Iraqi Kur­dish woman fears for her life

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

One wintry night, a brown pick-up truck drove through the Kur­dish highlands in north­ern Iraq with four men and a woman in­side. The old­est man in charge held a pis­tol to the woman’s right thigh, or­der­ing her to be quiet as they ap­proached a check­point. Af­ter an hour of driv­ing, the men ar­rived at a spring in the moun­tains where they beat the woman with sticks and forced her to walk for about a mile be­fore stop­ping in an or­chard. “Please brother, don’t kill me, for the sake of Al­lah,” the woman - who asked to be iden­ti­fied as Lava to pro­tect her iden­tity - said she pleaded with her older brother Ja­mal on that night about two years ago.

But her pleas were ig­nored and she was forced to the ground, with her hands tied be­hind her back and her legs bound, while two of her other broth­ers dug a grave. Lava knew well of the count­less sto­ries in the Kur­dish press of women whose charred bod­ies are found in re­mote ar­eas, sus­pected vic­tims of so-called “honor” killings when women are stran­gled, stabbed or set on fire by their rel­a­tives and the au­thor­i­ties then no­ti­fied of a sui­cide.

Once only com­mon in ru­ral ar­eas, women’s rights cam­paign­ers are con­cerned the prac­tice of mur­der­ing women for what some see as “im­moral acts” has also be­come com­mon­place, and ac­cepted, in Iraq’s cities and towns but the ex­act num­bers are un­known. Anec­do­tally it seems the num­bers are ris­ing de­spite in­creased aware­ness of the crime, ed­u­ca­tional poli­cies and an ex­panded school sys­tem with cam­paign­ers call­ing for more ac­tion by the au­thor­i­ties to stop these mur­ders.

“Ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial data from the gov­ern­ment this year there were 24 cases of honor killing cases un­til the end of May,” said Khanim Rahim, direc­tor of the women’s rights group Asuda for Com­bat­ing Vi­o­lence against Women in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. “But you need to bear in mind that there are cases that are not reg­is­tered or re­ported to the au­thor­i­ties.” In Feb 2015, fig­ures re­ported from the Kur­dis­tan Health Min­istry showed in the last five years over 3,000 women had been killed as a re­sult of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in the Kur­dis­tan re­gion. Cam­paign­ers say the real num­ber is likely to be higher.

Crime and Pun­ish­ment

Lava, whose “crime” was to be seen in the car of a young man af­ter leav­ing her job at a ho­tel in Do­huk in Feb 2015, said two of her three broth­ers and a cousin threw her into the newly-dug grave and cov­ered her with soil so only her head stuck out. “You dis­hon­ored us. This is your pun­ish­ment in this world and you should ex­pect worse in the other world,” she said her brother yelled be­fore the men dis­ap­peared into the dark­ness. The Iraq Na­tional Youth Sur­vey in 2009 found 68 per­cent of young men ac­cept the killing of a women for sham­ing a fam­ily.

Lava tried un­suc­cess­fully to re­move some soil off her chest to re­lieve the pres­sure on her lungs but be­lieves she then must have fallen un­con­scious. She was lucky, how­ever, a rare case of a woman sur­viv­ing such a mur­der bid. Her brother-in-law, a re­spected lawyer, had heard her broth­ers plot­ting to kill her and man­aged to con­vince her fa­ther to re­veal the location of her grave. “It was evening of the fol­low­ing day when I saw my older sis­ter com­ing to­wards the grave ac­com­pa­nied by her hus­band and my three broth­ers,” Lava told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion in a cafe in an undis­closed location in the Kur­dish re­gion. “I never thought I would come out of that grave alive.”

Cam­paign­ers say Iraqi law is let­ting women down by not crack­ing down on those re­spon­si­ble for killing fe­male rel­a­tives. The Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment (KRG) has taken some mea­sures to pro­tect women who fear for their lives by open­ing sev­eral protection cen­ters and in 2009 launched the High Coun­cil of Women’s Af­fairs to pro­mote and pro­tect women’s rights. In 2012, the KRG launched a five-year plan to com­bat vi­o­lence against women which it de­scribed as an “ur­gent pri­or­ity” to re­move “vi­o­lence against women and pro­vid­ing a quiet and a happy life for them in Kur­dis­tan and pre­serv­ing the sta­bil­ity of the com­mu­nity”.

