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21 December 2007

What honour in killing?

The co-founder of the Iraqi Women's Rights Coalition writes on a spate of 'honour killings' in Iraqi

By Houzan Mahmoud

For decades women in Kurdistan have been subjected to all kinds of discrimination and suppression. Falling in love with the ‘wrong’ person can cost you your life. Sex outside marriage may bring a death sentence. The price of bringing ‘shame’ upon family honour can be a woman’s life.

The breakdown of law and order in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion has exacerbated the situation – earlier this month Youssif Mohammed Aziz, the regional minister for human rights in Kurdistan reported that at least 27 women had been murdered in the region over the last four months in ‘honour killings’.

There have been many cases of brutal killings, but this is only one side of the story. Many women and young girls have taken or attempted to take their own lives as a way of resisting the social control and subordinated role imposed upon them.

For example, Kurdistan’s Hawlati newspaper published a report carried out by a hospital in Sulaymania recording more than 7000 cases of women setting fire to themselves between 2000 and 2007.

Only after the stoning of a seventeen-year-old Yazidi girl, Dua Khalil Aswad, did the Kurdistan Regional Government issue a statement condemning so called ‘honour killings’ and violence against women. But soon after the statement was issued more than seventy women were killed for similar reasons and to this date none of the killers have been arrested.

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Most Middle Eastern governments base policy and law upon a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings and codes of conduct. The notions of shame, honour, guilt and sin are then imposed on women through a conservative patriarchal culture. War, occupation, corrupt government and the existence and growth of Islamic and traditional conservative parties have all contributed to the formation of a hostile, anti-women environment in Iraq. Women are considered by many to be the possessions of men – it’s as if we only exist because men wish it so!

In a society where violence and sexual abuse towards women is a widespread cultural phenomenon it can be hard to see where any improvement in the conditions and rights of women can be made.

In the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq the systematic abuse and suppression of women is bad enough, but in the south the situation is much worse. Under the occupation women have been subjected to all kinds of attacks: beheadings, rape, abduction and trafficking. Political Islamists have formed various armed militias and groups that target women in particular. They do this to further their long term aim of a creating a conservative Islamic society in Iraq governed by their interpretation of the Shari’a, the Islamic law that already prevails in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In the last three months more than 40 women have been killed by the Islamists in Basra alone, murdered because of their ‘un-Islamic’ dress, according to Iraqi police. It is believed that many more deaths go unreported for fear of reprisals. In others cities where the Islamists have a stronger hold on power, the situation is even worse.

More violence and oppression against women unfolds with every new political twist and turn in the region. Our rights – the rights of women – have been taken away again and again. But there is a glimpse of hope in the form of courageous women taking up the fight and speaking out against male chauvinism, misogynistic Islamic ‘values’ and the traditional norms of society that relegate and subjugate women. The battle for equality dignity and liberty is well overdue. In the 21st Century no woman should be treated like an unchained slave – it’s time to turn this world upside down.

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