In a sparsely decorated but chic office space in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, a group of Iraqi Kurdish women are finishing up final drafts of articles, creating publishing schedules and reviewing photos. Editors Koral Noori and Alaa Lattif debate content, while Tafan Najat works on fashion and beauty stories. With the editor-in-chief set to return to the city later that evening, they are preparing the third issue of "Zhin" magazine, a special on marriage, to go to the printers. The three are excited, as the layout has been improving with each issue, they say.
"It is very important to show readers and society what is happening with women here in Kurdistan. They are facing violence, different kinds of abuse, stress, but no one is worried about showing this kind of situation. For us, for "Zhin" magazine, every one of the different parts of women's lives are very important," says Lattif.
Starting a new conversation
From beauty and lifestyle to refugees and social issues, every story and every photo in "Zhin" magazine ("zhin" means woman in Kurdish) is produced by women for women, and the operation is managed by women. Working in the conservative society that is Iraqi Kurdistan and in a city just over 100 kilometres from the frontlines where Kurdish Peshmerga forces are fighting "Islamic State" (IS) militants, what this group of female journalists is doing is a first.
"Kurdistan is a pretty conservative society, not in its religion, but its culture. Women really have an underprivileged role. [Somehow] much is changing, you see economic growth, shopping malls and buildings, but you do not see a change in the mentality. Women still find it hard to find their voices and be heard," says editor-in-chief Brigitte Sins, who works with the NGO International Media Support (IMS).
"'Zhin' is pretty unique. The independent media sector is small. There are a few women's newsletters but it does not have the same effect. Things that are made by women are not respected or seen as professional here," she continues.
The magazine is part of a project supported by IMS to publish two magazines, "Zhin" in Kurdish and "Iraqiyat" in Arabic. "Zhin" targets Kurdish women, while "Iraqiyat" focuses on all women in Iraq, but the content of both focuses on and is created solely by women.
Rising to the challenge
The process of finding trained Iraqi Kurdish female journalists presented the first of many challenges when putting together a team that would be capable of producing a high-quality glossy publication. Sins says it was down not only to a lack of journalism skills because of the scarcity of development opportunities for female journalists but also to the small pool of women who are also able to work independently without the burden of social constraints.
"A lot of female journalists are not allowed to travel by themselves or to work in the evening hours or work in an office dominated by men where they are supposed to play the same roles as men. The ones who get through that, they are really the tough ones who are willing to set aside their family life. They choose work over family and it is quite something. If you choose to be a female journalist in this country, it can mean you lose your family. It is quite a radical decision, so it is not even the dangers of working on the front lines, but it has such an impact on your social life and your status in society," Sins explained.
Conservatism coupled with a media industry dominated by men means creating a sustainable, independent magazine that addresses women's issues is no small feat. Koral Noori is one of the editors of the magazine and host of a debate show that focuses on economy and politics on Kurdish News Network (KNN). She says that although things are better now for women than before, the profession is still not accepted by many in Iraqi Kurdistan's society, and the opportunities within the industry are limited. But worse than discrimination, says Noori, are harassment and even death threats that have made her work more difficult since she began in 1997, a time when there were few women in the profession.
She mentions a case about an honour killing, where a man had killed two sisters. She and a colleague wrote a story about it, and the man sent her a letter from prison threatening her life. "For more than a month and a half, we went home early, we did not go shopping, we did not stay at work a long time because we were afraid. We were young girls, younger than now, we were afraid that if he killed two sisters, he can kill us too," she says.
Pushing boundaries one at a time
The goal for "Zhin" magazine's staff is ambitious and it begins by testing one boundary at a time, striking a balance between celebrating women's positive stories, such as the stories of successful entrepreneurs, and pushing the envelope with harder and more controversial topics, from female genital mutilation – a widespread practice throughout Kurdistan – to purchasing lingerie, a simple act that remains taboo for most women.
But crossing the line editorially is only one part of it. According to Sins, Lattif and Noori, just the fact that they have an office where only women work is already out of the ordinary. When you add the fact that the magazine has pictures of beautiful women on the cover, you are saying something without even opening the magazine, says Sins.
All of the women at "Zhin" and "Iraqiyat" magazines see the publications as a vehicle to drive change not only with their stories, but using the magazine to build a network and a platform to bring together activists and push civil society forward. Sulaymaniyah, a city known in Iraqi Kurdistan for having the most socially active community, is a good place to start, says Noori.
"One of these things we want to change is the mentality of people and their thinking that journalism is not for women. We are going to show that we are women, we are journalists and we have this magazine, this successful magazine. That is what we want to change first, and from there, we are going to have a role to change other things," says Lattif.
Sitting on the couch in the magazine's office, Noori says that the magazine will bring change, regardless of the culture of extremism that they witness on a daily basis.
"We want change, how can we change if we are afraid? Really, when you are in the situation you feel afraid or scared. But when you think, 'I need to change my society', there is also a cost. If I am a female and I feel what other females in our society feel, their suffering and how the traditional norms and the law are, if I do not do anything for them, who will?"
© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2015