Houzan Mahmoud is the Co-Founder of Culture Project. She is a women’s rights activist, campaigner, and defender, and a feminist. She is a friend and colleague, too. In this wide-ranging and exclusive interview, Mahmoud discusses the Kurds, Iraq, women’s rights, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You are a women’s rights activist, feminist, and an anti-war activist. You were born in Iraqi Kurdistan. What were the moments of political awakening for you?
Houzan Mahmoud: One of the things I’ll never forget is the break-out of war between Iraq and Iran. I was only six-years-old at the time. Iraq’s bloody dictator Saddam Hussein coming to political power in 1979 changed our lives in Kurdistan and Iraq forever.
Being Kurdish poses all sorts of problems as it is, and living under the fascist regime of Saddam made things incredibly hard for my family.
Prior to Saddam coming to power, my brothers took up arms during late 70’s against Iraq’s regime, I was too little to remember the particulars. However, what I do know is that from 1973 to 1991 I grew up and lived under one of the most horrendous regimes in modern history.
I am forty-four years old now, but I still live with the horrors I faced during my childhood and adolescence years living in Iraq. From the day I was born, all the way to this moment, all I have witnessed is war, a never-ending war in Iraq.
That’s why even my life in London is very much shaped and affected by the events that have and are still unfolding in Iraq and Kurdistan. I have many shared memories with my own people from the region, memories of struggle, loss of loved ones, horrors of genocide, and the pain of having to leave our homes again and again.
I live like a nomad; even if I live in a home I always think to myself, “I am not sure how long I will be living here — where next?”
Jacobsen: How did you come to align with the principles inherent in feminism and anti-war activism?
Mahmoud: I grew up in a warzone. A climate of long-lasting and bloody wars, a constant exodus and displacement. I am strongly opposed to war because it only brings devastation and abject poverty.
It destroys homes, it destroys entire lives. However, I wouldn’t say that I am a pacifist largely due to the environment in which I was born. As Kurds, we are always subjected to the horror of war, occupation, and repetitive cultural, linguistic and physical genocides.
For example, I support the armed struggle of Rojava against the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). In such cases, you can have one option: you either take up arms or be ruled by the monstrous forces of ISIS.
As for my feminist principles, there were various reasons that are personal, social and political. Of course, when you grew up in a socially-conservative society, a place in which every move you make somehow amounts to either shame or honour, if you adopt progressive views there is a considerable backlash, you become a ‘rebel’.
The mentality that women are ‘inferior’ and men are superior is somehow imbued with almost every aspects of daily life — politics, art and literature. The language we speak carries a great deal of words that reinforce women’s subordination.
I must admit that from a very early age, I was aware of my own position in my society, I felt trapped, powerless and lonely. I felt stranded on a small planet that was destroyed by war. Making the smallest demand for women’s rights felt like a crime.
Everything was about war, killing, survival, and political-struggle against the enemy. There was little room for feminist ideas. Even when I joined a leftist political party, hoping that it provide the equality I sought after, I felt it was a man’s club.
I left it and started reading feminist books intensively, as well as the history of feminism and the different schools of thoughts. I found within feminism a home, a place in which an ideology truly spoke for women.
So, yes, going through a painful life journey full of loss and being a woman was and still is not easy. That’s why feminism is vital to me, to my thinking, activism, and worldview.
Jacobsen: What are the more immediate concerns for women’s rights relevant to the Iraqi Kurdish community?
Mahmoud: There are many issues to fight against, such as so-called ‘honour killings’, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced and arranged marriages, and other forms of violence — like many other societies in the world.
Kurdish women are fighting against all of these issues, and they’re fighting outside invaders too — such as ISIS. So the problems are not limited, but are changing and are varied in addition to the political instability that, as we know, forays into the lives of women and their rights.
Jacobsen: You co-founded Culture Project, which is a platform for “Kurdish writers, feminists, artists, and activists.” What inspired it — its theme and title?
Mahmoud: I am one of the founders of Culture Project and have supported it, as well as having worked with various organisations and campaigns that highlight and assuage violence against women.
One thing that was missing was a holistic approach to the important need of raising awareness about gender and feminism and challenging cultural productions that are patriarchal and male-dominated.
So, I discussed the idea with a couple of friends and supporters about creating such a platform, a platform that supported those people who have non-conformist views, as well as challenging regressive/conservative norms and values which are “traditional”.
This platform is open for all regardless of sex and gender. We would love to bring forward new faces, young writers and others in order to create a debate and produce new knowledge that challenges the old schools of thought.
As for the name, I thought that if we give it a name that gave our organisation the appearance it is female-only, it will just limit our scope of work. We decided to call it Culture Project in order to be inclusive of all people: activists, writers, philosophers, feminists, novelists, poets, etc.
Jacobsen: What have been some of its more popular articles — title and contents?
Mahmoud: We have various writers on both our Kurdish and English websites — websites proving to be very popular. Of course, on the Kurdish website, we have far more writers, poets, feminist writers, philosophical essays, art and cultural reviews, etc., as well as short stories.
On our English website, we have a very well-informed new generation of young Kurds who are active politically and are critical of the status-quo in Kurdistan. They challenge existing gender relations.
You can find some very interesting poems, short stories, artistic-writing, and essays. One of the important pillars of our project is that we have gender and feminist awareness at its core.
We promote and motivate our writers to be gender sensitive and champion feminist positions. When we were in Kurdistan in May, we hosted a debate on Feminism and Art, which was very well attended and created a very interesting debate.
Jacobsen: As a secular feminist have there been threats to your life, or others involved with the project?
