Can you give us some information about your personal background and your professional history?
My family lived in Iraqi Kurdistan until the mid-1970s. Then we moved to Iran as refugees along with a large number of other Iraqi Kurds. When I was eleven, my family moved to Britain. My father of course stayed in the Middle East as he was in the leadership of the Kurdish movement. I studied history at Goldsmiths College, which is part of the University of London, and graduated with a Degree in History. I later gained a Diploma in Journalism and became a journalist in 1988. I worked in British newspapers for 17 years, including at the Financial Times for about 8 years. In 2005, I was designated as the KRG’s representative to the UK.

What were the initial difficulties you faced during your first years in office?
Frankly speaking, it was very difficult to get any attention. In 2005, Britain didn’t have a consulate here in Erbil. The KRG had a relationship with Britain because of its military presence in Iraq, but that was it.

In 2005 and 2006, we set out with a focus only on a few areas: providing services to the Kurdish community and promoting trade with the UK. At that point, the goal was mostly to build trust. The other area of focus was to establish relations with Members of Parliament in order to keep our relationship with the British establishment strong.

At that time, the British media perspective was different and very negative. Nobody was interested in a success story in Iraq, so it was very hard to be heard. My aim was to be involved in the British media as a representative of Kurdistan. I simply wanted the words “Kurdistan” and “stability” to be heard. That was my very basic aim at the beginning. I believe in this regard we succeeded.

In 2005, I felt that perhaps there was only myself and a few others who spoke up for Kurdistan in terms of trade. Today, there are many businesspeople who have visited Kurdistan who have subsequently become our ambassadors and helped us promote the Region.

I was, at the same time, knocking on the doors of trade organizations since Britain is a country whose economy is based on trade and finance. They were very hesitant because they did not differentiate the Kurdistan Region from the rest of Iraq. Nobody in the UK was interested in coming here or doing business in the Region. As such, we have tried to build confidence amongst the British business community about Kurdistan. We have encouraged Kurdish trade organizations to come to the UK and to meet people and try to find partners. By 2006, we managed to get two different organizations, British Expertise and the Middle East Association, to come here, see the Region themselves, and meet the Prime Minister, the individual ministers, and the Chambers of Commerce. That’s how we’ve progressed in terms of the business community.

Since those early days, we have been able to place emphasis on many other areas too. We focus, of course, on our relationship with the British Government, Parliament, think tanks, and the international media. We also focus a great deal on the Kurdish and the Iraqi community in general. So, we have branched out quite a bit.

How would you characterize current relations between the KRG and the UK?
Where we are today is totally different. There are several major British trade organizations that we liaise with on a daily basis. The Middle East Association, British Expertise, UK Trade and Investment, and the Iraqi-British Business Council. Of course, there are many more private business organizations that we speak with and individual businesses that come to us. Promoting trade and investment is a very big part of our office’s work and it’s on a different footing. They come to us rather than us having to knock on everyone’s door.

In 2005, I felt that perhaps there was only myself and a few others who spoke up for Kurdistan in terms of trade. Today, there are many businesspeople who have visited Kurdistan who have subsequently become our ambassadors and helped us promote the Region.

The media situation has also changed. I think a majority of the media have accepted that Kurdistan is different from the rest of Iraq. The trade and investment situation, as well as the understanding amongst the business community, has changed. So, our relationship with the British government is better and much more detailed. They have a Consulate here and our representation there has expanded in terms of number of staff and a better geographic location.

Another area of our operation that has expanded dramatically is our work with Parliament. A group of British parliamentarians established an “All Party Parliamentary Group” (APPG) on the Kurdistan Region, and we support this group as much as we can. This APPG is one of the most proactive APPGs in the whole of Parliament. There are hundreds of these types of groups, perhaps 600 or 700 in the British Parliament. From what we have seen, the Kurdistan APPG is in the top five in terms of how proactive it is. This is fantastic for us. We’ve been able to show the MPs that we have shared values, that we believe in democracy, and that we believe in women’s rights. Of course, we still have issues and problems to iron out. However, we look to Britain as an example for resolving all of those issues and we therefore welcome British advice.

How much engagement is there between the two sides?
There is quite a lot of engagement. We have people from Britain that advise our government on how to train the police, to deal with women who feel threatened, to train firemen to an international level, to properly test the medicines that come to Kurdistan, and to train our civil servants and Members of Parliament. In terms of education, a large number of Kurdish students who study abroad via the KRG scholarship program choose to do so in the UK. There are over 1,700 scholarship students currently studying there. Our relationship with the UK is detailed and widespread. Our office also liaises with Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, not just Westminster. So, overall, there’s lot of interaction.

You’re in a strong position of authority, in that you represent the KRG in London. You’re also a woman and a mother. So, we are curious if either of those roles influences your work as the KRG’s High Representative?
I think we’ve made enormous leaps in terms of women’s rights in Kurdistan. However, there’s still a long way to go. Prime Minister Barzani has really done a great deal, not only in terms of promoting women to positions in the government, but also in terms of promoting women’s rights in general. I became a mother in 2012, so only recently. The KRG has shown me a lot of flexibility to be able to take maternity leave and so on. I hope that kind of flexibility is shown to other women, and that it’s not just to me because of my privileged position.

In the UK, journalists, MPs, and women’s organizations do ask me about women’s rights. I give them an honest answer. About 50% of undergraduates, 30% of government employees, and 35% of MPs in Kurdistan are women. So, as women we have a presence, but we still have a long way to go. There is still honor-based violence, unfortunately. There is FGM [female genital mutilation], despite the fact that we’ve passed laws that ban it. These are difficult issues that the KRG is working hard to resolve.

In 2008, Prime Minister Barzani commissioned research by Roehampton and Bristol universities in the UK on honor-based violence in Kurdistan. The research they did was pioneering worldwide. There isn’t that kind of deep, academic research on honor-based violence anywhere else. I think the Prime Minister is a visionary. He does promote women’s rights and he’s daring enough and bold enough to invite others to analyze the country in an independent, objective, academic way. We need to know where we are on these types of issues, where we’ve done well, and where we’ve done poorly. We need these types of recommendations.

People forget how bold it was several years ago for the President Masoud Barzani and Prime Minister Barzani to say publicly, “It’s wrong to have honor-based violence. There’s no honor in killing a woman.” It was a very bold thing to do at the time as it broke a taboo. Now, we all take it for granted, but then it was a very strong stance to take.