The displacement crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan is in its second year, the displaced and the host communities are beginning to merge, and the crisis is affecting both communities, how can CwC be made to work? Brigitte Sins, of International Media Support, reports she has found a way, in a truly innovative approach to CwC in conflict: a glossy women’s magazine.
'Why should I sell this magazine? It is for women...' In front of me stands the manager of a big shopping mall in Sulaymanya, in Iraqi Kurdistan. In my hands are copies of Zhin, Kurdistan's first glossy journalistic magazine for women. It is not the first time that I’ve got this reaction. I know that an explanation like, 'well, it is to help women and give them a platform,' will not impress him.
It is not easy to get a part of the community involved in something that will not benefit them directly, whether it is women versus those who set the agenda and hold power, one ethnic group versus another, or the private sector versus the development sector. When working in mass communications, one has to be able to bridge these different worlds, and that takes a long time.
Mainstream mass media not only inform, they also educate, set public opinion and influence politics. They are one of the pillars with which to build an open society, but they can also connect or divide a society. Communicating with Communities is different to mainstream media, as it is targeting disaster affected communities. In Iraqi Kurdistan this includes providing humanitarian information to refugees and IDP's, building dialogues at a local level, or producing print material with direct messaging. These media products are developed for relief purposes: the message is most important and the media products do not need to be sustained, but they reach neither the policy makers nor the host community.
Now, a new approach is needed, one that bridges these two media worlds.
After a year of a continuous influx of IDP's from other parts of Iraq into Kurdistan – as well as refugees from Syria - a change is becoming visible. The disaster affected communities are not just to be found within the refugee and IDP groups, now they are found everywhere in the society. These days, the host population is being affected: they have lost a secure and safe environment, jobs and income. The crisis has spread over the society at large.
At the same time, the information needs of refugees and IDP's are changing as they are merging into wider society. New arrivals need direct response to their needs for humanitarian information. The IDP's and refugees who have been here a long time now, have become part of a bigger society, especially when their children go to public schools and they live outside the camps. Their humanitarian information needs are changing into public information and communication needs. International Media Support (IMS) is providing both humanitarian information as well as mass communication and media development as part of its programme in Iraq. In this programme, IMS works with different media partners who represent the various parts of society and have access to different groups.
Zhin magazine is part of this approach. It is a mainstream communication tool targeting women in the Kurdish society, and, in order to build cohesion, the magazine includes stories about refugees and IDP's. The stories tell of their situation, their experiences, their feelings and their dreams for the future. The stories are told from their perspective, like the other stories about Kurdish women. It is a new concept in a society where the media market is dominated by men. The voices of women are ignored or undermined in most media and it is hard for female journalists to pitch their stories in a newsroom where the news agenda is decided by men. Ala Lattif, the editor of Zhin magazine, explains how some of her male colleagues write about gender and female affairs in Kurdistan: 'When a woman commits suicide, there is this kind of admiration for her action, because, by killing herself, she saves the honour of the family. After a rape, the only question is whether the victim is still a virgin. That is the question both in society and in the media. They do not talk about her suffering, they do not look for the perpetrators.'
Although the culture of Kurdish women differs from Iraqi or Yezidi culture, the magazine shows that they share common issues. The women who escaped from Daesh (Islamic State) not only are traumatised by sexual abuse, but now have to deal with the consequences within their own community where honour is so important. By sharing the pain and suffering women have in common, there is a mutual understanding, which is crucial for finding support and further help from other levels in society.
In order to find support on a broader level, Zhin aims to win the understanding of other groups in society. Only when the magazine is embedded and has a respectable voice in society, will it manage to bring the voices of women up to a higher level. Civil society organisations and activists are easy to reach, as they campaign for the same issues. But Zhin wants to create awareness among students, business people, high society and politicians. In order to reach them, Zhin includes sections such as fashion and beauty; it is the first magazine in the Kurdish region that has its own fashion shoots. This gives the magazine a glossier look, which appeals to advertisers. Although the economic crisis is severe, Zhin still manages to attract advertisers and include them as partners. It is a relationship which is also used for staging joint events to raise women's issues.
But having the attention of private sector, politicians, activists and students, young, old, women and men, is not enough if people do not have access to the magazine. 'It is good for all people in Kurdistan to have a quality magazine and you are important in distributing it to all', is my last attempt with the shopping mall manager. He pauses, makes some phone calls, checks the magazine for 'wrong' headlines, smiles when he sees the fashion pages and then gives his approval .He asks, 'How can we cooperate?'