October 25, 2023
Gheed Moayad
(Duhok, Iraq)

Taxi driver harassment in Kurdistan is a pattern and no official action has been taken to address it. Taxi drivers in Kurdistan have been harassing females by talking to them inappropriately, and in some cases assaulting and raping them. Until now, no complaints have been filed with the court.


Sulimaniyah, IRAQ

It is a basic human right that women and men in the society feel safe using public transportation; however, that is not the case everywhere in the world. Women in Iraq do not suffer from inequality, but they face constant harassment and assaults.

The Iraqi and Kurdish governments have put restrictions on harassment, but there are no complaints with the court at present. Many taxi drivers assault female passengers, especially if the girl is alone. On April 21st, one foreign woman was raped by a taxi driver who had already raped another girl in 2017. That girl was in front of the Turkish consulate and she told him to drive her to Ainkawa — but he drove her to another place, threatened her with a knife, and raped her.

The pattern of harassing, assaulting and silencing girls has been going on for a long time, and the law and the government is not holding taxi drivers accountable.

The harassment is not only when girls are riding. Taxi drivers harass girls when they walk in the streets, even if they dress conservatively and cover their heads.

The laws control more specifically physical assaults, and there must be a witness in the court. However, the court takes about 6 months to one year, though it can support the attorney’s fees for either the female or male if they don’t have money (for instance, if they’re a student).


Perceived availability


Many young girls are being physically harassed and they can do nothing because their family and the community will blame them for being late or alone. It is a cultural norm in the country that girls come home earlier than the boys, because it is not safe for them. Usually, when male taxi drivers see a woman late at night, they perceive her as someone who is open to do what they want.

Yiota, who is an APP Math teacher and has been living in Kurdistan for six years, said, “Taxi drivers here think of the foreign women as available.” She also said, “it happened to me more than four times. One time I was walking with a friend, and the taxi driver drove next to us and said ‘basaqwmbm” (which means, “I die for you” in Kurdish).

She also said, “Every time I go with a taxi, the taxi driver starts to open a conversation with me and asks me about my marriage and my husband. I usually ignore them and point to the ring.”

And sometimes drivers don’t harass women for their looks or for being a foreigner, but for their status in the community.

Jessica Postma teaches English in an APP program and has been harassed many times. Especially when she came to the Middle East. From her personal experiences living as a woman alone, she learned that Middle Eastern society can be oppressive towards women, and she is aware of this; hence, this taught her how to react in such incidents.

She says, “Usually it happens when I go out in the afternoon or early evening, like at 7:00 PM. It happens to me when I’m alone. I usually sit behind the taxi driver to make it difficult for him to reach me.”

Language also plays a role with the drivers, since they sometimes think that if a foreign women speaks Kurdish or Arabic with them, they can start having conversations.

Jessica said, “Language barrier plays a role. Because I cannot speak Kurdish, I just speak little Arabic… so when I’m with the taxi driver, I just tell him that I do not speak any Kurdish, Arabic, or Turkish, but they still ask…”

Physical assaults


Raz Rizgar, an engineering student, has been harassed many times both physically and verbally. They usually ask for her number and they take her to abandoned places alone. The taxi drivers at the beginning ask general questions, but then they ask her about her personal life. The harassment from her taxi drivers was hostile, trying to touch her and assault her physically.

One taxi driver in his early 50s assaulted her when she was alone in his taxi. She grabbed his neck and forced him to stop the taxi. She said, “Every time I go with a taxi driver they start asking questions, one time the taxi driver kept talking about my legs.” The taxi driver was like, “Your legs are choppy (i.e., fat) and I like that, I love biting them.”

Raz also said, “One time I was in Erbil, and the taxi driver started harassing me by licking his lips and saying sexual talk. I ignored him, and then I opened the door and jumped out of the taxi.”

Taxi drivers not only harass girls when they are with them in the car, but also when they are outside the car. And they assault them physically and then run away. Sometimes the girl or someone with her can’t do anything since the driver escapes quickly.

Jasmine (pseudonym) said: “One time I was walking and a taxi driver grabbed between my legs and I could not do anything.”

Many girls also avoid taking taxis at night because there is a perceived higher risk, even though the harassment still happens frequently both at night and in the morning.  Also, physical harassment doesn’t happen only for women. Men also get harassed by taxi drivers, because in some cases the taxi drivers are homosexual and they want to have sex with men.

Jasmine, who has lived in Kurdistan for a long time, said, “ I avoid taking taxis at night and I generally don’t go alone at night. There are certain things to do that greatly reduce the potential harassment.”

