Kurdish Youth and Civic Culture: Support for Democracy Among Kurdish and non-Kurdish Youth in Iraq



Verified academic

PhD Researcher

Middle East Studies

Dastan is a research fellow at the giga institute for middle east studies and member of the giga doctoral programme. she was previously a conflict researcher for the heidelberg institute for international conflict research on kurdish conflicts in iraq and syria.


Based on merged data from the World Value Survey and Arab Barometer data from 2010 to 2018 in Iraq, this research examined civic cultural attitudes. So it looked at whether there was a correlation between trust in institutions and staying informed on politics, and the effect of these variables on support for a democratic system versus an autocratic system.

By harmonising all the existing data, I wanted to understand the differences across demographics. I wanted to see whether there were differences between generations (born before and after 1991 – 1991 being the year when the Kurdish autonomy was established) , between gender, and whether they are from a Kurdish region or not.

Key Findings

Survey data from the Kurdish region is heavily underrepresented. When doing this research it was very unclear whether interview questions are in a standardized way and even asked in the Kurdish language. This would be a problem as most people in this region only speak Kurdish, and it is only the older generation who can speak Arabic.
The man who was contracted to conduct the survey for the World Value Survey and the Arab barometer was an Iraqi Arab. In his code book it should say how many people were answering in which language, but this was unclear. In the Arab questionnaire, it has standardised questions. But it is still unknown if there are standardised Kurdish questions. Because these are sensitive questions, not having a standardised version might mean the questions are understood differently. For example the question "Do you have trust in the armed forces" - could be understood as either the Iraqi army (which they do not necessarily have good relations with) or the Peshmerga forces (the Kurdish army). The data was not numerically underrepresented, but there was a lot of non responses and a lack of clarity on many things. The survey is also based on the assumption that they are speaking with Arabs only.
Policymakers find it hard to find answers and understand debates within Iraqi Kurdistan because of the Sorani, Kurdish dialect that they speak. So it is hard to have a real image of what the people really say and think. Especially as most of the data is collected in Erbil or Sulaymaniyah, so you do not know exactly how it is stratified - how many are urban versus rural, how many are higher income versus lower income.
For both the Kurdish and non-Kurdish in Iraq, being female had a significantly positive effect on support for democracy. This is a timely finding because of the rapid political and social violence against women, the rampant sexism that is happening in public media and Iraq femicides that are happening.

How to use

Since 2005, fewer and fewer people are voting, and that has a lot to do with the reality that the political parties are representing the needs of the elite. So people when they vote, do not feel they are voting to change something. Instead, they are voting to give some on paper legitimacy to the groups that protect their wealth, weapons, and influence as militia. This is the elitism that needs to be fought against.
Western diplomacy needs to find a middle ground between a George Bush kind of interventionism and this type of fatalism - where they start aligning to the customs and essentializing the region. For example many female diplomats feel the need to put on a headscarf when they meet specific political leaders although there is no obligation to do so. Especially religious militia leaders thrive of such situations because they prove that they can make everyone follow their rules. This appeasement, however, is not only not needed but not helpful.
The youth have articulated a lot of things that they want from the protests: changing the voting system, changing the party law, more transparency, working against corruption cases, having a systemic change.
Working against corruption would make it easier for young people to start businesses. At the moment if someone wants to start a business then they have to go through so many layers of political elites that they have to give money to, or give a share. This needs to be changed. There has to be opportunities for private market.
The banking system needs reform and needs stable Iraqi banks. Turkish banks should not take over the country.
The Iraqi system needs to be strengthened so young people have access to the international market.
Labour laws and labour unions need to be established. There is almost no labour union organisation in the country, and this shapes how young people and women are experiencing the work place. Because ultimately it is the work space that influences them. You need feminism at the workplace.
However until such systemic changes come through, there should be a chance for people under special danger to find refuge. Western countries must create transparent possibilities to flee when their security is at risk.
For the average upper class Iraqi person, they can easily get a Schengen visa to have a summer holiday in Europe without any problems. However, for the cases of women that literally get chased after houses that are under imminent risk of being killed, they do not know what to do and don't know how to escape the country. Corruption in the Visa distribution system needs to be tackled.
International organisations, international groups, embassies, and consulates need to repair their reputation of also being corrupt. The corruption does not end at Iraqi institutions, and until they begin to lead by example then no change will start. An old example is the Oil-For-Food-Programme run by the UN and led by Kofi Annan's son that was involved in the scheme that made Saddam Hussein rich.

The full paper is not available open access

Dastan Jasim, (2021). ‘Kurdish Youth and Civic Culture: Support for Democracy Among Kurdish and non-Kurdish Youth in Iraq’. International Journal of Conflict and Violence , 16, pp.1-19.

About this research

This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

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About this research

This research was independently conducted and did not receive funding from outside of the university.

