Mary Noble – Founder and CEO of Feminenza International
Diana Nammi – Founder and CEO of IKWRO
(Iranian Kurdish Women Rights Organisation: www.ikwro.org.uk, Photo by Andrew Parsons)
17 December, 2020
“There is no honour in “honour” based violence”
Diana Nammi is a remarkable, determined woman and activist for human/women’s rights. She was active as an underground women’s rights leader in Iran from the age of 15. To save her own life and the lives of others, she joined the Peshmerga as a freedom fighter, with whom she fought for 12 years, all the while continuing to meet with women and educate them about their rights, as women and as human beings. Her journey as a Pashmerga freedom fighter is told in detail in her book “Girl with a gun”
Diana considers herself to be extremely lucky and fortunate to have had an upbringing that was very unusual for most women at that time. Her father wished all his daughters to marry for love with a man of their choosing, he also wished for them to be educated, and he himself put himself in danger defending a young woman at her wedding, it was a forced marriage. Diana’s courage was greatly fueled by her father’s support, as she could not abide and sit quiet while her friends were forced into marriages at an early age and completely stripped of their rights for education, property ownership, making any choices and decisions for themselves, or their children.
In the early 90’s she fled to the UK as a political refugee as it was extremely unsafe for her to remain and continue her work with the rise of the Islamic Republic in Iran. Shortly after her arrival, she had been confronted again with the horror of “honour” killing when her friend and interpreter was murdered by her husband. Devastated by the ignorance of the UK judicial system about “honour” based abuse, which attributed the act to a traditional cultural moral persuasion within the Kurdish – Iranian community, Diana decided to take matters into her own hands. She formed IKWRO – Iranian Kurdish Women Rights Organisation – where young girls and women in danger of, or facing domestic abuse or “honour” based violence could find counsel about their legal rights, access the mental and emotional support of professional counselors, and find refuge and shelter should they decide to flee for safety away from their families and start a new life.
But taking the first step to leave for a girl or woman at risk from forced marriage is extremely difficult. She risks losing everything she has ever known, her family, her community and lifelong threats to her life…
Feminenza team members had the privilege to meet with Diana and hear about her journey, her values, and her continued motivation for her relentless pursuit to eradicate all violence against women and girls in her community and hopefully the whole world.
The on-line meeting was conducted by Mary Noble, Feminenza CEO.
Diana Nammi: Lovely to meet you all, thank you so much for this time and the opportunity to meet all you wonderful women and for taking the time.
Mary Noble: I wanted to begin by asking you some questions about your work. Having read your book, I’m thoroughly versed with your childhood and your extraordinary story, and how you got to be in the UK, but given the time that we have, I wanted to focus on the work that you do now with your organization. Clearly, things have moved on in the last few years, I can see that awareness is growing in the UK about some of the issues that you’re tackling to do with “Honour” Based Violence (HBV), but I just wonder from your perspective, what for you, are the core challenges that you face as an organization in terms of – is awareness changing in the community? Are women suffering more perhaps because of the lock down situation? Can we just start there? Do you feel things have changed for the better? What are the main issues that you are still struggling with?
Diana Nammi: Yes, of course, since the organization was established over the past 18-19 years, things have changed quite a lot. I remember the first time I was talking about our organization, we talked loudly about HBV and “Honour” Killing, and the challenge was – and still is even today – that other people who heard about it at that time, were concerned that talking about the issues openly and publicly will upset the community. They believe that these issues are best kept within the community and not talked about with others. But we believe that keeping it within the community will not help the lives of women made vulnerable by their circumstances and those at risk of HBV, we have to be their voice. Their life is at risk, so how can we say that for the sake of the community we need to keep silent about women who will suffer, whose lives and rights will be in danger? The hundreds and hundreds of women who have been killed, if it is so bad that we (the community) are so ashamed to talk about it, why should we allow it to happen within the community? So I thought – it’s OK to talk about it loudly!
Another challenge and reason to keep quiet is the issue of racism. People think that if we talk about these issues it will open the door to racism against the community, so we must keep silent. One of the things we want to change at the moment, is the issue of child marriage in the UK, but our campaign has not been supported by some large, famous, very big and well-known organizations because they say that if we talk about child marriage, as it mainly happens within the minority communities, it will trigger racism and will work against us. You know, racism is always on the table for us, regardless of child marriage, regardless of HBV, regardless of our religion or non-religion.
