By Mark Lattimer, The Guardian
Thursday December 13, 2007
After the invasion of Iraq, the US government claimed that women there had ‘new rights and new hopes’. In fact their lives have become immeasurably worse, with rapes, burnings and murders now a daily occurrence.
They lie in the Sulaimaniyah hospital morgue in Iraqi Kurdistan, set out on white-tiled slabs. A few have been shot or strangled, some beaten to death, but most have been burned. One girl, a lock of hair falling across her half-closed eyes, could almost be on the point of falling asleep. Burns have stretched the skin on another young woman’s face into a fixed look of surprise.
These women are not casualties of battle. In fact, the cause of death is generally recorded as “accidental”, although their bodies often lie unclaimed by their families.
“It is getting worse, especially the burnings,” says Khanim Rahim Latif, the manager of Asuda, an Iraqi organisation based in Kurdistan that works to combat violence against women. “Just here in Sulaimaniyah, there were 400 cases of the burning of women last year.” Lack of electricity means that every house has a plentiful supply of oil, and she accepts that some cases may be accidents. But the nature and scale of the injuries suggest that most were deliberate, she says, handing me the morgue photographs of one young woman after another. Many of the bodies bear the unmistakable signs of having been subjected to intense heat.
“In many cases the woman is accused of adultery, or of a relationship before she is married, or the marriage is not sanctioned by the family,” Khanim says. Her husband, brother or another relative will kill her to restore their “honour”. “If he is poor the man might be arrested; if he is important, he won’t be. And in most cases, it is hidden. The body might be dumped miles away and when it is found the family says, ‘We don’t have a daughter.'” In other cases, disputes over such murders are resolved between families or tribes by the payment of a forfeit, or the gift of another woman. “The authorities say such agreements are necessary for social stability, to prevent revenge killings,” says Khanim.
In March 2004 George Bush said that “the advance of freedom in the Middle East has given new rights and new hopes to women … the systematic use of rape by Saddam’s former regime to dishonour families has ended”. This may have given some people the impression that the American and British invasion of Iraq had helped to improve the lives of its women. But this is far from the case.
Even under Saddam, women in Iraq – including in semi-autonomous Kurdistan – were widely recognised as among the most liberated in the Middle East. They held important positions in business, education and the public sector, and their rights were protected by a statutory family law that was the envy of women’s activists in neighbouring countries. But since the 2003 invasion, advances that took 50 years to establish are crumbling away. In much of the country, women can only now move around with a male escort. Rape is committed habitually by all the main armed groups, including those linked to the government. Women are being murdered throughout Iraq in unprecedented numbers.
In October the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (Unami) expressed serious concern over the rising incidence of so-called honour crimes in Iraqi Kurdistan, confirming that 255 women had been killed in just the first six months of 2007, three-quarters of them by burning. An earlier Unami report cited 366 burns cases in Dohuk in 2006, up from 289 the year before, although most were not fatal. In Irbil, the emergency management centre had reported 576 burns cases since 2003, resulting in 358 deaths.
When questioned, Iraqi doctors have told UN investigators that many of these burnings are self-inflicted. “More than half of these women had sustained between 70-100% burns which, according to doctors, suggested that they were self-inflicted,” the earlier Unami report said. A UN human rights officer has relayed to me the words of one judicial investigator in Irbil: “The woman is unhappy, or there is domestic abuse, but the family doesn’t listen. So she does it because she wants to draw attention to herself.”
The claim that some of these injuries are self-inflicted is something you hear from different quarters in Iraq. The human rights minister in the Kurdistan regional government, Yousif Aziz, says: “[Burnings take] place daily. Some are killed, some burn themselves.” Activists, however, say that if the wounds are self-inflicted, it is because the women have been forced to do it.
The Iraqi penal code prescribes leniency for those who commit such crimes for “honourable motives”, enabling some of the men involved to get off with no more than a fine. The Kurdish authorities, Aziz says, have removed these provisions for leniency from the code – but the killings continue to mount. “The politicians say the situation of women is all right with the new constitution in Iraq and new laws in Kurdistan,” says Khanim, “but it is deteriorating.”
Khanim’s organisation sees cases from across Iraq, including from Baghdad and as far away as Basra. She tells me of a man from Kirkuk who accused his sister of adultery. “When we asked him why he wanted to kill his sister, he said, ‘Because it is now a democracy in Iraq’. He thought that democracy meant he could do whatever he wanted.” But the man’s stupidity hid an important point: under the new system of government developing in Iraq, family disputes are increasingly settled not in state courts but by local tribal or religious authorities. “Not that any religion allows such abuse – it is the culture,” says Khanim. “And we see cases from all the communities, including the Christians. It is even worse outside Kurdistan.”
