Houzan Mahmoud wins Emma Humphry’s Memorial Prize Award

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On the 6th of April in a ceremony hosted at the Garden Court Chambers, Houzan Mahmoud, co-founder of Culture Project, won the Emma Humphrey’s Memorial Award. The awarded is presented to an individual woman who has, through writing or campaigning, raised awareness of violence against women and children. Emma Humphrey’s was a writer, campaigner and survivor of male violence who fought an historic struggle to overturn a murder conviction in 1995, supported by Justice for Women and other feminist campaigners and organisations. 

On receiving her award, a clearly moved Houzan paid tribute to Doa Khalil Aswad, a 17 year old Yezidi girl who was stoned to death in public in Kurdistan on the 7th of April, approximately 10 years ago, in a so-called ‘honour-killing’. Houzan went on to say that the atrocity kick-started her international campaigning against the stoning and killing of women in Kurdistan, a campaign that would eventually amass over 16,000 signatures.

Drawing attention to her own difficult background with a palpable bravery in her voice, Houzan informed the audience that growing up in Iraqi Kurdistan was a very violent and conservative place owing to the many atrocities committed at the hands of religious bigots and the oppressive dictatorship of Saddam Hussain’s “fascist regime”. Stressing the fact that she felt displaced in Kurdistan, Houzan also admitted feeling ‘othered’ here in the UK, especially given the UK’s widespread identity politics and the burgeoning sympathy for Islamism under the guise of ‘multiculturalist sensitivity’. 

Houzan also dedicated her award to the Kurdish female freedom fighters who are “doing all they can to defend themselves from rape, sexual slavery and imposition of Islamisation by ISIS”. Houzan said, “They showed us the way” in fighting against the “daily threat” of Islamic Sharia.

Just before stepping away from the podium, Houzan heartily touched upon the fact that her struggle and the struggle women face is “part of the fight for universal women’s rights and freedoms and for creation of an egalitarian society that is free from fear and violence against women.”

Below is a summary of Houzan Mahmoud’s acceptance speech:

I would like to thank all those who have been involved with the Emma Humphry’s Memorial Prize and for selecting me from a group containing so many amazing women. It is a great honour and I am truly humbled.  I am in awe and I am so happy to be surrounded by so many great feminists who have had such a profound impact on my way of thinking and my worldview. I am particularly excited to be selected as  winner along with wonderful Shakila Taranum as winners for this years award, and very happy for the Safety for Sisters to win the group award.
I want to dedicate this award to Doa Khalil Aswad, a 17-year-old Yezidi girl, who was stoned to death in public in Kurdistan on the 7th of April around ten years ago in a so-called “honour killing”. It was at this point I decided I’d help launch an international campaign against the stoning and killing of women in Kurdistan, a campaign that managed to raise more than sixteen thousand signatures for a petition we handed over to the Kurdish regional government. Along with local campaigns, the pressure the campaign exerted led to major changes in the domestic violence laws in Kurdistan.

Doa was a Yezidi girl who fell in love with a Muslim boy, which resulted in her being killed. I personally don’t care much for religions; I am an atheist, and when it comes to rights and freedoms of women, I stand up to all religions. We should not allow violence against women to take place under the name of religion, culture nor tradition.

Feminism should be inclusive, but inclusive of what exactly? All I know is that feminism and feminists stand for progressive, secular, universal values. They do not stand for violence and the exploitation of women under the name of “inclusiveness”. As a woman, I cannot find my rights within religion. However, for those who can, I wish you good luck. In my view, all religions are man-made, and therefore they are inherently patriarchal and anti-women. If there is one religion that is relevant to me as a woman, it should be feminism.

I grew up in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is a socially conservative place. I have seen and experienced what women are forced to endure due to religious bigotry. I grew up under the dictatorship of Saddam’s Fascist regime, and my entire family was involved in an armed struggle against his regime. I endured much suffering and loss. However, I still don’t see myself as a victim or survivor; I only see myself as a fighter. The victimhood narrative does not help our movement. Being a woman warrants all kinds of discrimination and violence, that’s why we have to fight back and not fall victim to a victimhood narrative.

Being a woman and a Kurd, I was subjected to state violence. As women we were doubly repressed. Growing up in that hard time was no easy task. I knew that I belonged nowhere. I am a stateless woman. Perhaps Virginia Woolf represented my situation when she said, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” I find it difficult to fit anywhere in this age of identity politics, bigotry, Islamism and so-called “political correctness”. Therefore, I feel like being the “other” here in the UK. The women’s empowerment movement should be inclusive of our ideals, not of those who advocate violence against women under cultural and religious rights and entitlements.

I moved to UK as a refugee. I have been living and working in London for the past twenty years. Even here I see women being oppressed for various unpardonable reasons. Therefore, it is vital to support each other and strengthen our solidarity and sisterhood.

Finally, I also want to dedicate this award to the Kurdish female freedom fighters who are doing all they can to defend themselves from rape, sexual slavery and the imposition of Islamisation by ISIS. They showed us the way that, through self-defence, any individual, group or tyrannical-regime can be challenged. My struggle and the struggle of so many of us is a fight for universal women’s rights, freedom and the creation of a secular egalitarian society that is free from fear and violence against women.