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What it means

This all means that a group of people that are constantly pushed into lawlessness and criminalisation has to ask itself very different analytical questions about their political culture, than people that are accepted as who they are.

If you look in history, even the fact that a Kurdish nation exists, had to be proven, because it was denied systematically by the state system. It started with a national fight and movement for autonomy, independence and cultural rights. But the more things developed, especially after the Cold War, the more the Kurdish political discourse realised that there are different issues that are intersecting with what they’re going through – namely other systems of oppression (autocracy in general, sexism, ecocide), and all of this influences the political discourses in the Kurdish regions a lot. Kurdistan became an engine behind a lot of democratisation in these countries

After Kurdistan was divided, Kurdistan needed to make its case that it’s a distinct nation. And claims about nationality, about culture and language are all made. But one significant component in the Kurdish National Movement is that they cited the difference in the role of women by citing their history. (Of course, there is some disputer as history is often produced by the ruling class, and if a ruling class had educated princesses then a certain narrative could form that is different from reality.)

But nonetheless, historical sources typically show Kurdish women always had a distinct and different role in Kurdish society, and this difference was adapted from the start of the Kurdish movement.

For example, Qazi Muhammad led the first Kurdish republic in Iran in 1946 and his first policies were universal rights for women to vote and the right to education. And then Iraq Kurdistan was the same, there were strong women like Leyla Qasim, who was important in the fight against Suddam Hussein. And this was the same in Kurdistan in Turkey – female were avant guard.

So there has been a continuous history of strong Kurdish women, and this is working to advance the female Kurdish case. This history exists and does not need to be invented. It is across popular culture, in stories, in memories. And so this is why for Kurdish fighters, there is no shame to fight alongside women.

Some Middle Eastern societies who are against the Kurdish cause would say that the Kurdish men are not men enough to fight, and use their women to fight. They can often not imagine a situation where women would be part of the armed forces because they want to and not because men push them to the front.

So there is an assumption that the Middle East is the same culture (like what the Arab barometer assumes) but in fact there are very different cultures at play.

Iraq had a history of strong women, but after the Iraq-Iran war, there was a changing point because under Saddam Hussein the whole country was diminished – whether it was university or dismantling women’s rights, everything diminished. Because there was a war economy and every penny was put into the war against Iran, and it diminished destroyed the morale of society. And the space of progressiveness, which Iraqi women have slowly developed for themselves. Because before, the Iraqi Communist Party was always full of Kurdish and Iraqi and other minority women.

However after this war and during the 90s, Hussein created a locked in isolated nation, isolating Iraq from the world. But in the 70s and early 80s, people had an idea of the world and were consuming what was happening. Women would listen to the same music as what people listened to on dance-floors in Europe and wore the same clothes. While this example might be superficial, it illustrates a connection that was then destroyed.

However during the embargo and isolation in the 90s, there was a lot of despair and dissatisfaction and Islamist powers became stronger on both sides (Sunni and Shia). And this destroyed the space where women could prosper.

But in the last years, young women (Gen Z) are becoming the front of the struggle again. We saw this in the Tahrir protests of 2019. But the female spaces have been taken away – and so we see at the same time more femicides in Iraq. It was not just the US invasion, but years of Islamist terror after that has really shaped how public life happened. Baghdad was so heavily policed and controlled, and there are check points everywhere – and this changed how women lived in public life. They were pushed back into the private space. They did not have the opportunity to exchange and meet others with the same issues.

Iraqi women are powerful, strong, revolutionary women but the war shaped public life, the influence of Islamist actors and the economic situations – and then the way Iraq was rebuilt in a neo-liberal way meant that if women were able to reenter the market, then they were doing so in insecure, precarious ways – and mostly in the private sector – has oppressed women in Iraq.

For trans women and gender non conforming people in Iraq it is even harder, they are mostly kicked out of their households and they have to find some kind of job. And mostly, it’s only jobs in gastronomy that would accept them or often even prostitution. And then they’re subjected to all layers of oppression and abuse.

Islamists are also on Tik Tok and Instagram and are delivering hate speech. Which is motivating people to do hate crimes against women and queers publicly and with pride. One example is of a young trans women named Doski. She was allegedly killed by her brother and her body was thrown at the side of the road for everyone to see. And then the same thing happened some months later, Maria was killed and then media did interviews with the brother. This is being accepted and normalised by society, and the rhetoric surrounding it is that the women did something to get what was coming.


I merged data from the World Values Survey and the Arab Barometer data.

But last year, for my dissertation, I went to the Kurdistan regions in both Iraq and Syria and collected data with a standardised translated Kurdish questionnaire, so people truly understood the questions being asked. I targeted different regions to ensure stratification of different groups. For example some areas are where the upper-class live, there are areas for middle-class, for refugees, for lower-class. It is important to ensure you include peoples opinion who are not just the political elites. Because with young people, we see constant protests and the young (especially students) are the biggest demographic that are fleeing to Europe. So they need to be included in survey data.

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