NGO works to boost women's literacy in north

It's easy to see why her teachers consider Runak Alimuhamed their ideal student. Sitting at the front of her class in Tawela, in the remote, mountainous Hawraman region of northern Iraq, her copybook is spotless and her enthusiasm unquenchable.

"I'd never been to school before," Runak told IRIN in Tawela. "Now I know what they're like, I wish there were no holidays."

Runak is far closer to 40 than four. Like the other women crammed into two classrooms in the town, she's here to learn to read and write. This time last year, that would have been impossible. Less than a kilometre from the Iranian border, Tawela was the home to ultra-conservative Kurdish Islamist groups between 1994 and 2003, the best-known of which was Ansar al-Islam. It came to prominence after the 11 September 2001 attacks and is thought to have possible links to al-Qaeda. The group advocated a Taliban-style interpretation of Islam, which it sought to impose on the villagers of the area.

"Even leaving your house without a male member of the family was difficult, and school for women was out of the question," Pakize Khamakhan, who now teaches basic maths and science at the women's centre, told IRIN. In an already deprived area, the result was widespread illiteracy.

Among the first to take notice was the small German NGO Wadi, which arrived in Tawela last April, less than a month after joint US-Kurdish forces removed Ansar al-Islam from the area as part of the war in Iraq.

"At first we just had mobile teams offering emergency medical and psychological care to the villages up there, which have borne the brunt of the region's problems for the last two decades," Andrea Woeldike, Wadi's senior programme manager in Sulaymaniyah, told IRIN. "It was what we saw that encouraged us to start literacy classes."

Sponsored by Wadi, the women's centre was opened seven months ago. It has two classrooms, a teaching staff of four, and 40 students. Women come from Sunday to Thursday for three 40-minute lessons. "We've tried to fit the timetables around the women's working day," Suat Abdulrahman, Wadi's coordinator of women's affairs, told IRIN.

Wadi has a similar school in Biyara, the former Ansar headquarters on the other side of the mountain. As well as providing literacy classes, the centres also offer courses in sewing and hairdressing, and information on women's rights.

"Many of the women have only been married in a religious ceremony, and if their husband divorces them, they risk losing everything," Abdulrahman said. "We inform them of the need for a certificate from the civilian authorities."

Without such a civil marriage certificate the union falls under Shariat law rather than Iraq's secular marriage law, leaving women with no right to contest divorce. They also have a limited chance of gaining custody of children, or of claiming full alimony.

Abdulrahman told IRIN that it was difficult at first to persuade some of the students of the value of literacy lessons. While 130 women said they were interested in joining sewing classes, only 30 signed up for literacy classes.

"That all changed when we asked them how they'd be able to read the sewing manuals," Abdulrahman said. Judging by the enthusiasm in the classroom, though, any initial doubts seem to have evaporated long ago. Nasik Abubakir is half way through her second five-month course. "I'm no longer dependent on anybody," she said proudly. "I can even read the newspaper, rather than getting my husband to tell me what's going on."

Sitting next to her is Kristan Said, who comes to school with her four-year old daughter. "We've been learning to read together," she told IRIN. "With luck, when I finish here, I'll be able to help my children with their homework."

For teacher Jemil Zorab, who also works at Tawela's primary school, the courses are just as satisfying. "Compared to the ladies here, kids don't know the meaning of motivation," he told IRIN.