of this, holding the crown doesn’t give her as much media attention as it could:

“The pageant itself is not a televised competition so it doesn’t get much exposure. There were attempts by organizers to sell air rights to various Iraqi TV satellite stations, but the deal were rejected as TV stations had their own reservations, plus they didn’t want to be attacked by Iraq’s hard line Shiite government.”

Her guess is that this will remain the conditions for the competition, citing the dependency on the country’s security but also the fact the modelling industry in Iraq is very limited and that there is no Iraqi fashion magazines.

Although born and raised in UK, Ruth has visited Iraq several times and have ideas about the potential development of the country. She points out that she believes the situation in Iraq will remain the same unless a three state solution is adopted; this means that apart from the already existing autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Southern/Central Iraq should be divided into two states, in order to curb the ethnic violence. She seems well acquainted with this political idea:

“Part of my work as Miss Iraq is promoting such a plan, a peaceful three-state solution. There is already a Miss Kurdistan which is treated as a contest that represents an independent country, and it’s not called Iraqi Kurdistan, for example.” Later on, when explaining why she would recommend another young Iraqi woman to participate in the competition, she adds: “You become nationalistic once you compete. We were 16 girls who competed in the 2013 edition in Mombasa-Kenya, each representing a city state. I represented Lagash (state in South-Eastern Iraq, author’s comment), we did not win local pageants, because there are no local pageants, but each candidate wears a banner of a city state and it was an amazing experience to learn about our heritage, culture and history.”

Ruth was modelling part time before being crowned Miss Iraq and is all positive about the sudden change in her life that the title has brought her:

“Talat Models has kept me busy travelling from one place to another. I have been to Dubai (where I am based, I am provided a luxury furnished apartment which I share with Miss Teen Iraq, Lina Ovadia), I have been invited by the Iraqi community in Brazil, Germany, I visited Frankfurt, Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Budapest, Rome, and I will visit Sydney and Auckland later in December… The advantages are that I get public relations training, etiquette classes, a model portfolio, public speaking.”

She hopes for a career in hotel management and believes that the work experiences she gets as Miss Iraq is beneficial for the future. As for her personal experience, she says:

“The title has shaped my personality and my perspective on life, it definitely boosted my confidence as young lady.”

Entering the contest was not only a daring decision for a young Iraqi woman, living outside Iraq is not necessarily a guarantee for safety; Ruth is also Jewish, an Iraqi minority that left the country en masse due to suppression, especially during the 1940s and 50s but also after. So what was the response from the Iraqi community on her participation?

“I guess some people like me, some don’t, so far the twitter feedbacks have been positive. Some feel because I’m Jewish that I don’t represent Iraq” she says, then adding, diplomatically: “But those are a minority.”

And diplomacy is definitely a much needed skill, when being in the sometimes dangerous position of the Iraqi beauty queen, that many of her predecessors have left in advance. The Real Miss Iraq seems to hold it up very well so far.

Photocredit: http://iraqibeauties.blogspot.com/

Saudi Women – Gender Apartheid: 1-0

General court in RiyadhFinally a change that’s not an April fool’s joke!

Today on October 6 Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Justice is supposed to issue licenses for four female lawyers, that would make them eligible to work as lawyers in the country. Previously, Saudi women have only been able to work as legal consultants, meaning they could not open law firms or represent clients in court. With the change in practice, not only could the Saudi female lawyers now practice the profession they spent years educating themselves to exercise, it would also mean that women who are trials now have the right to have a woman representing them for the first time ever. Women who are meeting their ex-husbands in court over custody battles and in the very few cases of domestic violence brought to court, women often found themselves being the losing one, no matter how strong her case was. With professional women in the legal system women will at least have a voice in the court room.

On social websites the news was flooded with comments from all sides. Not everyone was positive to the potential impact it will have on the society. “Baby steps” a comment on the link that the Facebooksite Saudi Women to Drive shared with the news; “Where will they work?” asked another. It’s impossible for me not to agree on the criticism, but baby steps with Western standards for gender equality is in Saudi Arabia a game where Saudi Women today scored 1-0 against the gender apartheid system.

I’d prefer to say: What’s next?

Photo credit: rt.com/AFP Photo

Who Cares About a Dead Iraqi Anyways?

On a week like this, when 55 persons in Baghdad has been killed by bombs in a vegetable market; outside a mosque and in residential areas, I feel with the Iraqis, and I feel with the families of the assassinated civilian people that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 55 persons of yesterday were not the only ones: last month almost 1.000 people were killed all over Iraq.

And I’m relieved that I’m not working for an Iraq mission as I have in the past, even though safely tucked away in the comfort of Kuwait or Iraqi Kurdistan. Relieved because I don’t have to work Skype and the phone to make sure none of my Iraqi colleagues are among the murdered. Because what would happen if they were?

No one would be hunted down by the local police and tried in front of the justice system, where they would get their rightful punishment, that in turn would discourage others from committing the same crime. No office or NGO would close for the day or a minute of silence be demanded in order to respect the dead. No debriefing would be given to the other staff to help them cope with the loss. Work would carry on as normal and the organization would send their condolences to the family while starting the recruitment process for someone new. Years back in an Iraq mission, my expat colleague whose team member was taken from his own house under gunpoint by one of the many militias, and tortured for hours before being killed, was left on her own to choke back tears in front of her laptop after the murder. Because who cares about a dead Iraqi anyways?

The colleague of ours was actually a person, a real human being. He happened to be friendly and everyone in the office liked him. He had a family that loved him, a mother and a father, sisters and brothers that missed him deeply when he was gone. But in the eyes of many he was a nobody, just another dead Iraqi. I rest quite assured things remain the same for the Iraqis whose lives are lost today.