Tackling child marriage
The religious community issues are there for us to tackle, but in the meantime we have to tackle the (other) problems within the community, first of all child marriage in the UK. It is not something happening only in the Iranian communities, it’s happening within our communities more and more, and from a very, very young age. It happens – it’s even legal. It’s within the law in the UK, that at age 16 – 18 – it’s a legal loophole – with the consent of the family a girl can marry, or a boy can get married.
These are challenges that we still have, and we had them before as well, but things have changed quite a lot. We managed to make HBV a part of the Violence Against Women (laws), it’s part of the Domestic Abuse bill in the UK, and it is being considered as formal violence against women, and I think it is mainly thanks to IKWRO that made it a real mainstream issue, and now all the organisations in the UK picked it up and many of them are actually working on that.
Mary Noble: Thank you Diana, I am just wondering – what do you think it would take to start – (and I am sure you have been working this already for many years) to actually change fundamentally the attitude of the men, or presumably both parents, including the mothers, who are complicit in early child marriage, in the forcing of their daughters to get married at an early age? Is there some kind of initiative for dialogue at a community level with men? Are there men who are championing a different attitude? Or is it still quite embedded in terms of “this is our way, this is our tradition, no-one is going to change it”?
Diana Nammi: I think tradition or culture is the surface of things in my opinion. If the main issues change within the communities, many of those problems will be sorted out. But what are the causes that created this kind of violence, especially against women? When we are talking about HBV, we are talking about women who are predominantly victims of violence of HBV, forced marriage, FGM, child marriage, “honour“ killing. But all of those issues belong under the topic of HBV because they all relate somehow to the honour of the community, of the family, or it can be the other side of “what brings shame”, so all of them have got the controlling of women’s bodies, and sexuality, it’s heavily involved in that.
In some cases, forced marriage or child marriage are related to the issue of finance and economy and community poverty, this is a big issue. War is another issue, for example the poorer communities, they have more poverty (caused by war). Child marriage and forced marriage happens mainly in poor families when they can’t feed the family, so they are forcing their children into marriage, usually the girls. And even during war, because of fear of rape or violence in conflict situations, or poverty in conflict situations, many families forced their children to marry or sold their girls to some wealthy people, just to be able to feed the family. In some cases, they try to keep wealth within the family by forcing the children to marry within the family or tribe, this is their way to maintain control over the family’s wealth and economy.
So, there are issues like that, but I have to say that in all these issues, you can see that women are the main victims, and the perpetrators are mainly family, sometimes members of the community and community leaders, but you can see that the victims are predominately women. So, these are the challenges that we still have. What we need is a longer period to work on that, and to solve the economic problems, this is related to politics as well, so the situation is out of our hands. But what we can do perhaps, mainly in the UK and European countries, is raise awareness within the community and especially teach parents and the male community, by working with schools. To educate women themselves about their rights and entitlements in Europe, in the UK.
We are talking with many women now. When they first came to us they have been in the country for 5, 6 or 7 years, they have a few children and yet they still can’t take a bus or go shopping by themselves, because they have been controlled by their partners by giving them wrong information: “if you go out of the house, social services will be after you, if you do something with the children, social services will take your children from you, or your immigration status will be under question, or will be taken away”. So there are lots of threats and misleading information given to women, and they become a prisoner at home and are kept in the dark, not allowed by the parents or in-laws to open their eyes and get to know their rights and entitlements. And when they do get to know their rights and entitlements, they feel that they have options and opportunities.
For example, women from my country in Iran come here, because women in Iran have no rights whatsoever. If a woman wants to seek a divorce, she has no rights or any benefits. A woman that can’t support herself, or doesn’t work will be financially stuck with a violent husband. So when they come here (UK) they don’t know that a woman has good opportunities here, even if she wants to get a divorce, she is entitled for benefits, for housing, she is entitled to seek divorce, and have custody of the children, which are all very, very important elements for any woman. So raising awareness for women and within the community is very important, it’s one of the elements that we stress.
