This is an extract from a report by Bridget Chappell in the 85th edition of Voiceworks, the quarterly magazine of Wheeler Centre resident organisation Express Media, out now.
The guards of Sulaimaniya Prison women’s wing wear high heels.
It’s a small wing, homier in appearance than its adjacent counterpart for male prisoners. Glimpses of men, slumped and crowded, sneak past me on the way in. It’s reminiscent of that public transport feeling. No-one’s sure of what to do with their eyes.
Hana Baradost is the chief of the female inmates’ wing of what is officially known as Sulaimaniya Directory of Arrest, Iraqi Kurdistan. She is spread-eagled contentedly across the armchair flanking the large desk in her private office. The plastic palm fronds in the corner, her blue camouflage suit and the communist-era military cap perched atop her piled black locks form a composition of years gone by.
I am the flat-soled, notebook-wielding visitor today: that alone makes me a Z-grade celebrity, calling in the hopes of penning something on the women in her charge. I feel my privilege press uncomfortably against the walls of the room; I’m trying to get comfortable in my seat.
The women’s wing of the prison was established following the 1991 Kurdish uprisings against the national government of Saddam Hussein. Now, with Iraq torn between violence and upheaval in the south and frenzied, potholed development here in the north, this prison represents not only the tragedies, but also the strange and often conflicting social changes that have gripped Iraq. Baradost pauses as she tries to recall what was done with female prisoners before 1991. ‘Women weren’t criminals back then’, she says simply. ‘Society was different, we were confined to traditional roles. Nobody would have allowed for it.’
We climb the stairs from Baradost’s office to the second floor. ‘They can request books or newspapers if they want,’ Rewan Rozaki, the visiting social worker from Khanzad Women’s Centre, tells me. It is because of her that I am here. ‘However, many of the women who come here are illiterate.’ The unmistakeable pitter-patter of children’s feet resonates on the landing as three small, curious faces appear above me. ‘Mum! It’s visiting time!’ they call out in Kurdish.
Three women are currently held in Cell 407 for prostitution. Twenty-three-year-old Jamila from Baghdad joined Kurdistan’s bottom rung last year, working in Sulaimaniya for six months before her incarceration. ‘I came because there was no work in Baghdad,’ says Jamila. ‘My friend encouraged me to come to Kurdistan to work with her, and when I arrived I discovered what she was involved in here. I couldn’t escape. I’ve been in this cell for four and a half months.’
While the stigma of prostitution is global, in countries such as Iraq actions that are viewed widely as immoral may put women at risk of death for the violation of religious codes and family honour. It is this absence of a support network that leads many of those convicted of such crimes to remain in prison after serving their sentence, lest they be thrown back into the world that landed them there or – possibly worse yet – found by their families. ‘Try to stay in here for as long as you can,’ says Rozaki to Jamila simply. ‘Stay in prison past your sentence – we can arrange for this. We cannot take you at the shelter – but we can arrange for you to stay in here until something has been worked out.’ Rozaki’s tone with the women of Cell 407 is motherly but firm. Jamila and I exchange glances. We are the same age.
‘Many of them go straight back to their pimps,’ says Rozaki. ‘It’s very hard to find alternative work, and many of them cannot face their families, it’s not an option. They get far more mental support here in prison than they do outside.’ She states that while Khanzad has submitted a proposal to the Kurdish government to establish a shelter specifically for those women escaping prostitution, their official stance on the issue holds little promise for the project’s future and for women such as Jamila. Jamila feels that as an Arab Iraqi woman, she has even fewer options available to her than the Kurdish inmates have. ‘I’ve seen many Kurdish girls come and go during my time here – their family does everything they can to push their cases through court, to avoid the family shame of a daughter in prison. I don’t have that. I have to wait.’
Bridget Chappell is a human rights activist who grew up in Canberra and now divides her time between Europe and the Middle East.