One day late in October, I travelled to Halabja with my colleague Bayan to visit the Amez Center, one of the partner organizations of Kvinna till Kvinna. Halabja is a war ridden town, on the border to Iran, about 270 km from Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI). Even though there now is peace in Halabja and the living situation generally has improved, women and girls are still struggling for their basic rights and freedoms. The Amez Center, founded in 2005, offers a safe space for women and girls to meet and take part in trainings, cultural events, seminars and other activities. The overarching aim of Amez is to empower women and ensuring women’s human rights. In the past few months, Amez has grown and more women are asking to take part in Amez’s activities, both in the town of Halabja and in the nearby villages.
When we first arrived at the Amez Center, we were invited to watch a drama lesson with a group of young girls.
I and Bayan later sat down with the staff talking about their work. They told us that the new classes teaching women traditional carpet making are very appreciated, and we could tell from the samples we were shown that the women had developed strong carpet making skills. The sport lessons are very popular too. The day before our meeting, 50 women had met to do sports together. For the first time in Halabja, women through Amez are able to use the big sports hall in the town. It is a big achievement for women in Halabja to be able to exercise together in the big sports hall, to claim what is generally considered as a male space as well as improving their physical and mental health. Amez is now in negotiations to rent a big swimming hall to offer women swimming lessons.
Amez’s driving lessons for women have also proven to be a great success: 150 women have signed up for taking driving lessons with Amez and 47 women are now learning how to drive. Amez staff are taking driving lessons as well, and one staff member, Jwan, has managed to get her driving license.
I talked to two of the women taking driving lessons with Amez, Reshna and Shno. Both Reshna and Shno work as teachers and they are looking forward to being able to drive to work. It has not been possible for them to take driving lessons before. Many women in the villages near Halabja are asking for driving lessons too. The women told us that it is dangerous and unheard of for women to take a taxi by themselves. “A driving license means freedom,” said one of the women in the village Sirwan.
We visited the village Awaiy Rostem beg, near Halabja, where Amez with the support of Kvinna till Kvinna runs sport, sewing and literacy courses. We met with about 50 of the women course participants. All courses take place in a community hall in the village, and the teachers are from the village and have been trained by Amez. We had a discussion with the women about their needs and their experiences with the courses. Several women expressed that they need a space to go to, and that, apart from the training course with Amez, “there is nowhere for women to go”. The women want to continue with training courses. Women said that they also want to learn how to drive, to swim, to speak English and one woman said they want to set up their own organization in the village. Amez is planning to continue working with the women in Awaiy Rostem beg village.
We also visited Sirwan village where 20 women are taking sewing lessons five days a week for two hours . None of the women in the course have work outside their homes. One woman joked: “We are employed as dishwashers”. The teacher said that she has 100 % course attendance, all the participants come for every lesson since they are so motivated to take part in the activities. One of the women said that there is nothing in Sirwan for women. Another woman said that she longed for a job and the possibility for her to be able to support herself financially.
After staying the night in Halabja we had another meeting with all of the Amez staff the next day, talking about Amez’s work in 2014 and their vision for the future. Amez staff dream to set up a “Folk High School” for women (“Kvinnofolkhögskola” in Swedish, a Scandinavian style adult education college). They also dream of being able to help women to reach increased self-reliance and independence through supporting them in selling products of their own making, such as traditional carpets, knitted and sewn clothes and other items.
I drove back to Erbil feeling hope and happiness after spending time with the women activists in Amez and meeting with the women in Halabja and its surrounding villages. The women are all so eager for change and for improving the situation for women and girls in the Halabja region.