Lanja Khawe is a lawyer, 23 years old, born in the City of Sulaymani, and is one of the cofounders of the girls-only group ‘Sofia’. In a special interview with Culture Project, Lanja Khawe speaks about her ideas, dreams, and obstacles that both she and the Sofia group have faced making reading books part of the daily culture, especially for women, in Kurdistan.
Culture Project: Who is Lanja Khawe? How old are you and what is your profession?
Lanja Khawe: My name is Lanja, I am 23 years old and I was born in the city of Sulaymani – a place I currently live. I graduated from university with a degree in Law and I am a lawyer at the moment.
CP: Why did you choose to make reading books an accepted and normalised cultural practice?
LK: Both the idea and planning of culturalizing book-reading came about from the fact that our society in this particular part of the world is not reading enough. Literacy is at a bad level – and this is particularly true in the case of women. Although this is a bitter reality, we have to admit it in order to find a solution to the problem. I believe most of the crimes committed, including crimes committed by the state against people, or the violations of rights among gender (particularly against women), happens on account of a failing of cultured conscience. If we are aware and enlightened, it will not be easy to oppress us or take away our rights in front of our eyes while keeping silent about it. Without doubt, one of the main ways to reach freedom is to be well-read and enlightened. Thus, I felt an obligation to change what was going on around me, and this manifested through founding the Sofia group, which I worked very hard to set up.
CP: What are the obstacles and problems that you faced as a woman in this endeavour?
LK: There were many problems right from the outset. Firstly, society does not easily accept a woman embarking on a project, and they particularly do not like it when she does it in such a way that she reaps huge degrees of success. I knew working on a cultural project like this would not be easy in our society – especially if that project happens to be lead by a group of women or a woman. Nevertheless, I did not give up, and I tried to ignore and overcome such obstacles
One of the things that hurt me most is to be accused of working with a particular publishing house. Society, especially men, attempt to undermine my work by saying that there must be either a man, a publishing house, or a library behind my work who instruct and use me for their ends. However, the founding, organising, and managing of the Sofia group is my idea, and no one else’s. They think it is only men who invent important projects and introduce good ideas and plans. That’s why they want to undermine my work and suggest that a man must be behind it. It is clear that our society is not totally free from the shackles of patriarchy, and the condemnation I have faced is indicative of that.
At times, due to our success and the great work we do at our Sofia group, the publishing houses and the cultural centres want to place me within the ugly game they and people like them play. At times, through targeting our Sofia group, they even wanted to interfere in my personal life and hurt me. This is all due to the fact that I only want to fill a gap, which is littered with an unacceptably low level of reading, by culturalizing reading in our society in order to fill it. They should not have allowed this gap, or, at the very least, they should have attempted to fill it. Instead, they are opposing me and the Sofia group in a horrible manner. There is a stark reality that I have to talk about, which is painful but, at the end of the day, I have to say it. I also have to mention the fact that there are other institutions that have supported us. If cultural and publishing centres were honest with themselves they would inspire, motivate and enlighten readers and, at the same time, help us as we’re striving to reach this very goal. There is no need to belittle us, undermine our work, or destabilise us. Their actions against me, my colleagues and even the readers, all cast their intentions into grave suspicion. Despite all the odds, we will continue to work to build and crystallize new ideas.
CP: Since you are a women’s-only group and you use Bicycles to deliver books, how are you treated? Have people accepted that reading books is important? Are the readers mainly women or men?
LK: One of the best projects of the Sofia group is to deliver books to the city’s neighbourhoods, and there are two reasons for this: Firstly, in our society riding bicycles by women is still considered shameful; however, we wanted to change this and, thus, break the taboo. Secondly, bicycles are environmentally-friendly.
The people to whom we deliver books are mixed, but most happen to be women. This is because in our society a library is still considered a largely male place and therefore not female-friendly. Many families do not allow their daughters to read in libraries because they think their daughters will rebel against society norms. Therefore, many young girls have a high demand for books. We are eager to meet this demand. Some of them tell us that they read books in secret. Surely, I would argue, this should show that we should get rid of the illusion that we are free.
CP: You have branches in several cities, what is the age range of those who work in these branches? Are they students? Have you tried to involve those who do not have a high level of education?
LK: We have branches in five cities: Sulaymani, Hawler, Kerkuk, Ranya, and Halabja. Those who are in our Sofia groups have different levels of education, age and occupations. Some of them are housewives, teachers, lawyers, doctors, musicians, artists, etc. The books we recommend for reading take into account the age of the reader – for reasons of suitability. However, I sometimes have to suggest other books suitable for the age of the reader. Nevertheless, we try our best to choose a book that is compatible with the age of our members.
CP: What is the purpose of creating various groups in various cities?
LK: My intention of creating various branches of our Sofia group in different cities is to go beyond only working in one city. I wanted other women in different cities to have the opportunity of gaining awareness and becoming more familiar with their own rights. I want them to loudly say, “No,” in the face of injustices forced upon them. It is important to help engender this awareness.
CP: You meet once a week and discuss books, can you tell us more about this?
LK: We read one particular book, and after that we meet and discuss the text. Sometimes, though, we host a seminar about a particular genre in that book. Women from our group will, on a changing basis, organise these events. We discuss different theories in relation to the kind of literature that a book centres on.
CP: What are your own experience in the world of reading? How does this affect the group?
LK: I started reading from an early age. I became increasingly familiar with reading books and stories with my mother’s help. I started with children’s magazines such as (Papula) and (Kolara). From the age of nine, I started reading big books. When I say from the age of nine years old I started reading “big books,” I didn’t follow the conventional rules of reading only children’s books and then move on to teenage books at the appropriate age and so on. Instead, I read books written by Maxim Gorky and books written by Tolstoy. My mother would warn me not to read these kinds of books, but I still did without her knowing.
Something inside me forced me to read these kinds of books, and this was the knowledge that I was not getting enough from children’s books. I wanted to read books that were considered too mature for my age group. To be honest, if I could turn the clocks back, I would still do it without any regret. I have been reading nonstop until now. Books have been my true life-guides. They have been a window from which I could see the world. Therefore, I never felt like a small person in a huge world because, in virtue of the books I read, I became quickly familiar with many different places throughout the world. This made me feel like I am from the world, a citizen of the world, and not only from a particular place. It was through reading that I realised how important it is for our people in Kurdistan to read more – especially women because they deserve to be free and know their rights in order to say, “No,” to the things they don’t like, and to be able to bring up a healthy and educated generation.
CP: Why do you have a women-only policy for group membership?
LK: Choosing to work exclusively for women is not gender segregation. We do so because it is important for women to read. They are able to share such knowledge with those in their surroundings – such as their families. This is opposed to men who are typically silent. Women are the primarily the ones who teach children. If the mother is educated and has a good awareness, it is without doubt that the child will get a better upbringing. Because of these reasons, Sofia is only for women.