Honor Killings in Iraq

By Ahmed Marwan Al -Saeedi

Basra, Iraq

“Honor violence” is a crime that has been or may have been committed to protect or defend the honor of the family and/or community” (Helba et al, 2015). According to the UN Population Fund, every year about 5,000 women and girls, fall victims to murders committed in the name of protecting family honor in different parts of the world (UN State of World Population 2000, Chesler, 2010). Even more tragically, “many of them are killed  for the ‘dishonour’ of having been raped” (UN State of World Population 2000, 5). In Iraq only, 150 women are killed annually, but these are only rough estimates since many deaths are not reported.

Looking for the root causes

Women in Iraq are constrained by ancient and tribal customs that are not usually subject to analysis, criticism, or revision, if not sporadically and timidly, despite the existence of programs to promote their advancement in society. In addition, the economic sanctions imposed by the US during the nineties as a response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the armed conflicts during the past decades and now, both international and national ones, made the country poorer and consequently negatively affected the conditions of women. At the same time, the constant exposure to violence made gender-based violence more acceptable. Some reports conveyed a terrifying aspect of women’s lives and their exposure to extortion and harassment during those periods (Howard 1995), forms of violence women of today Iraq are still suffering from. (UNHOCR Occasional Paper, situation of women in Iraq, p. 1) (Vilardo, Valeria, and Sarah Bittar. “Gender Profile-Iraq: A situation analysis on gender equality and women’s empowerment in Iraq.” (2018).

Moreover, domestic violence threatens many of them and leaves them unable to function efficiently and freely in social, economic, and political activities, being under the control of male authority. Honor killings are then only one of the expressions of violence women are subjected to, one crime that is quite spread in Iraqi society although there are no accurate statistics to refer to, since most of these homicides are not reported as murders but rather as suicides.

For decades, family honor was associated with a girl remaining a virgin until her marriage, such that even a woman being raped was a woman to be ashamed of, or not having an illicit relationship with another man after marriage. Today, what counts as illicit and immoral includes also establishing relationships through social media or even posting personal photos or videos. On the one side, social media make women free to express themselves, on the other, precisely because they allow a certain exposure, which is frowned upon, they render women an easier target. This explains the increase in this type of crime following the more diffuse use of social media in recent years.

In 2018, the deaths of three Iraqi women, including the model and social media star Tara Fares, 22, were indeed linked to the way they used social media. Fares was shot while driving her car in the streets of Baghdad in September of that year and followed the death of a human rights activist, Suad al-Ali, also killed in her car.

The 2018 report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on her mission to Iraq stated that although the extent of honor killings in Iraq is unknown, it is estimated that several hundred girls and women are victims of honor crimes each year, as also confirmed by Human Rights Watch (HRW 2021).

The influence of a clan-based culture and the role of the law

Honor killings are considered among the most serious crimes committed, not simply because they infringe on the right to life, or because they represent the worst form of discrimination as defined by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), but also because they affect the family on the one hand and because they are committed by the most diverse people. The perpetrators are not necessarily known to be violent, nor always live in poor socio-economic conditions, they may even hold university degrees or have prestigious social positions. Still, this does not prevent them to consider the use of violent methods as acceptable in certain circumstances.

This depends, most probably, on the strong presence of tribal values and clan customs that dominate society. According to rural and tribal customs, traditions and values in Iraq, honor is an essential concept (Bowman 2007) to the extent that it is acceptable to kill a woman to get rid of the shame that she might have brought to the family, sometimes without even checking whether the shameful accident occurred or not.

Yet, the real reasons behind many of these crimes are not related to keeping the family honor but are more dependent on economic, social, or other family interests. Killing may be the result of trying, unsuccessfully, to force a girl to marry, may be the consequence of a girl marrying someone of a different religion or nationality, her entering into a romantic relationship with someone rejected by the family, or her asking for a divorce or not wanting one. For instance, on August 31, 2021, the daily mirror newspaper published the news of the killing of  “Beauty of Baghdad” Nurzan al-Shammari by her brother and two cousins in the streets of Baghdad, in front of passers-by. The girl ran away from home for refusing to marry her cousin and was murdered in cold blood because she caused a scandal for the family.

Nurzan Al-Shammari

In general, when a girl’s parents claim that they killed her for committing an immoral act, that would be reason enough for the judge to significantly reduce their punishment. Here the law works to punish the victim ‘after she has been killed’ by condemning her in front of society. This was confirmed by the Human Rights Watch’s annual report in January 2021 on the human rights situation in Iraq, which highlighted how the penal code provides for reduced penalties for acts of violence, including murder, “for honorable motives”, or the arrest of a wife, or a female relative in the case of adultery or sex outside marriage (Puttick 2015). So offenders take advantage of “honor” to evade or mitigate punishment.

Looking at the future

More effective strategies must be adopted to prevent honor killings and reduce violence against women as well as gender discrimination. Freedom from the culture of silence on violence and a change in the prevailing norm that condemns the victim may be the first ways to resolve this issue. There is a need to change the societal concepts that link family honor and shame to women’s behaviour, and normalize violence towards them. This may need strengthening cooperation between the Iraqi government on the one side, and international organizations and local civil society organizations on the other side. This may help to educate the community and revise the concepts of shame and honor to avoid them being taken to legitimize acts that contradict the sense of religious concepts and international human rights covenants. This requires intensifying awareness campaigns to stop these practices and building a popular basis that pressures to pass legislation in parliament on limiting violence against women and reviewing the current Iraqi Penal Code that, for the time being, condemns the perpetrator of an honor crime by imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years. Finally, the perpetrators of these crimes must be prosecuted as ordinary murders.

State institutions should also be encouraged to take complaints of violence against women seriously, and to take appropriate measures to ensure that survivors of domestic violence have access to shelters without compromising their freedom.  It is also important for girls in schools to study their rights and duties, to learn to defend their dignity as females, to know how to express themselves, and when and whom to turn to.

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