At first they were very surprised at the huge amounts of condoms I would take with me to Kurdistan. Once an officer asked me what that was, pointing to six big packs. I responded by saying “Condoms”, “yeah, but what is it for?”, “Well, you put it on your willy when you want to have sex”. That shut him up, hurriedly putting everything back in my luggage. After that the problem was that they now saw me as the condom lady, so whenever I enter the officers greet me with a flirty smile or even try to give me their phone numbers.

I meet with Iranian writer/journalist Nafiss Nia in her Amsterdam office. She is an animated speaker as she recounts her experiences of visiting Iraqi Kurdistan 13 times between 2009 and 2013. While the reason for her visits were to give workshops on civil journalism, screenplay writing and documentary filmmaking, she also managed to befriend and gain the trust of Iraqi Kurds who would tell her intimate details about their sex lives.

The first thing I noticed visiting Kurdistan is how much sex is in the air. People are obsessed with it. Especially the men, who very easily told me of their intimate lives. Of course, more than a few wanted to be with me, so I had to be on my guard and not open up in a way that would be considered an invitation. Younger women looked up to me, as I was a woman from Iran, a country they respect, traveling alone, without a father, brother or a husband, and even teaching and commanding the respect of a classroom full of men. They would tell me of their private lives, Especially if I told them a thing or two about myself. Only women my own age would be very guarded. They would talk, but their storier where disguised as jokes, or funny anecdotes about someone else, never about themselves.

I learned of a society where many young men have a girlfriend, but also a lover, often a married woman, just for the sex. I learned that while almost all girls had sex with their boyfriends very few actually enjoyed it, as it mostly consisted of oral sex to please him and anal sex, all to stay a virgin. I alo learned that buying condoms, though they were easy to obtain, was still a taboo, but girls easily bought the creams and lotions used for anal sex.

Nafiss’s talks and observations became a series of articles on Sex in Kurdistan, which she published in Dutch for Ex Ponto magazine. We are proud to publish them on this blog. I was also very curious to hear her opinion on how thoughts on sex are progressing in the years that she was there.

Kurdistan can be a very paradoxical place for an Iranian. It was kept underdeveloped for a long time by rulers in Baghdad, but now oil money is pouring in. So you see very traditional customs and views, but also all this wealth, riches and modern buildings. While in my native Isfahan men and women would have separate lives, Kurdish men and women traditionally mix, but on the other hand many girls marry to settle some clan business. Many women that I speak to about having a healthy and enjoyable sex life tell me it’s so low on their list of priorities. They’re worried about divorce rights, about the rise of Female Genital Mutilation.

But you know some years ago some Iranian journalists asked me why I was so preoccupied by the Hijab, they said in Iran that’s the least of a woman’s worries. Now the same journalists spearhead campaigns for the right of women to walk without covering their hair. So I’m sure at some point, sooner than we expect it, Kurdish women will have open conversations about sex. And even recently I’ve observed mothers taking their daughters to a doctor for the contraceptive pill, though they tell their daughters not to mention it to their fathers and brothers.

sexkurdistan1

Sex in Kurdistan 1

“Could you bring me a box of condoms, next time you come from the Netherlands?” asks a young Kurdish friend the last time I visited Iraqi Kurdistan. He’s single, popular with the ladies and doesn’t hide his tremendous interest in free sex. When I ask him in surprise if there are no condoms in Kurdistan he says: “Of course there are condoms, but I’m afraid some one will see me buying them.”

It took me a while to get used to be in a place that’s so obviously a male dominated culture, and have especially young men want to speak to confide in me regarding their sex lives.

Of course you’re a stranger living in the West, so you’re probably used to discussing these subjects openly, and besides, you’re not a close friend, relative or colleague, so the risk of exposing their secrets and shaming or endangering them is minimal. But still, this friend asked me not to tell anyone about his request.

Iraqi Kurdistan is slowly but surely turning into a modern state and its taboos and red lines are slowly, according to the young too slowly, dissolving. While the streets look more and more modern, at least according to a Western taste, a lot of ancient mentalities are still intact. It’s not done for a girl to be in the streets after 9 pm, neither is a free and open relationship between a boy and a girl who are not married. Despite all this do all the boys, wether they’re religious or not, have a relationship with a girl, with whom they have sex on a regular basis.

But if there’s so much fear or shame for buying a packet of condoms in the store is so big, who buys these items that are put between the aspirins and the nail polishremovers? A little investigation between the men that I met tought me the following: It’s young Kurdish men who’ve spent time abroad who buy and are the most active sexually. The second group are the married men, though they use them to have protected sex with their mistresses. The third group that’s the majority among the young men are simply to afraid or shy to buy them and doesn’t have safe sex.

You’d think a parent would be pleased if their children had protected sex, but in Iraqi Kurdistan (and probably all other countries in the Middle East) the reaction is somewhat different. However, there’s a big difference between what boys and girls face. They for both sex before marriage is forbidden a boy often gets a free pass or maybe a scolding or a slap. A girl might get killed for tainting the family honor. People speak ill of an unmarried girl who’s too intimate with the boys, let alone one who has actual sex. Keeping your virginity is important in Kurdistan. Fear of gossip means that most pre-marital relationships are secret. However, the doors to Western influences have been left open. Internet is a portal to all kinds of knowledge, scientific and social sites but also porn. So a lot of information, good and bad, can be found, though this has only increased the thirst for it. And though keeping a relationship secret can make it more exciting, the young Kurds do wish for more mental freedom which also allows for a more democratic society.

A box of condoms doesn’t take much place in my suitcase and I’m not easily shy or scared when the customs officers on the Kurdish airport holds it up and down to see if it contains any illegal objects. Curious eyes avert themselves when I stare straight back. Women cast down their gaze and some men get a sly mile on their face. When I walk on it’s cool and as if I don’t care, but I can feel their eyes piercing my back.