An Iraqi staff member at the UN mission agrees. “As there is no state authority in Iraq, everyone turns to the local sheikh. Every year since 2003 honour killings have increased.” In just one month last year, 130 unclaimed women’s bodies were counted in the Baghdad morgue, a representative from the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq has told the BBC. Another women’s activist tells me why she refuses all media interviews: “The work has to be secret. In Kurdistan it is possible, but in Baghdad we couldn’t open a shelter for women, we would just be attacked.”
In a nondescript building on a busy road in the north I visit one of the few secret shelters in Iraq for women fleeing violence. A broom-cupboard door is unlocked to reveal a hidden staircase, leading to a two-room apartment where the morning sunshine and the hum of traffic filter through high-set windows. A pile of thin mattresses show that up to 20 women can stay here at any one time. The most recent arrivals are a woman and her two children from the local area. The woman, Zaynab, says she wants to divorce her abusive husband, a drunk, but he has refused. She had gone to live with her mother but he had come to threaten her. “I love my children. My family wanted me to marry again but I don’t want to marry anyone, I want to be with my children.” She stretches her arm out towards the room next door where her curly-haired daughter, eight, and son, seven, are playing.
Nur is here because she helped someone on impulse. Near her home in Diyala she heard the screams of a man locked in a compound and helped him escape. It turned out he was being tortured by a militia group. Later, the militia found out she had helped the man. “My father is dead, I have no brothers, just my mother and my little sister. They can’t protect me.” She fled north to Kirkuk, where she heard about the shelter.
Solaf, the young manager of the shelter, is used to receiving threats herself. (Her name, like those of Nur and Zaynab, has been changed for this article.) With nowhere else for the women to go, she tries to negotiate with their families to see if they can be reconciled, sometimes threatening to take them to court. “Women now know more about human rights, but the men and the culture don’t allow it. Sometimes the family marries off the daughter from a young age – from 12 years old. But even if she stays out shopping too long, they say she is a bad woman.”
I ask about the burnings. “Sometimes the family burns their daughter or wife, because no one can tell. They say in the hospital it was an accident. Some kill themselves.” Solaf can see that I still find it hard to accept that someone, even under duress, would commit suicide by burning herself alive. “You have to realise,” she says, “that the family just locks the girl into a room until she does it. They may leave her a knife, but it is hard to kill yourself with a knife. In one way, it is easier with fire.”
At the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, the women MPs file into the chamber beside their male counterparts, smiling, arguing, some in white or coloured headscarves, a few in the full-length abaya or the Iranian-style chador, a handful with heads uncovered. Under the new constitution a quarter of the 275 seats are reserved for women, making the level of female representation among the highest in the world. But, as one MP reminds me: “Even getting here is dangerous. People watch you come in.” In 2005, one female MP, Lamia Abed Khadouri, was gunned down and killed on her doorstep.
“If security in Iraq can be provided – and it’s a big if – then we have great hope,” says a Baghdad economics professor who herself survived an assassination attempt last year (and also asked not to be named). “Three years has been a short time for women to be mainstreamed in the political establishment, but women have had the courage to expose themselves as activists. They have a chance to prove themselves outside of the home, to establish NGOs, to work in parliament and in the private sector.” But asked if she believes that security will improve in the long term, her optimism disappears. “No. It is not in the interest of the different groups that make up the government for the security situation to get better. The domination of the religious parties, which is a negative for women, is helped by the insecurity. The ground is emptied for them.”
While the new constitution has empowered women in parliament, she fears that what it has to say about the family may have had the opposite effect in the home. A committee reviewing the constitution is due to present its final amendments to parliament by the end of the year, and an alliance of women’s organisations has been lobbying for the removal of article 41, under which the old statutory family law will be replaced with a new system where marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance will be determined according to the different religions and sects in Iraq.
Campaigners argue that this would strengthen the control of religious institutions and give “constitutional legitimacy to sectarianism”. Most of all they fear an explosion in violence against women as traditional tribal codes take hold.
But only two of the committee’s 27 members are women, and many of the women MPs represent the more conservative religious parties. Some are escorted everywhere by their husbands. A cabinet minister in Baghdad tells me: “The Islamisation had already started under Saddam, but now it is much more pronounced. My young son came to me laughing and showed me what he had in his schoolbook. It was a verse from the Koran saying that when a man has a son in his family he will be happy but when a girl is born he will be sad. They had made them learn that.”