Of course, having the law on our side is very important, for example, forced marriage is one of the issues that women suffered for ages. But because the police and government would say, “It’s your culture and your community wish and your family’s wish, so we have to respect that”, they allow all these problems to happen within the community, without dealing with the problem and acknowledging that women from a minority community should have the same protection and rights and be treated as any British woman, and not be treated differently because of our culture or because we came from another country. If they are supposed to be treated under the same law that they came under in Iran or Iraq or Lebanon or other countries, then why are we here? It is very simple; we could have stayed there. What we really want is this equality, and to be acknowledged by law in detail, from every corner of the law and every corner and every detail of human rights and every detail a British woman is entitled to.
A minority woman is entitled to be educated about that, and it is really empowering to women, opening their eyes, to go and seek their rights and entitlement and not tolerate violence.
Mary Noble: Do you think Diana, that the younger generation who are born here, maybe second generation or even third generation, are becoming more confident, more aware of their rights? Do you think that things will change over the next generation?
Diana Nammi: I hope so, I hope so, and I think that things have changed, and the work that was done over the past 20 years has changed the mindset of the community. It changed to some degree women’s thinking and looking at their lives.
I can give you an example to perhaps make it a bit clearer: I remember when I established the organization in 2002, I knew there were some women within the community that I’d heard about. They had been homeless, had gone through lots of violence, they were being threatened by the family that they will be killed because of “honour”, and it was very risky, because these women had immigration issues and they didn’t even dare to go to the police and seek help because of their immigration situation. And I remember I asked them to come to us so we could help them, but they were worried that if they came to us, we would be mediating between them and their family, or giving information to their family or putting them at a greater risk by not supporting them. So, I remember I was begging them, and I started to work on their cases, and little by little they trusted us and they came forward. I mean it was like that, 20 years ago but now, we have over 700-800 cases, 2000 calls, all from the same communities, because women trust us now and they know more about their situation and about their rights in the UK, they have trust in the services that we provide, and know that we can offer some support to them.
So I am optimistic that with all these changes and the work that everyone, all of us are doing, it really creates more awareness in women of their rights and available support, and this information empowers them, and they come forward.
And of course, I have to say that the political situation around the world is affecting the new generations and so on, for example the rise of fundamentalism in the Middle East for years takes everything backwards and makes the situation worse. Conflict, war, and things like that, always create more problems for women, and increase violence against women. Women have always been the first victims of war, poverty, violence, backward regimes and governments, which affect the new generations here in Europe and their mindset. So (I am) being very optimistic, I am thinking that in the UK things have changed for the better, so far…
Mary Noble: Right, thank you Diana. One of the things I noted when I was watching the drama film about Banaz’s life, was the fact that it was very often the young men of her community who were (in a sense) policing the girls by hanging around the street corners, watching, seeing, immediately reporting back to the families if they saw them talking to a boy or whatever… and I wondered if there was something, as part of this awareness campaign that is also reaching out to the younger generation of men in the community, say in the Kurdish community, or boys, to somehow open their eyes to a different view of gender relations, gender equality, and I wondered how you think about that?
Diana Nammi: Definitely! It’s very important. One of things we started a few years ago is to go into schools and provide training for both boys and girls. We started with colleges, but then we went to other groups of children. Now we are providing the training not only to colleges and universities and secondary schools but to primary schools as well. And we were a bit worried about primary schools because we thought they are too young to understand. But we were surprised, although personally I was not that surprised, because I always thought a girl aged 9 – just grade 3 or 2 – she knows she can be a victim of forced child marriage or a victim of FGM, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to know about their rights, the health risks, and healthy relationships?
We started to work with them and what surprised us is that everyone, even the teachers, were very worried that it would negatively affect the children, but on the contrary, they started to open up and reveal so much. We got so many cases from schools, from a very young age, and they started to disclose about violence at home in their families, to their sisters, mothers, themselves, and it’s impossible that whenever we have got training in any classroom, primary or secondary, not to have disclosure from these classes. So it shows that children know about the problem. They just need to be encouraged to not accept that, to not close their eyes to it and not ignore these problems but to find the help and safety that is available. That is the most important thing for schools and for us, their safety, and they need to understand that, and that’s why I think that working from a very young age will be very helpful.
