In Kurdistan, where conservative mores still dominate despite its reputation as a haven compared to the rest of Iraq, one female MP is fighting a lonely battle: legalised prostitution.
Haza Sulaiman’s efforts to regulate and control the trade in northern Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces have so far run into widespread opposition from rival lawmakers and religious groups, but the 44-year-old remains undeterred.
“We need a special law for the region — Iraqi law is not consistent with the reality on the ground here,” the women’s rights activist and current chief of the Kurdish parliament’s women’s rights committee said.
“I have many concerns over the associated issues if we do not organise it under a new law — those who practice prostitution must be subject to periodic tests to monitor their health and prevent the spread of disease.”
At present, Kurdistan is subject to a 1988 law that applies to all of Iraq and bars prostitution entirely, but reserves punishment only for sex workers, not their clients.
Sulaiman tried to submit a law legalising and regulating prostitution in 2010, but parliament was inquorate when she proposed that it be scheduled for discussion, after the powerful legal committee did not back it.
“I have been told I can propose it again,” Sulaiman said.
Security officials in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil said they did not have any estimates on the prevalence of prostitution in the province, which has the same name, but insisted it was not a major issue.
Sulaimaniyah province, the second-biggest of the three provinces that make up Iraqi Kurdistan, had up to 400 houses, hotels and massage parlours where prostitution was practiced before a crackdown this month, according to Brigadier General Hassan Nuri.
Figures were not immediately available for Dohuk province.
Nuri backed regulation of the sex trade, telling AFP: “There should be places where these things can happen, and prostitutes should have to undergo tests every six months.”
Sulaiman’s efforts face major opposition, however, from the majority of Kurdish MPs, as well as the key hurdle that the Iraqi constitution explicitly prohibits the “sex trade.”
But the latter obstacle only needs to be addressed if the former is overcome and, for the moment, that appears unlikely.
“If there were any such efforts, we would strongly reject them,” said Basheer Haddad, head of the Kurdish parliament’s religious affairs and endowments committee.
Haddad, a member of the region’s dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party, said the sex trade was not a major issue in Kurdistan, and said no attempts to legislate regulation for it would be successful.
Sorkol Qaradaghi, an MP with the Islamic Union of Kurdistan party and a member of the Kurdish parliament’s human rights committee, said her bloc would also oppose any efforts to regulate prostitution.
“Iraqi law considers prostitution a crime… We have to stop it, to reduce it, not place it in a legal framework and allow it,” she said.
Human trafficking and forced prostitution are major issues in Iraq: In June, the US State Department placed Iraq on its Tier 2 Watch List of countries for human trafficking, just above its worst rating.
The report said Iraq was “making significant efforts” to combat trafficking, but noted that at present, “Women are lured into forced prostitution through false promises of work.”
“Women are also subjected to involuntary servitude through forced marriages, often as payment of a debt, and women who flee such marriages are often more vulnerable to being subjected to further forced labor or sexual servitude,” the report added.
At present, an encounter with a teenage prostitute typically costs $150, with prices decreasing as the girls’ ages rise. A several-hour non-sexual encounter where a prostitute dances in front of a client costs $200, with sex costing extra.
In addition to Sulaiman’s efforts, some activists and officials are increasingly advocating for a reform to the law, urging that clients should also be punished.
“On visits to prisons in the region, we have seen that many women have been arrested for prostitution, while men are not — if there were to be a law to determine a punishment for men as well, that would be a good step,” said Lanja Abdullah, head of the Warfeen women’s rights NGO.
Abdullah Salam, spokesman for the regional prosecutor’s office, said while lawyers applied the current law, “we believe there is a deficiency because crime is not being committed by just one party, but by two parties.”
“Judges have been forced to free men and arrest women… because there is nothing in the law to criminalise the act for men.”