Many meetings for MPs are now held outside the country. One evening earlier this year I joined a group of women MPs in Amman who were attending a UN gathering on women’s rights. During a traditional Jordanian meal of mansaf – lamb cooked in goat yoghurt – one of them, Samira al-Musawi, a member of Iraq’s ruling Shia alliance and chair of the women’s committee in the Iraqi parliament, said: “We are making progress, because now we are a democracy and we can discuss these issues together.” Her faced framed in black, she dismissed the concerns over article 41 and said that “only one or two” members of her committee wanted it changed. Reaching forward for some green salad known locally as zjerzil, she suddenly pulled back. “It is haram – forbidden,” explained her companion, and then in an undertone: “It increases sexual desire.” I broke off a small corner of the leaf. It was a kind of rocket.
At another table, an Arab Sunni MP in a white headscarf disagreed pointedly over article 41. “We want the old law back, we and the Kurds, but the Shia prevent it. You want to know what the situation of women is? How many widows are there now?” But her bitterest comments were reserved for Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Earlier that week three members of the interior ministry’s public order forces had been accused of raping a Sunni woman, who was admitted to a hospital in the government’s fortified green zone compound. Two days later, Al-Maliki publicly rejected the woman’s account and instructed that the policemen should be honoured. “They may have done it, or they may not, but how could he just say she was lying before any proper investigation had been done? He has turned them into heroes.”
The coordinator of a women’s organisation in Baghdad, who asked not to be named, says some groups target women – through kidnapping or sexual assault – “to make a family weak”. “A girl was raped and returned to her family but she committed suicide rather than face the shame. Saddam was a dictator but at least then we had the freedom to go out. Then there was only one criminal – Saddam – but now they are everywhere, you do not know who your persecutor is.”
Claims of rape being used as a weapon of war to humiliate and terrify communities are now frequently made against all the main parties in the conflict, and not just Iraqi forces. Since 2003 US forces have denied numerous allegations that soldiers have raped and abused female detainees or held them as bargaining chips in the hunt for family members wanted as insurgents. But the Pentagon’s Taguba report into abuse at Abu Ghraib prison confirmed that US military police had photographed and videotaped naked women prisoners and referred to a guard “having sex with a female detainee”. Earlier this year, four US soldiers were found guilty of the rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qasim Hamza and three members of her family in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, in an attack the US military had at first blamed on Sunni insurgents. Abeer’s body had been set on fire, her killers believing that their guilt could be burned away.
Rapes carried out against Shia or Christian women have been justified by insurgent groups as revenge for what was done to women in Abu Ghraib. But the extent to which the abuse of women has become both the vehicle and the justification for sectarian hatred in Iraq was demonstrated most chillingly in the April killing of Du’a Khalil Aswad. A 17-year-old from Nineveh, Du’a was stoned in front of hundreds of men, some of whom videoed what happened on their mobile phones.
Climbing steadily past olive groves north of Mosul, the road into Du’a’s home town of Bashiqa is dominated by the conical shrines of the Yezidi sect, an ancient religion that predates both Islam and Christianity. Their veneration of a fallen angel in the form of a blue peacock has led to the common slur in Iraq that the Yezidis are devil-worshippers and the community suffers entrenched discrimination.
After Du’a’s death, the international media widely repeated a claim made on a number of Islamic extremist websites that she had been killed because she converted to Islam, but local reports do not concur. Some people tell me she had run away with her Muslim boyfriend and they had been stopped at a checkpoint outside Mosul; others say she had been seen by her father and uncle just talking with the boy in public and, fearing her family’s reaction, they had sought protection at the police station. Either way, the police handed Du’a into the custody of a local Yezidi sheikh. One woman tells me that after she was stoned in the town square, Du’a’s body was tied behind a car and dragged through the streets.
But the killers’ taste for publicity quickly backfired. As the videos circulated around mobile phones in the region, and were even posted on the internet, Islamic extremists called for Yezidis to be killed in revenge. Meanwhile Du’a’s body was exhumed and sent to the Medico-Legal Institute in Mosul so that tests could be performed to see whether she had died a virgin.
Just after 3pm on April 22 a bus carrying workers from a textile factory in Mosul back to Bashiqa was stopped at a fake checkpoint. Gunmen ordered the Muslims and Christians off the bus and drove it to the east of the city. They then dragged out the Yezidis. They were lined up, there was a shout of “Allah, curse your devil” and then they were shot. Other Yezidis living in the city started fleeing to the countryside, as an extremist Sunni group claimed responsibility. In all 24 Yezidi men were killed.
Three days later, I was printing out the first local reports of the massacre at a ramshackle business centre in Irbil when the manager approached me. “What do you know about it?” he said, anger breaking his habitual deference, as he dropped my print-outs on the desk. I asked him what he thought about the case. “Look what has happened now because of her,” he said, jabbing his finger at the headlines. “She was a very bad girl”.