As I said, we started with colleges. It is more difficult when you are talking to young people. Many of them carry this mindset and it depends on the community they live in and the people around them. So we have been in classes where young men would leave the room when we started to talk, they objected to what we are saying, and left the classroom and went out. So we knew that those young men are very much against what we are saying, and they are trying not to say anything, they just left the class, and we found out it is not easy to work with young men. It really needs systematic work with them, and we have to start working with them from a very young age. I am not saying it’s set in stone, (their minds). If you can work with them, there are minds that can be changed, or there are young men that themselves have good questions about the situation, then the work we are doing can be effective. But I think starting from a young age is very important and we try to make it part of the school curriculum and the school’s work. which many schools have actually accepted and they are inviting us to provide training.
Mary Noble: Fantastic Diana, it’s amazing work…
Liliane: This is such an enormity, it’s huge. My question is – what keeps you going? I mean it’s so huge and sometimes I look at it and think – it’s gone on for thousands and thousands of years – so how can we possibly remove this “thing” that causes all these ideas and notions where “honour” is more important than the life of your child? So what keeps you hopeful that it is possible? That something can change, and something can happen? I watched your Ted Talk and just recalled the story of your father that gave you the courage to start change by doing – by being active but what keeps YOU going really?
Diana Nammi: Ahh thank you. I always strongly believe we have to make change. In my political background and the activities that I have done, I always believed in change, and changing things for improvement became part of my life and my personality and way of life, to not tolerate many things that I believe should not be tolerated or not accept those unacceptable things, like “honour” killing or forced marriage or child marriage. I always thought these are the little things that are the least I can do for my community, our community, and I always thought this is extremely unfair the way that women are treated, especially from my community, the Kurdish community.
We have so many wonderful women that are fighting, even defending the rights of women… but when it comes to the issue of violence against women, they are considered the upholders or responsible for the family honour. This needs to be changed and women should not be treated as second-class citizens, but equal to men in every way. I always thought that we have got to enable the part of the community that has good understanding and is against “honour” killing and against violence against women and to make them talk loudly about those things. And it has been possible, we’ve made changes, and I think these changes in women’s lives have been very rewarding to us. I now listen to those stories about “honour” killing and about so many lives that were taken away by the closest people who should have protected them, anywhere – in Iran, Iraq Pakistan, Afghanistan, in the UK – and they become the people who kill them. When we are saving women and when they come to us, they are in a very devastated state, but after one or two years of working with them, they become an advocate for other women, and that is really rewarding and it’s energizing us to go to work, and this is the thing, I think, that keeps me going and strongly I believe in this change, so, so far, I am OK!!
Mary Noble: Wonderful, wonderful Diana, unstoppable…. you know Liliane and I were in Iraq last December, just a year ago, for a one-week discovery mission, because one of our partners asked us to go to Jordan and from Jordan, they said you need to go to Kurdistan, and we spent a week there, and we met quite a few organizations, there was Emma and BWA and many others… We are trying to find ways also to get funding to do some online processes, trainings, workshops with them as well next year, so we will certainly keep you in mind, but just to say we met extraordinary women there, and that was the thing that was so striking. And to be honest, I hadn’t realized, I’ve worked in Kenya for many years and I was very aware of the issues of FGM in Africa, but I was very unaware that FGM was an issue in other communities like the Kurdish community, and Emma is an organization that’s tackling that. After the Banaz story, Liliane forwarded another Ted Talk of her sister who talked about FGM being done to them. And I thought OMG, it’s everyone, so there’s a lot of education that still needs to happen.
Diana Nammi: Exactly. Any time we are talking about FGM, people always think it happens in Africa, in the black community, but in reality, it’s a pandemic in the Middle Eastern community.
Sandra: Hi Diana, the first thing I wanted to say to you, when we did a project back in 2018, another Erasmus funded project, we met Jasvinder Sanghera who I’m sure you know well, and I think the big attitude shift for me was that this is everybody’s problem, it’s not just a small cultural problem for particular people. And this was really a big eye opener, that even living in Ireland, (and I can also see that’s the clear message I get from your work as well), this is everybody’s problem and this is why I think your work with education is so important for all children and teachers.
