“Why I risked my life to convert to Zoroastrianism”

As the oppressive influence of Isis spreads, women in Iraqi Kurdistan are risking their lives to convert to an ancient religion that preaches gender equality. Corinne Redfern spends a week with the Zoroastrians

Some days, when Duya Ahmed Gadir wakes up, she lies in bed a little longer than usual. Against the buzz of an air conditioning pump outside her window, the 27-year-old whispers a quiet mantra – a promise to think good thoughts, say good words and complete good deeds. She doesn’t do it every day – most of the time she oversleeps; tumbling out of her room, gulping down a cup of sweetened tea and flying out the door to the library to while away her day studying English as a hobby. But when she does remember, it calms her. As a Zoroastrian, this three-pillared promise is her only prayer.

“I was raised Muslim, but I converted to Zoroastrianism last year,” Duya explains, sitting cross-legged on a mattress in jeans and scuffed platform sandals at her home in Kalar, a small city in the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, three hours north of Baghdad.

“I could see how Isis were acting in the name of ‘Islam’. For three years, they’ve been violently imposing extremist, conservative laws. They’re marrying girls as young as 10, forcing women to cover their hands and faces and killing or raping everyone who gets in their way. Three million people are homeless because of them. I didn’t want anything to do with their version of Islam any more.”

“As a woman, you’re treated like an animal”: Duya Ahmed Gadir, photographed for Stylist by Francesco Brembati.

As Duya herself accepts, her country’s chequered history and current social and economic turmoil has led to an interpretation of Islam that the majority of Muslims wouldn’t recognise as being true to what they practice – a result of overzealous leaders using religion in the wrong way. On a global level, this misrepresentation is part of the reason the hashtag #notinmyname has become so prevalent worldwide.

Nevertheless, Duya is one of more than 100 Kurdish women who have risked their lives to officially convert to Zoroastrianism over the past 18 months, after reading about the inherently feminist, liberal religion on Facebook.

She tracked down Kurdistan’s only official ‘Atashgah’ (the Zoroastrian centre of worship) in the city of Sulaymaniyah, 85 miles to the north. Once there, it seemed like a semi-utopia, to be suddenly surrounded by women of all ages and backgrounds, wearing long, traditional dresses teamed with bright, spiked heels.

“Anyone is welcome here,” explains the religion’s female spiritual leader, Peerq Ashna Abdulqadr Raza, 47. “It’s a place where women can do and say what they want. There aren’t many places like that in this country.”

Peerq Ashna Abdulqadr Raza, Zoroastrianism’s female spiritual leader.

In search of equality

While local theologists are noting a sudden surge in Zoroastrianism’s popularity among both men and women (it’s open to all, but does have a strong female presence in this region due to its focus on gender equality), it’s a trend they’re attributing to both the Isis-inspired backlash and a growing awareness of gender politics.

But the religion itself isn’t new – originating in Persia over 3,500 years ago, the monotheistic belief system [they worship a single God] predates Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and is founded on the poetry and songs of a prophet called Zoroaster.

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  • Somebody should get in touch with the lady and clarify that conversion to Zoroastrianism is not allowed. In fact, Yazdi, you should release a bulletin about this so the entire world can be clear about this aspect of our religion. If all she wants is gender equality, she should convert to Christianity. Conversion is permitted in Christianity. The Adivasis are converted to Christianity in the village Vyara and other villages in Gujarat and other states. Check out the Christian Association of Vapi as an example

    • It is allowed, I suggest you read the Gathas. Not accepting converts was a way to survive in a hostile Islamic and to a lesser degree Hindu world.

  • Nobody owns this Religion!
    Zoroastrianism has no No Dos or Don’ts. There are No Man Made Rules

    Zoroastrianism teaches Equality Universality Respect

  • I truly admire this lady for doing what she did. Others who have been “Denied” should follow her example

  • https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.jsI just for the life of me why Non Zoroastrian women & their children h` do not have a Spine!!!
    Why are they So MEEK!!!!!
    Zoroastrianism is Universal as well has given us the Freedom to Choose!! So what stopping you!!!!
    If Ghandhiji had not started the Disobedient Movement India would be under British Rule or any other foreign power!!!
    Wake Up & Smell The Roses!! as our Priests are not anointed by A. M They are merely
    mortal Men. By wearing Jamo & Pichori doesn`t make them `Holy Men
    I AM Talking Common Sense!!!!

  • Well done Ms Duya Ahmed Kadir and may AhuraMazda bless and give strength to all those who have the courage to return to their roots.This faith will once again thrive with people like her and Peer Ashna Abdulquadar Raza.

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