As the oppressive influence of Isis spreads, women in Iraqi Kurdistan are risking their lives to convert to an ancient religion that preaches gender equality. Corinne Redfern spends a week with the Zoroastrians
Some days, when Duya Ahmed Gadir wakes up, she lies in bed a little longer than usual. Against the buzz of an air conditioning pump outside her window, the 27-year-old whispers a quiet mantra – a promise to think good thoughts, say good words and complete good deeds. She doesn’t do it every day – most of the time she oversleeps; tumbling out of her room, gulping down a cup of sweetened tea and flying out the door to the library to while away her day studying English as a hobby. But when she does remember, it calms her. As a Zoroastrian, this three-pillared promise is her only prayer.
“I was raised Muslim, but I converted to Zoroastrianism last year,” Duya explains, sitting cross-legged on a mattress in jeans and scuffed platform sandals at her home in Kalar, a small city in the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, three hours north of Baghdad.
“I could see how Isis were acting in the name of ‘Islam’. For three years, they’ve been violently imposing extremist, conservative laws. They’re marrying girls as young as 10, forcing women to cover their hands and faces and killing or raping everyone who gets in their way. Three million people are homeless because of them. I didn’t want anything to do with their version of Islam any more.”
As Duya herself accepts, her country’s chequered history and current social and economic turmoil has led to an interpretation of Islam that the majority of Muslims wouldn’t recognise as being true to what they practice – a result of overzealous leaders using religion in the wrong way. On a global level, this misrepresentation is part of the reason the hashtag #notinmyname has become so prevalent worldwide.
Nevertheless, Duya is one of more than 100 Kurdish women who have risked their lives to officially convert to Zoroastrianism over the past 18 months, after reading about the inherently feminist, liberal religion on Facebook.
She tracked down Kurdistan’s only official ‘Atashgah’ (the Zoroastrian centre of worship) in the city of Sulaymaniyah, 85 miles to the north. Once there, it seemed like a semi-utopia, to be suddenly surrounded by women of all ages and backgrounds, wearing long, traditional dresses teamed with bright, spiked heels.
“Anyone is welcome here,” explains the religion’s female spiritual leader, Peerq Ashna Abdulqadr Raza, 47. “It’s a place where women can do and say what they want. There aren’t many places like that in this country.”
In search of equality
While local theologists are noting a sudden surge in Zoroastrianism’s popularity among both men and women (it’s open to all, but does have a strong female presence in this region due to its focus on gender equality), it’s a trend they’re attributing to both the Isis-inspired backlash and a growing awareness of gender politics.
But the religion itself isn’t new – originating in Persia over 3,500 years ago, the monotheistic belief system [they worship a single God] predates Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and is founded on the poetry and songs of a prophet called Zoroaster.
Read more: “I was kidnapped as an Isis sex slave”
Millennia-old scripture purporting to echo his words remains in existence but it’s studied lightly – unlike many religious groups, Zoroastrians take pride in updating their faith in accordance with the times.
“As a result, these days men and women within our community are given equal authority, counteracting climate change is a priority and the overriding sentiment is that however you choose to live your life is OK – as long as you’re not hurting anybody else in the process,” explains academic Farhad Abdulhamid Mohamad, 72, who has studied Zoroastrianism for 35 years.
“We don’t believe that there are bad people in the world, only bad actions.”
“Each week, there are more and more Muslim men and women asking to convert,” adds Peerq Ashna. “What Isis is doing across Iraq and Syria makes me feel sick. And we all know that it’s not how the majority of Muslims interpret their religion.
“But when your house has been bombed, your daughter kidnapped or your family massacred, people don’t want to be associated with the thing that supposedly enabled that. They’re asking questions – and because atheism doesn’t come naturally to many people here, they’re often finding that Zoroastrianism is the answer.”
The pervading oppression certainly informed Duya’s decision to covert. “I feel like a second-class citizen everywhere I go,” she explains, because of how Islam is interpreted, regardless of Isis’ influence.
Even in Kalar – a city heavily protected from Isis – things are bad. Men refuse to shake her hand, she has to eat in a curtained-off area in restaurants, and isn’t allowed to leave the house without her parents’ permission.
“As a woman, you’re treated like an animal – a donkey to be bought and owned and beaten by men as they please. I see European and American women on YouTube and think, ‘You don’t even know how free you are.’”
Men are also turning up at the Sulaymaniyah Atashgah. After a five-hour drive from the Iranian border, one Iranian 32-year-old, who wants to remain anonymous, explains he sought out Zoroastrianism simply because he’s desperate to date ‘normally’.
“I just want to be with someone who loves me,” he says. “Not someone who has been bought for me by my parents.” His friends feel the same way, he adds. “But they’re too scared to do anything about it.”
He now visits once every two months for spiritual guidance and reassurance. He leaves 30 minutes after his arrival, pulling a baseball cap low over his forehead. Leaving Islam is illegal in Iran. If anyone finds out he was here, he’ll be imprisoned.