Diana Nammi: That’s right, it’s not really an issue just for a small community and working within the community alone, it’s everyone’s issue, should be everyone’s problem, and we have to have a multi agency or multi organization approach to tackle this problem, no one can do it alone…
Mary Noble: I remember one of the issues with Jasvinder – she attended one of our workshops in 2018 and it was wonderful to meet her, as she herself was a victim (and I am sure you know) she had to escape her family and so on – was how to deal with and how to think about the mothers who have perpetrated these things on their daughters. Some of them are still sitting in UK prisons today… and she found herself asking – how to get beyond just seeing them as the enemy? And I suppose this talks to us, because part of our work is trying to find long-term solutions to bring about healing and reconciliation in the long term, without letting go of the core issue of the women’s rights in it. But I think for her, her question – was, was there a way that she could reach out to some of these mothers, maybe find one mother who did feel remorse and would be willing to become an advocate for – you know “listen don’t do this to your daughters” and I wonder how you feel about that? What is your attitude to the parents who have… and if the mother is not the one who’s actually done the killing, she certainly supported it, stood by, allowed it to happen, willingly or unwillingly. What are your thoughts about that?
Diana Nammi: My experience is that of course there are so many mothers who are themselves victims of violence and many of them are not condoning this kind of practice and there were so many mothers that supported their daughters. A few years ago, I heard this father in Baluchistan for example, this father or actually the tribal leader wanted to shoot 6 of the girls within the community, I think some of them were not even killed but just buried alive. The mother tried to cover them (protect them) and she was buried with them…
So some mothers put their lives in danger trying to protect the girls. Mothers themselves, like many other human beings are affected by the issues of honour, and they think that their children and their girls can bring dishonour, and it gives them the right to not support them, or force them into marriage or whatever they want to do just to protect the honour of the family, but definitely there are so many mothers that are against that. And yet many of them will be forced to be involved in their children’s torture or whatever the men are doing.
There have been cases like Shafilea Ahmed – the mother strangled her. Or there are other cases where the mother left her alone with the father to kill her. So it’s different with each woman. One of the cases we have, she kept silence for 10 years. It was Tulay Goren’s mother, she was a Kurdish young woman from Turkey, she was killed by the father and uncle and her body was never found, but her mother initially lied in court because she was threatened that she will be killed and her other daughter will be killed as well, so for the sake of the other daughter and herself, she told the police she didn’t know where Tulay was, and she said that she left with her boyfriend. After 10 years, when we started to campaign against “honour” killing, she came forward and she told the police and the court that she kept silence for 10 years. The father and uncle both killed Tulay and they chopped the body and put it in black bins and took it away. So, there are mothers who come forward, but those mothers are very heartbroken, full of guilt about the death of their daughter, feeling guilty that they could not support them. It’s a lot of emotion and breakdowns. I know that this mother especially does not want to talk to anyone, even to us, she tried to keep silence and she tries to be isolated because she thinks her life is in danger, she is in witness protection, perhaps it’s one of the reasons she can’t have any communication, but I heard she is very depressed and very upset about the whole situation.
Mary Noble: I can imagine, I can imagine the amount of guilt, it is such a complex thing…
Diana Nammi: It’s very complex, but there are mothers, who just say – this is your future husband, marry him or you will never be our daughter anymore, in our eyes you’re dead. There are really women with this kind of attitude and beliefs, like a man. They are like the male members of the family and it is a girl’s duty to do whatever the parents ask her to do, otherwise she brings shame and dishonour.
Mary Noble: Even in very, very small ways, I can understand it from my own background. My parents came from central Europe, my mother was Polish, and I remember growing up, I was born in England, but I remember my mother would always be worried about what the neighbours would think, especially because they weren’t quite English, so there was always this kind of – you have to be extra careful, you’ve got to be extra this or that… you mustn’t do anything that will make you stand out because it was so important to her to be accepted by the British community, even in just this very tiny thing… I can imagine on a bigger scale what some of the complexity of these issues are like…
Zahra: I would like to know your thoughts about fear, the fear amongst women from the Middle Eastern culture especially, because I was living till I was 16 -17 in Iran, and I was raised in the Iranian culture as it was at that time and I know the fear of losing virginity, or not being clean and those things.. and even after living in the Netherlands for many, many years, I was still with that fear, and it had really affected my relationship, my choices for my partner, and even after I was living with my partner for a very short time, I was thinking nobody wants me because I was not really married, I am not a virgin anymore, and things like that. So I know as a girl you grow up with small fears, big fears and also fears of other people. Other women around you sometimes oppress you because of their own fears, and don’t allow you to be yourself, don’t allow you to make your own choices that are right for you, and I was thinking how is it in the work you do with the women you meet, do you see that small fears, big fears affecting their choices, affecting their behaviours, that there is opportunity maybe for them to choose the right things but because of the fear inside them they are not making the right choices for themselves?
