Women had noticeable active labor participation in the pre-modern patriarchial Kurdish communities. Beside their house-holding cares and rearing children, they were participating in farming and various bread wining activities such as sheep-herding, construction, and weaving rugs. This active female labor participation lasted till mid 20th century, when successive Iraqi governments started disrupting and halting them.
The Iraqi governments disruptive interventions by carking down on Kurdish rebellions basically changed the structure of Kurdish society; they displaced them and destroyed thousands of their villages. Their military operations and conflicts transferred lots of grazing lands and productive farming fields to land-mine fields.
Government policies, military conflicts, and security measures responding to the ongoing instability pushed Kurdish country-dwellers to leave their villages and flee to some newly built compounds and towns, that were less vigorous from Holocaust concentration camps.
Though, the males could adapt to the new environment and quickly pick up new professions and town’s lifestyle, but women could not. They basically lost their economic roles, and their options were limited between house-holding care and reproduction. Consequently, several generations of Kurdish women stayed without any opportunity of paid work.
The New, But Unfriendly, Labor Market
Currently, many Kurdish women, with college degrees and needed skills, are looking to gain access to the labor market in both public and private sectors. Due to the recent financial crisis that hit KRI, public sector stopped to create any new opportunity for them, while this sector used to be the main job-maker for educated women.
Now, graduates are looking for jobs in private companies or opening their own small businesses and entrepreneur projects. Many malls, supermarkets, private schools, kindergartens, and small shops in big cities and towns are run mostly by women.
In some businesses and sectors like female clothes-stores, cosmetic shops, clinics, pharmacies, laboratories, the number of female-employees has increased. Even though there is no reliable data and statistics to show how big and effective the improvement is, it could be seen as an important economic and social breakthrough for modern Kurdish society.
The new female workers are quite different from those who used to work in village economy and mostly doing unpaid-within family jobs. Currently, they have their own paid work and direct income. This phenomenal change is expected to elevate their status in family power-structure and their relations to their fathers, brothers, and husbands.
The fact that she works and can support her family financially makes her more valued and esteemed, considering the bitter memories that previously Kurdish parents valued their sons and liked to have boys rather than girls. The mentality was reinforced by the fact that boys have better access to labor market than girls; in addition to other religious, cultural, and political factors.
Current Challenges and Needed Solutions
Despite the aforementioned positive signs for improving women’s labor market, there are many challenges to the new female labors in KRI. All the region’s financial, political, and economic crises following the ISIS war and international oil price-crash badly affected them.
Plus, they are also suffering with the KRIs weak legal system and ineffective governmental institutions regarding all the workplace challenges.
The KRI’s financial crisis, started in 2014, slowed down economic growth and left hundreds of thousands with no jobs. The risen unemployment created a golden opportunity for private sector companies to take advantage of this cheap labor supply. It lowered down their payments and harden their work conditions; usually as in any market where labor supply is higher than demand.
To prevent business owners from exploiting the over supplied labor hands, especially female workers, government institutions interventions are needed. There should be strict law enforcement institutions to protect female-workers and make sure that their environment is good enough and their rights are not violated.
There are actually some good laws and directives to guarantee female labors rights, but the law enforcement institutions in KRI are too weak to protect female employees from work-place challenges. There is always a room to play with the labor-friendly laws and ultimately exploit employees.
For instance, a private kindergarten in Kalar (South of Sulaimaniayah), hired a teacher in a salary of 200,000 IQD (about $168)/month, while the salary is 300,000 IQD on her contract. The kindergarten can’t hire her less than 300,000 IQD, which was set as a minimum wage by relevant educational institutions’ directives. This is just an example to show how the oversupplied job market enabled business owners to exploit female labors.
Similar to other Middle Eastern countries and regions, the dominant patriarchal mindset poses many issues, stereotypes, and gender roles that could keep women away from labor market. Some of them are actually designed just to disadvantage women in workplaces.
Government institutions, rights groups, policy makers should address these issues and play their roles in providing fair and safe work conditions for women.