As I was in Erbil airport waiting for my passport to be checked to leave the country, I overheard a woman speaking to a passport control agent in Kurdish. She was with another woman in a wheelchair, and some family members. The only words I could make out, clearly in English, were “National Geographic.” This piqued my interest.
Later, as I was at the gate waiting for my [twenty four hour delayed] flight to Vienna, I saw the two women again. Given the openness of the Kurdish people, I decided to say hello. Since National Geographic had been mentioned, I figured one of them worked for the organization and I would be able to show them the pictures I had taken from the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. only a few weeks earlier. I could not have been more wrong.
The woman in the wheelchair had actually been featured in the March 1975 issue of National Geographic in an article entitled “We Who Face Death: The Kurds in Iraq risk their lives daily in a desperate struggle for self-determination.” My flight delay had led me to meet a pioneer for women’s rights in Iraq and extremely accomplished woman, Judge Zakia Hakki.
Zakia Hakki was born on November 18th, 1939 in Baghdad. She became the first woman judge in the history of Iraq. She is known for being a champion of human rights for the Kurdish people, as she herself is a Kurd. When the Kurdish revolution began in September 1971, Zakia was one of the leaders working in the underground movement.
She is the founder of the Kurdish Women’s Federation and was president of the group from 1958 until 1975. She was the only woman elected to the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party during the general assembly meeting in 1970. As a result of her being an outspoken advocate for the Kurdish people, she was placed under probationary arrest for 20 years by the Iraqi government until her emigration to the United States in 1996. Ms. Hakki holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from the International Labor Union in Switzerland and a Ph.D. in international law from the University of Baghdad. She is married with children and survives her husband who was murdered in Iraq under the old regime.
A member of the committee that drafted Iraq’s new constitution, Zakia Hakki was elected as a member of the Iraqi National Assembly. In 2004 she was appointed as the inspector general of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Ms. Hakki founded two local NGOs in Iraq aiming to provide shelter for homeless Iraqi women and children and is a board member of the “Women Alliance for Democratic Iraq.” As the first woman judge in Iraq, she served as an expert legal adviser in the government’s Ministry of Agriculture and with the Ministry of Justice in the enforcement court of family and Islamic law.
Today Zakia has once again taken the forefront in political life by being elected as a Member of the Iraqi Parliament and is a leading member of the Women’s Alliance for Democratic Iraq. She is the founder of the Iraqi high advisory committee for women and travels the world representing Iraqi women internationally. At a 2002 press conference at the National Press Club, she famously said “If ONE Iraqi is oppressed, then NO Iraqi is FREE.”
We spoke for a while and she was one of the nicest people I met in my travels. She talked about her time as a Kurdish freedom fighter, and how she had survived an assassination attempt. She proudly displayed the National Geographic article and her U.S. passport for the camera. She is now living in the Washington, D.C. area.
A word to travelers who may be shy to say hello to someone: always say hello, as you may let an important opportunity pass you by, such as meeting someone as important as Zakia Hakki.
Photo below: Zakia Hakki is on the left, from the March 1975 Issue of National Geographic Magazine [photo by LeRoy Woodson, Jr.].