Diana Nammi: Definitely, it’s a very important issue. I think fear grows with us and for our clans, as you say from very young age. As soon as we say you are a girl or you are a boy, the difference between boy and girl is that girls should keep their virginity and be pure at the night of their wedding. Lots of fear around us and in some cultures of course you will be killed, shamed, disowned. And there are so many fears surrounding this, especially in the women who are our clients.
For myself, the fear of so many things causes me to make different decisions. Perhaps, if it wasn’t for fear, my life would be different, so from my father’s story, there was a fear that pushed me in the direction to be an activist, because I always tried to fight against this kind of fear and I considered and recognized that this wasn’t only my fear, it was almost everyone’s fear, all women’s fear, as you say.
Virginity is a really big issue within the community. I know, I am sure, that so many women make decisions based on that because they are afraid about whether they are seen as virgins or not when they get married. When they come to us, of course we will consider all their fears when we do risk assessments. Within risk assessments we have questions where they can talk about their fears, if it’s fear of a person, if it’s fear of a partner, if it’s fear of religion or government or whatever they have, so on the basis of that we have trained advocates that can advise them, and advisors who can provide the help they need, including any physical help. We provide professional counselling 4 different languages, Farsi, Kurdi, Arabic and English, either in a group or individually, depending on the needs of each person. So this will help them to overcome some of their fears to make them feel a bit more confident to to work make informed decisions and help them to choose what is the best for them and their children.
Fear is very aggressive, mentally, for everyone, something we are always tackling. And one thing to add, one of the biggest fears among our women is fear of shame; being shamed in the community and fearing what other people think; we are not living for ourselves and how we wish to live, always thinking what my neighbours may say, what our classmates may say, what the community may say, how they look at us. So this is always the greatest fear, which is the fear of being shamed and this shame is a very aggressive kind of thing in within our minds, especially for women in our community.
Mary Noble: It’s interesting, Diana, some months ago I read a book by Rana Husseini, a Jordanian woman journalist who is a great women’s rights activist in Jordan who is also working on the issue of “Honour” killings and “honour” based violence. She described how 15 years ago an organization she worked for did a survey amongst thousands of people in Jordan and they asked them a simple question: Do you think a woman’s’ honour is based on her virginity or is it based on her inner qualities and character? 98% said it’s based on her virginity, and only 2% said it is based on her inner qualities and character, and she said right here for her was the challenge: how do we shift that perception from “it’s all about your virginity” to “actually it is about who you are as a person”. And so I found that relevant to the work we do because in Feminenza we do a lot in the way of empowerment and workshops that are about how do you build your inner strength? How do you build your own sense of integrity, your own values, your own honour? Being strong and proud in who you are? And so I was struck by that, and I thought, what will it take to change that perception in this world? We just have to keep going as you say and keep working away at this.
Have some of the issues got worse this year because of the lockdown? Because we have been hearing about the rise in domestic violence and so on.
Diana Nammi: Exactly, the same with “honour” based violence which has increased very much… I was talking to our advice team, our casework has increased 200%. People are trapped at home, and the situation is getting very hard…
At this point Mary Noble presented the work and different projects Feminenza International has been engaged in and both organisations agreed to stay in touch and seek ways to collaborate or partner in various ways.
Mary Noble – Just like you, Diana, we in Feminenza deeply believe, just like you, in the sisterhood of women all around the world and we are very happy and proud to be women in this world and we want to promote a very positive attitude about that. And we all share the same humanity and the same desires and the same wish to be the best that we can be in our lives, so any way that we can promote that and promote connections and contact with women around the world that is very much what we are trying to do. And we are very happy that we met you in this context, and again thank you for what you have done the courage you have shown all your life, it is really a privilege to have met you.
 Husseini, Rana. Murder in the name of honour : the true story of one woman’s heroic fight against an unbelievable crime / Rana Husseini Oneworld Oxford 2009