But even in Kurdistan – a diverse region harbouring Christian and Yazidi communities – the dangers of converting are terrifying. Earlier this year, an extremist fatwa was announced declaring anyone leaving Islam could be killed if they refused to return to their faith after three days. A few weeks later, Peerq Ashna was shot at by a gang of men as she left her house. She ran back inside, shaking “with rage, not fear”.
“I’ve been threatened by the Islamic State so many times now,” she says. “And just before Ramadan, a group of Salafis [an extremist division of Sunni Islam] came at me with a knife saying they would throw acid in my face unless I stopped speaking out about Zoroastrianism and equal rights. The local government gave me a security guard, but really, what can he do?”
Duya, too, worries about the repercussions of leaving Islam. “But every day I feel a little braver,” she says. “I couldn’t bear the alternative any longer. I only have one life, and I’d rather be shot for trying to live it freely than carry on living like a prisoner. Just because I was born in Kurdistan rather than London, people seem to think it’s OK that I should have less rights and opportunities.”
Before finding Zoroastrianism, Duya constantly thought about killing herself. She did consider atheism as an option, but she likes to believe in a higher power. It stops her from feeling completely alone.
It was this desperation which, 18 months ago, drove Duya to sneak out of her family home at dawn and travel to Sulaymaniyah. Standing in the Atashgah before a shrine of lanterns and cellophane flames (representing God’s light), she repeated an oath promising to save the environment, protect all animals and remain careful of her actions. A gold scarf was wrapped around her waist and ceremoniously knotted three times at the back. Apricots were served from silver trays, and a man tapped a rhythm on a hand-painted drum.
The whole thing lasted 15 minutes but for Duya, it was life-changing. “I felt reborn,” she remembers. “Like I was finally free to do whatever I wanted to do – and nobody could stop me just because I was born a girl.”
But after returning home that night, the glow quickly wore off. “Converting doesn’t solve everything. I still can’t get a job, or rent a flat, or go to a cafe with my friends. I’m 27 but I’m still forced socially and financially to live at home and abide by my family’s rules.
“Even though I know my rights, I can’t access them without being cut off by everyone I care about. The only thing that’s different is now I have a network of other women who feel the same way.”
Peerq Ashna was the first Kurdish woman to publicly participate in the conversion ceremony in 2015. Skip forward two years, and Ashna makes a point of supporting younger women like Duya – establishing a sisterhood, making herself available over social media day and night for when the cultural oppression feels too much.
And she’s implementing her own feminist changes too: during conversion ceremonies, she asks new members to recite both their father’s and mother’s names now.
It’s support like Ashna’s that gave Duya the strength to tell her parents. “I was so scared about telling my family I’d converted,” she says. “My mother taught me and my six sisters to wear the hijab, and pray five times a day. Ramadan was this big family affair.
“When it came to admitting I didn’t want to do that any more, I just didn’t want to see the disappointment on her face.”
In the end, urgency forced her hand. Entering her late 20s meant her parents might arrange a marriage for her any day, and ‘coming out’ as Zoroastrian was a means of preventing that.
“All my friends are married now – every single one. But I believe you should live with someone beforehand, otherwise you’ll never know how well suited you are. In Islam, that’s not allowed – but Zoroastrians say that nothing is forbidden.”
When she did tell her parents she’d left Islam, they were angry, forbidding her to leave the house alone. “But they can’t make me fast and they can’t make me pray,” she says. “I’m a prisoner but at least I’m free to believe what I want.”
But Duya’s desire to live freely is placing her in danger. Even in Kalar, Isis extremists often slip past the army checkpoints designed to keep them at bay. But in a society where women are raised to cover their faces and stay inside, Duya says she and her Zoroastrian friends are sick of going unseen.
Shiny Faravahar emblems swing from their necks – medals of honour in the shape of a three-winged man, representing the three Zoroastrian tenets of good thoughts, words and deeds. The gold-plated equivalent of a secret handshake, their jewellery enables them to identify other Zoroastrians; to exchange a nod or knowing smile.
Both Duya and Ashna speak out on social media because of their passionate belief of free speech and religious freedom, amassing a feminist following of thousands – Ashna over Snapchat, Duya hosting Facebook Live Q&As she broadcasts from her bedroom to 18,000 people at a time. Although she doesn’t know how to respond to the torrent of abuse that inevitably follows.
“I tell myself I don’t care, but sometimes it hurts me,” says Duya. “I have to remind myself that living a lie would hurt too. It is scary to think everyone knows who I am, and that so many people seem to hate what I’m saying. But I’m not frightened any more.
“I just want to tell every woman: be Muslim, be Christian, be Zoroastrian, whatever – just know you’re worth the same as any man.”
Images: Francesco Brembati for Stylist / Rex Features