January 3, 2017 at 8:07 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Kurdish group launches pro-LGBT human rights campaign

The Rasan Organization painted murals with messages in support of LGBT and women's rights throughout the city of Sulaymaniyah in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Capture Group/Zhyari)

The Rasan Organization painted murals with messages in support of LGBT and women’s rights throughout the city of Sulaymaniyah in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Capture Group/Zhyari)

A Kurdish advocacy organization has launched an LGBT-inclusive human rights campaign.

The Rasan Organization on Nov. 25 began to paint murals on the walls of three high schools in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Staffers and volunteers of the Sulaymaniyah-based organization painted the murals with the help of a local artist.

One of the murals contains images of three rainbow-colored couples — two who are gay and lesbian and one who is straight — above a slogan that reads, “love is love.” Another mural simply reads, “equality” in English and Kurdish.

The campaign also sought to highlight domestic violence in the region.

One mural contains an image of a woman with a black eye holding her hand in the air. The Rasan Organization also placed electronic billboards throughout Sulaymaniyah that highlighted domestic violence, child marriage and discrimination against women in the workplace.

The campaign, which ended on Dec. 10, placed four posters throughout Sulaymaniyah on which people could write their thoughts abut the women in their lives and domestic violence.

The Rasan Organization also worked with 30 women at a local prison on improving personal hygiene and other basic skills. Staffers also organized a party for them that included food and dancing.

Ayaz Shalal, a human rights activist who is the deputy director of programs for the Rasan Organization, told the Washington Blade last week during a WhatsApp interview from the Netherlands where he spent the holidays that the reaction to the murals has been “so positive.” He also said the Rasan Organization hopes to implement similar campaigns in the cities of Irbil and Kirkuk.

Shalal conceded, however, there has been a backlash.

The Rasan Organization said in a press release that its staffers received “very aggressive messages” on their social media accounts. They have also been verbally accosted.

Shalal told the Blade that local authorities did not allow them to paint the murals on walls along Sulaymaniyah’s main streets “because they were afraid of the public’s reaction” to them. He said he and his colleagues decided to approach the high schools instead.

“We were smart enough to find other walls, which were the walls of the schools,” said Shalal.

The campaign is part of the Rasan Organization’s efforts to promote human rights across Iraq.

The group has launched a research project that seeks to document attitudes towards LGBT Iraqis. Shalal met with a group of 129 imams and religious leaders in the city of Chamchamal in November to discuss ways to promote gender equality.

“Everyone should be equal,” Shalal told the Blade last August during an interview at Human Rights First’s offices in downtown Washington.

Rasan Organization worked with women raped by ISIS

Anti-LGBT discrimination and violence remain commonplace in Iraq.

The so-called Islamic State has publicly executed dozens of men in Iraq and Syria who have been accused of committing sodomy. The city of Mosul, which is ISIS’ last major stronghold in Iraq, is less than 200 miles from Sulaymaniyah.

ISIS on Monday claimed responsibility for two bombings in Baghdad and in the city of Samarra that killed at least 43 people and dozens of others injured. The terrorist group has also claimed responsibility for an attack at an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Day that left 39 people dead.

Secretary of State John Kerry last year announced that ISIS has committed genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS killed hundreds of Yazidi men and older women in the Iraqi town of Kocho in the summer of 2014. Militants have captured thousands of Yazidi women and girls and forced them to become sex slaves.

The Rasan Organization worked with 90 pregnant Yazidi women who fled ISIS until the program’s funding ran out. Shalal told the Blade while he was in D.C. that militants raped some of them after killing their husbands.

Ayaz Shalal of the Rasan Organization stands in front of a mural that calls for an end to domestic violence in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Capture Group/Zhyari)

Ayaz Shalal of the Rasan Organization stands in front of a mural that calls for an end to domestic violence in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Capture Group/Zhyari)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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