Mahmoud: There have been several threats directed at me when we launched our Anti Sharia Campaign in Kurdistan and Iraq back in 2005. Even now when I write and criticise Islamism and advocate for feminist ideals I get hate mail, threats and expletive diatribes on Social media.
Also, one of our writers who openly writes against Islamism received letters containing death threats. The fact is that those of us who are non-compromising and are open in our criticism of Islam and Islamism our lives are automatically in danger. We are not safe in either the Middle East nor in the UK.
Jacobsen: What are the unique concerns of women and girls in war in contrast to boys and men, in general?
Mahmoud: One of the major features of all wars is the use of rape as a weapon of war. Most of the times women in war situations end up becoming victims to rape, trafficking, sexual slavery and dealing with the consequences of the devastations that war brings to their societies.
For example, women who become widows in socially conservative societies who have very little welfare are living in dire conditions. Conversely, men and boys, who are fighting, face death, injuries and other war traumas.
However, in some cases, men who are caught as prisoners of war are sexually assaulted as an act of humiliation in order to breakdown their ‘manhood’. The case of the Yezidi genocide committed by ISIS symbolises this horror.
Women were taken as spoils of war; they could be raped, sold and turned into slaves. Men who did not convert were killed.
Jacobsen: Looking into the past a bit, you were one of the speakers for the March, 2003 London, United Kingdom anti-war rally. What was the content of, and the reaction to, the speech?
Mahmoud: I used to take part in anti-war demonstrations against US-lead wars in Afghanistan. Later on, when the US and its allies decided to attack Iraq in 2003, I became more involved and active in the anti-war efforts in UK and elsewhere.
I asserted my opposition to the war on Iraq, despite the fact of being Kurdish and someone who has suffered immensely under Saddam’s regime. I still didn’t think that any foreign intervention was going to improve our lives.
I also emphasised that this war will only bring more terrorism because it will strengthen political Islam, i.e. Islamism. Some people on the political Left liked my opposition to the war but disliked my opposition to political Islam, as they view them as an “anti-imperialist” resistance.
To me, however, this is absurd — how can a terrorist force that kills, beheads, and oppresses women have anything to do with resisting imperialism?
There is no doubt that we all wanted an end to Saddam’s totalitarian regime, but I was opposed to the foreign invasion. In this region, we don’t have a good experience with foreign interventions and colonialism throughout history.
Imperialist powers invade, destroy and support or install puppet regimes to serve their interest only. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan — since the invasion, we are faced with much more terrorism, instability, poverty, displacement, and mass migration of people.
There is a humanitarian disaster and an endless tragedy of war and bloodshed.
Jacobsen: As well, you have been on major news media such as The Guardian, The Independent, BBC, CNN, NBC, and Sky News. You have campaigned strongly against Sharia law in addition to the oppression of women in Iraq and Kurdistan. Does this campaigning against Sharia law extend into the international domain?
Mahmoud: Yes, because political Islamist groups are now everywhere seeking to impose Islamist ideals on people and restricting freedom of speech and expression. Even in UK, we have the problem with religious schooling, Mosques that advocate for Jihad, and hate speech.
We have Sharia councils that violate women’s rights. I am part of the One Law for All coalition that seeks to expose these violations and influence government policymakers. The struggle for women’s rights, secularism and universal values is an international struggle.
I always felt I was part of this worldwide struggle even if we are confined to local issues, but we fight with a universal vision for rights, gender equality, secularism and an egalitarian alternative to patriarchal capitalist system.
Jacobsen: What religious/irreligious worldview and ethic makes the most sense with respect to the proper interpretation of the world to you?
Mahmoud: I am not interested in any religions that seek to convince me of another world. I live here in the now, that is what it matters to me. I take a stand against injustice, class division and the gender apartheid that is currently taking place.
We need to replace the horrendous climate that has been created by capitalism and corporate profit-making by creating a heaven on this earth, one in which we are all treated equally, fairly and with justice for all.
I have no time for tales of heaven and hell in another world. There is no evidence of such realms. However, I have experienced very similar places here in this earth. After having lived in war zones and having had fought for survival, being in London is to me like heaven.
I felt human again. I can enjoy the freedoms I am entitled to as a woman. I owe it to the struggle of generations of powerful feminist movements in this country.
Jacobsen: Does this comprehensive activism — women’s rights, Kurdish culture, feminism, anti-war, and, I assume, others — come from the religious/irreligious worldview at all?
Mahmoud: To me, they come from an irreligious worldview. This is because religions limit our imaginations and they limited our freedom of thought. Religion restricts human creativity, it restricts our freedom of ideas.
It subjects people to outmoded dictates — be they from the Bible, the Quran, or any other holy book. The notion of sin, guilt, shame and honour create a gender divide and it imposes a heteronormative narrative that is shamefully discriminative.
As a woman, I felt I was half human when I was religious. I felt everything I do was loaded with guilt, and that I am somehow inferior to men. When I started to question and dislike all the restrictions I realised that religion is not for me and that it is a man-made and merely in the service of men.
The more I read into world-religion, the more I realised it is extremely patriarchal and oppressive towards women.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved with the Culture Project, or in the advocacy and promotion of Kurdish culture, even donate to initiatives relevant to their advocacy and promotion?
Mahmoud: Well, we really need help and support from talented people, people who have editing skills, who can review and analyse art work, who can write reports, proposals, and we need people who have design skills. Any support through volunteering would be deeply cherished.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Houzan.
Mahmoud: You are most welcome, it is my pleasure.
*Views expressed in this publication are not necessarily those of IHEYO.*
Original Publication in Humanist Voices.
Image Credit: Houzan Mahmoud.