Female journalists face sexual harassment in Iraqi Kurdistan

Photo credit of Monkhouse Law

By Ahang Hussein

Shirin Mohammed, 28, works in public relations of a media outlet and has to make tens of phone calls with contacts everyday which sometimes results in sexual harassment, a matter embarrassing for her since she is married.

One evening, she receives a short message SMS says “I miss you.” It was from some one whom she had to contact one day as part of her daily duties to get a quote for a story.

“That man had already asked me to go out and have an affair but I rejected it and informed my husband about it. I showed the SMS to my husband and he called him and stopped him. I plan to take the case to court as well.”

Women face harassment at work especially those working for the media is challenge for women all over the world and it has escalated in Iraqi Kurdistan Region IKR.

A recent poll by a project called our voices by PAO NGO, found out that 62% of the 323 women participants, activists and journalists, in the polls have received sexually harassing messages and comments on daily bases.

Dunia Karim, 34, said a colleague in the media outlet she was working for in Sulaymaniyah was trying to get close to her. They were sharing work information via Facebook.

"He was using some sexual words which I have avoided to show him we are just working together," Karim recalls her bitter story.

In an evening while she was heading to home, she could not find a taxi and he insisted to give her a ride. "He asked you how such a beautiful girl like you have not got married so far and I respectfully responded but he diverted the chat. He wanted to touch me and refused and asked him to stop or I will shout."

The rejection has turned her life at work into a nightmare.

"He knew I wouldn't get into such an affair then he was forcing me to stay for longer our in order to work closer to him. I could not stand all that and decided to quit," she added.

"There is no code of ethics in most of the media outlets and do not take into consideration IFJ's."

Niyaz Abdullah, author, journalist and trainer of journalists' rights, believes the main reason behind sexual harassment women face in the media is disregard for code of ethics, whether in house or international.

"Secondly, there is no contract between the employer and the journalist, male or female. Even if there is, no item guarantees the right of the journalist."

Abdullah thinks the workplace also should be transparent and suitable for group work in order to avoid close spaces where harassment is practiced.

"All these lead to disappearance of free voices and free independent media which the leading parties in IKR work for in order to give more space to the (shadow media) indirectly affiliated to them which have become a field for non professional people."

The absence of NGOs to legally defend rights of sexually-abused women legally "pushes them to keep silent."

The syndicate of journalists in Kurdistan says there are different forms of sexual harassment and they offer support to the female journalists whom in most cases prefer not to file lawsuit.

Nazakat Hussein, secretary of committee to defend rights of journalists in the syndicate said half of 70 women journalists took part in a questionnaire said they have faced sexual harassment.

"Some of them were asked to have sex while others were told to accept it as part of their job. Some bosses offered promotions in return of sex," she added. "Those who were sexually abused were given empty promises and part of them were dismissed following an affair."

The social traditions are a concrete barrier in front of women to report such cases, Hussein concludes.

"Unfortunately, our community is so sensitive about such issue that most of the cases stay secret and goes unreported."

Hussein pushes for a legal framework that supports women and pushes main to refrain from using their position for sexual gains.

"The media in general and this issue have not been clearly regulated by law in the IKR. All goes per the mood of the director of the outlet, who can fire, threaten, harass and even pay cut."

Reports number 25 and 26 prepared by the committee Hussein chairs end of 2020, show that women between 20-30 years old are subject sexual harassment followed by those aged 30-40, in all media outlets, free or affiliated to a political party.

Hussein says "this has become a phenomenon in IKR" and it is reported in the Iraqi media as well.

Amira al-Jabiri, a Baghdad-based Iraqi anchor, was fired for rejecting sex with the director of the TV channel. Jabiri said it was her own source of income to make living for her and her only daughter and mother.

"I am not afraid alike other women journalists and file lawsuit for the disgusting act against me. There are no serious developments in the case. I am not regretful and those ugly people should be sent to court."

Last year, Al-Rasif website published a report involved 100 women journalists from all over Iraq. Half of them have faced sexual harassment, 67% were verbally harassed and 22% physically.

The syndicate for journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan is offering a platform for women journalists to share their stories in order to be documented and pass it to the parliament seeking for legal cover.

"We also plan to launch awareness training for women journalists," Hussein said.

"Women journalists should not stay silent because those who practice such acts are mafias who should go to jail."

Abdullah, a journalist for the last 17 years, agrees with Hussein that female journalists should be aware of their rights.

"They should not just push to be shown on TV screens. They have to read and acknowledge their right. Journalists should be well-educated and cautious."

Abdullah urges women to stand in the face of sexual harassment, file their cases despite the gaps in the legal system but still there are judges who fairly take these cases into consideration."

Note: Dunia Karim and Shirin Mohammed are pseudonyms for safety and security reasons.

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