Calls for Le­gal Changes

But in Iraq and Jor­dan, “honor” killings fall in a sep­a­rate le­gal cat­e­gory with mur­der­ers get­ting lighter sen­tenc­ing, al­though both coun­tries are in the process of reforming the pe­nal code that deals with vi­o­lence against women. The United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Of­fice of the High Com­mis­sioner called on the Iraqi gov­ern­ment in Dec 2015 to swiftly amend its Crim­i­nal Code that per­mit “honor” as a law­ful de­fence in ciders against women and fam­ily mem­bers.

For while the Kur­dis­tan Re­gion of Iraq has re­pealed sec­tions of the Crim­i­nal Code that per­mit rea­sons of honor as mit­i­ga­tion for crimes of vi­o­lence com­mit­ted against fam­ily mem­bers, these pro­vi­sions re­main in force in the Iraqi Crim­i­nal Code. The US State De­part­ment said in a 2016 re­port on hu­man rights prac­tices that “honor” killings re­main a se­ri­ous prob­lem through­out Iraq and this pro­vi­sion lim­ited a sen­tence for mur­der to a max­i­mum of three years in prison for such crimes.

The United Na­tions As­sis­tance Mission for Iraq doc­u­mented sev­eral cases of honor killings. These in­cluded the mur­der in Basra of a 15-year-old girl who was de­cap­i­tated, her head wrapped in a hi­jab, and thrown into a garbage can, and the case of a man never jailed af­ter stab­bing his 20-year-old daugh­ter to death for dat­ing a fel­low univer­sity stu­dent. Parwa Ali, a woman par­lia­men­tar­ian in Kur­dis­tan who has dealt with a num­ber of “honor” re­lated cases, said the gov­ern­ment has not done enough to stop these crimes. “Un­for­tu­nately vi­o­lence against women is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing and most honor re­lated cases are re­solved through tribal agree­ment ... and not at courts,” she told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion from Su­lay­maniyah. Ali said the prob­lem was com­plex due to the tribal na­ture of po­lit­i­cal par­ties and their in­ter­fer­ence in the ju­di­cial process to sat­isfy the tribal elec­torate as well as a pa­tri­ar­chal and tribal code of be­hav­ior for women.

She also crit­i­cized the spe­cial amnesties is­sued by the KRG pres­i­dency which of­ten al­low such killers to go free. “We have not seen a killer of a woman serve his full sen­tence be­cause they of­ten get out un­der var­i­ous pre­texts,” said Ali who was voted into par­lia­ment in 2013. Rezan Sheikh Dler, a mem­ber of the Iraq par­lia­ment’s Women and Chil­dren Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, said Ar­ti­cle 409 still ap­plies in Iraqi pe­nal code and men who kill their wives for “honor” are of­ten sen­tenced to one year in prison.

“As women par­lia­men­tar­i­ans in the Iraqi par­lia­ment we are try­ing to amend this ar­ti­cle but it is not easy and it’ll take time,” she told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion. “In Jor­dan they have sim­i­lar pro­vi­sions.” Pak­istan’s par­lia­ment last year passed leg­is­la­tion against “honor killings”, re­mov­ing a loop­hole in ex­ist­ing law that al­lowed killers to walk free af­ter be­ing par­doned by fam­ily mem­bers, af­ter the mur­der of an out­spo­ken so­cial me­dia star. Her brother was ar­rested af­ter her death. Al­though Lava was one of the lucky ones to sur­vive her at­tempted mur­der, she does not feel safe. She was not al­lowed to leave the fam­ily house for 18 months af­ter the night she was res­cued but in Sept 2016, one of her broth­ers asked her to go and work in a ho­tel. She saw her chance and planned an es­cape, flee­ing ear­lier this year. Her fu­ture is un­cer­tain but she is con­vinced that she will be killed by her broth­ers if she does not es­cape Kur­dis­tan. “I know they will kill me one day but let me breathe freely while I am still alive,” she said. —Reuters

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