Rebaz, who works as a journalist, always tells the taxi driver that he studies at Sulimaniyah University and studies engineering. The taxi driver also harasses him.  “One time I was sitting in the front seat and the taxi driver grabbed my arms and he said, you made a difference ha? And then I told him to just leave me alone.”

He tells them that he studies at Sulimaniyah University because taxi drivers think that AUIS and foreign women are available and they are open to intercourse with any man in the street.

Rebaz said, “Every time I tell the taxi driver that I study at AUIS (American University at Sulimaniyah), the driver immediately starts talking about girls in a not very good way. They start talking about their physical appearance, and how attractive they are…”


Verbal harassment


Verbal harassment is more frequent in the society, and the government doesn’t have any laws against verbal harassment or any censorship for taxi drivers. There are only laws for physical harassment, and a witness is required. Also, if the woman or man decides to go to court, the process takes a very long time.

Also from Rebaz, who works as a journalist in the VOA:  “Once I was with a taxi driver who was opening the window and saying things to the girls or talking to a girl in the street. And one time he told the girl, come with us.”

Jamalieh, who is an instructor at AUIS, who has been living here for approximately two years, said that “harassment can be implicit and explicit.” She continued: “Taxi drivers ask leading questions, either in Kurdish or in English, and ultimately leads to ‘do you have a husband, or where do you live, where in Pak city? Who do you live with? And I find that implicit harassment because I know that they are asking about my availability.”

Sometimes the taxi drivers take a longer time to deliver the passengers because they want to spend more time with them. Then taxi drivers harass them even more.

Yiota said, “ I thought my husband was exaggerating when he was telling me about the taxi drivers, but then I witnessed that with my own eyes.” She continued, “One time the taxi driver took a very long time to bring me to my destination, and then I called my husband and he talked to him.”

Dalia said, “I was walking and I was dressing just like guys, and the taxi driver started talking and harassing me and my sister. I shouted at him and said, ‘you have not seen any girls before?’ ”

Family and cultural issues

Many girls in the community feel scared to report harassment because they are afraid of culture and their family.

The cultural norms and the overall discrimination against women in the community changes the way women react when someone harasses them. There is an enormous fear of how the girl`s family will react, and many girls feel afraid that their families will stop them from going out again with taxi drivers. The family’s first response is to prevent girls from going outside. Until today, honor in Iraqi culture is immensely important for the girls, and it’s known that the honor of the family depends on the girl.

Rand said, “I don’t tell my family about that because if I tell them, they’ll prevent me from going outside. Everybody knows that I’m afraid of taxis, and even though I’m using Uber right now, I still send the ID of the Uber to my friend and let her know where I’m going. I never tell my family.”


Laws and the courts


The laws in the country do not really support women much. As mentioned earlier, physical harassment or assault and a witness are necessary to support the girl’s case. In addition to that, the court takes a very long time. The court for such cases might take 6 months or more depending on the case. In addition to that, the judge might be biased or in some cases there is someone behind him who could threaten his life if he did not make the decision in favor of the male. Because Iraq is still a tribal society.

Soma, who is a lawyer in Sulimaniyah, has been working for a year in Sulimaniyah.

She said, “Harassment happens because of religion and culture. Men just want to satisfy their sexual needs.” She continued, “ Girls are afraid to express their feelings because the community says that they won’t find their future husband, social reputation is at risk, and also men can’t imagine their partner was being harassed. So the girl stays quiet and doesn’t say anything. Also because we are living in a patriarchal society.”

The court takes a very long time and there are not many harassment cases. Soma explained: “ There are two steps. The first one is investigation, and the second one is going to the specialized court. And from the specialized court, there are two more courts — the first one is another investigation and the second is the more specialized court.”

Iraqi society is a collective society in which the reputation of a girl has a very heavy weight. Everything is monitored for the women, and they are criticized for who they are, who they want to be, how they look, and everything around them. Hence, women are expected to comply and adhere with societal ideas, and being different could cost many girls their lives, especially in rural areas.

Men taking responsibility

Another trend has been increasing, which is online taxis like Uber. But there’s another one in Iraq called Careem. Careem has provided this service to women, and they feel safer and more comfortable using it. It’s safe because women can rate the driver and get all his contact information; hence, if anything happens, she keeps track of him. In addition, a safe and respectful driver gets many requests, and that is a good deal for him and the company. So the drivers watch their behaviour and speak less to keep their requests high.

Harassment is unwanted behavior that disturbs, upsets, or intimidates someone, often through repetitive actions.

Assault involves intentional physical harm or the threat of harm. Laws and consequences may vary by jurisdiction. Trusted sources for legal definitions include government websites and legal professionals.

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