By Renas Saleh
“I have been living in fear for years. They told me they would cut out my tongue, attack me, cut me into pieces and give the parts to the dogs.” These words were uttered by Niyaz Abdallah, a female journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan, when asked why she stops working in journalism every now and then.
Abdallah was born April 1981 in the Kirkuk province and now resides in Erbil. She loved to write ever since she was a child, something she continued at university and then later at polytechnic in Erbil. She published her first articles while still in her first year of university and went on to become one of the first female correspondents working locally in politics.
“The news and programmes I presented, and the writing I published, were always of a political nature,” Abdallah recounts. “They would often be about corruption and the problems citizens here suffered. Which meant that I was always being threatened. And because I’m a woman, the threats were different.”
In 2011, when she was covering anti-government demonstrations in Erbil, the local police chief sent two young men to see her, to tell her to leave. The threat was that if she did not leave, he would have more young men come and gather around her.
“Saying such a thing in Kurdistan means that the men can stand around you and harass you, and even assault you, in front of the authorities,” Abdallah explains. “If I was a man, they wouldn’t threaten me like this. They usually threaten men with assassination but women are threatened with sexual assault. Even when it comes to threats, we are not equal.”
One of the most disturbing things that happened to her online was when somebody anonymously posted her picture on a Facebook page, and asked “what would you like to do to her?”
“It was a clear incitement to sexual violence,” Abdallah states. “Among the responses were the real names of members of local political parties and armed groups who liked the post, and who also said sexually explicit things about me.”
Abdallah has worked for eight different media outlets in Iraqi Kurdistan over her career, which began in 2004, and she has taken on senior roles, such as editor-in-chief, news editor and anchor woman. For a long time, she was one of the few local women working in the area of political journalism.
So just going about her job, she was often harassed. A typical comment on social media might go something like this: “Go and marry and stay at home. You are a woman and you have no right to talk about politics or religion”.
Abdallah suspects that many of her male colleagues, who competed with her for jobs, felt the same way.
“My male colleagues working in this area never got these kinds of comments,” Abdallah notes. “Nobody tells a male political commentator to go home and wash the dishes because that is where his rightful place is.”
During her career, Abdallah has also been arrested twice. Once by the Erbil police while she was doing her job, covering anti-government protests in 2011, and the other time because of a lawsuit against her filed by a one of the sons of a senior politician in Iraqi Kurdistan. The case was eventually dismissed.
“Of course male journalists are also arrested,” Abdallah says. “But the security forces who arrest female journalists deal with us in a more humiliating way. They use obscene and degrading words to try and pressure you into either giving up your job or giving up your coverage on a certain subject.”
Abdallah sadly says that she hasn’t talked much about the more awful situations she has found herself in, working as a reporter.
“I don’t like talking about it,” she concludes. “There are so many young women who aspire to this job. But if their families knew about some of the situations that I have been in, they would never allow their daughters to do the job.”