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 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.”
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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