For four years, Amy McTighe has been working on a book about the Saddam Hussein regime’s brutality against the Kurdish people in Iraq—specifically, the stories of three families who fought and fled the chemical attacks. For two of those years Amy was trying to have a baby. Last April, her two objectives collided when she discovered she was pregnant just before leaving on a research trip.
“As anybody who has struggled with fertility knows, it is a soul-sapping endeavor,” Amy explains, “a constant cycle of hope and disappointment, drugs, hormones, investigations, waiting lists and decisions. It gradually sucks away your identity and takes over your life. To avoid being dragged any lower than I already was, and after discussion with doctors and my partner, I decided to go ahead with the trip to Kurdistan. There was no medical reason not to.”
Amy was traveling with her friend Kavout, who had been driven out of Iraq with her family in 1988 and into a Turkish refugee camp before resettling in France in the early 1990s. Amy and Kavout went to Kurdistan to revisit the struggles of Kavout’s family and to interview others who had survived the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s persecution.
When the pair arrived in Irbil, Amy began to experience the sadly familiar signs of early miscarriage. It was, in fact, somewhat of a relief to learn that this was indeed the cause of her painful symptoms—rather than the terrifying prospect of serious complications in a country where medical standards were under par. Still, her recovery lacked the normal comforts that typically helped her through. “The raging heat sapped my energy,” she says. “Water supplies were regularly cut off so I couldn’t shower, and sometimes the only toilets available were outdoor, squat ones with a watering can beside the hole in the ground.”
Amy began to pour herself into her work, spending time with families in villages and towns across northwestern Kurdistan. As she confided with the women she met about her miscarriages, she says, “It seemed to unlock a kinship I hadn’t felt before.”
Back in the UK, Amy had coped with the loss of miscarriage in silence. It was customary to disguise the first three months of pregnancy there, implying that early miscarriages also should be hidden, along with one’s grief and physical pain. “In Kurdistan, everybody I met was focused on how to get a baby,” Amy recalls, “and they all had comforting words and advice. One older woman told me that some women need to bind their stomachs during pregnancy. Another made me promise that next time I get pregnant I should just lie in bed because I clearly have a weak uterus…. I found it refreshing to be able to discuss my problems so freely.”
Amy and Kavout traveled to Amedi, a small Assyrian and Kurdish town in northern Iraq, where they visited some of Kavout’s distant cousins. Their host’s daughter Samira was a vibrant, healthy-looking, unmarried 30-year old, who spent the afternoon hiking through the family orchards with Amy and Kavout. In contrast, Samira’s sister-in-law Nadia was a thin and haggard young woman who made all of the food for every meal, catering to family and guests almost entirely by herself. Every day, she does this—returning to her own home in the evening completely exhausted. While it is customary for families to share resources and eat together, Nadia is particularly put upon by the family because of her inability to have children. She is not consoled or supported but has gradually become a sort of servant, denied social privileges that others in the family enjoy. It is as though she has been proven useless as a woman and therefore deserves no respect.
In Kurdistan, fertility is front and center in family life. Amy says, “The women I met normally had between six and 10 living children and had lost at least as many during pregnancy or infancy. Until a few years ago, having babies in the Kurdish countryside was as raw and dangerous an experience as 200 years ago in Europe, so infant mortality was extraordinarily high.”
Kavout’s parents had brought another three children into the world in the 1980s while still in the refugee camp and uncertain about their children’s and even their own survival. “I had always just assumed that this was because Kurdish people didn’t have contraception,” Amy says. When asked about it, Kavout responded that her parents, among others, had been “told to” have more children by the (Peshmerga) leadership. “Saddam was trying to exterminate us,” Amy says, “so they needed to keep having children to ensure our survival. The more children they had, the more chances there were that some might make it.”
This was a major challenge to the western attitude that Amy was used to, where having children is seen as something that should be planned and is only undertaken when the emotional and practical resources to care for a child are in place.
Now that there is relative peace in Kurdistan, attitudes seem to be changing and many Kurdish women are changing their priorities. Kavout, for one, has not ruled out having children at some point, but—like some of her friends—is currently focused on her career. Amy says, “None of them feel any pressure from their families, who are just happy to see them reaping the rewards of decades of struggle.”
As Women for Middle East HOPE, we support and encourage Middle Eastern women by understanding the cultural climate in which they live and by sharing our understanding with others. We also help them by supporting SAT-7 programming, which broadcasts the hope of Christ into the region and provides a forum for women to share even the most sensitive topics and experiences.