SULEIMANIYA, Iraq (WOMENSENEWS)–It’s 11:30 a.m., but Awas is still in her nightgown as she tells a visitor about what brought her to a women’s shelter here. It’s the 2-year-old daughter she dandles on her knee, and the fact that no one knows who the father is.
For that, Awas’ relatives have promised that they will kill her if they see her again. So she stays here, under the protection of an armed guard, while theshelter workers try to negotiate a peaceful solution with the family.
“Everybody makes mistakes. Why don’t they forgive me?” asks Awas, 25, who asked to be identified by her first name only.
In rural areas in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East, a family’s honor is defined by the perceived purity of its women. And when that honor is damaged, some families take drastic actions to restore it. Thus “honor killings,” in which a family makes the decision to kill a woman who has brought them shame. In many countries, including Iraq, the practice is legal and claims hundreds of lives every year.
But here in the independent semi-state of Kurdistan, the situation is changing.
After years of fighting against Baghdad, Kurds seeking autonomy within northern Iraq took control of three provinces in 1991. They now have their own administration complete with parliament, police, army and tax collection independent of the Iraqi government.
Women Fought for Independence, Demanded End of Sanctioned Murders
For women’s rights advocates, one of the first goals after independence was the repeal of Article 111 of the Iraqi code, which allows honor killings.
“Because [women] participated in the fight for freedom, for Kurdistan, we must have the ability to have our freedom,” said Roonak Faraj, head of the Independent Women’s Center here.
Kurdistan now is jointly ruled by two factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Patriotic Union controls the region of Suleimaniya, which is regarded as the cultural capital of Kurdistan and is traditionally more liberal than the rest of the region.
The Independent Women’s Center operates three shelters in Suleimaniya for women threatened by their families and also publishes a newspaper that reports on every honor killing.
Last year, activists managed to get Article 111 repealed in Patriotic Union territory. Now they’re trying to do the same in Democratic Party territory, as well as open more shelters in the Kurdistan capital of Erbil and the provincial capital of Dohuk.
The repeal of Article 111 in Suleimaniya was a good start, but “this doesn’t mean the problem has disappeared,” Faraj said. The number of honor killings in Patriotic Union territory has steadily declined over the last decade, from 75 in 1991 to 15 last year. The drop in Democratic Party territory has been only slightly less dramatic, from 96 in 1991 to 32 last year.
Only Four Women Able to Leave Shelters; One Later Murdered
The shelters are new and the problems so difficult that there is still no permanent solution for the women.
“We know that it’s like a prison for them,” said Faraj, who encourages families to take back and forgive the female relatives they believe have shamed them. “But we’re trying to think of what to do with them. So far we don’t have a suitable solution for them. Day by day, month by month, we will try with their families.”
So far only four women have been able to leave the shelter. Two fled to Europe and one was killed by her family, who had insisted they were ready to forgive her before pushing her into a lake. Only one has been able to remain in Kurdistan, and that is because the center’s patron, the mother of a top Patriotic Union official, made her son promise to jail all the men in the woman’s family if anything happened to her.
Awas is from the city of Kirkuk, which is predominantly Kurdish but lies outside Kurdistan’s control. She was first married at age 11 to a cousin three years older, then divorced at 17 and got married again five months later. Three children later, Awas was forced to go back to her family after her second husband was killed.
But when she gave birth to 2-year-old Kale, she had to go to prison for a year and a half–sex outside marriage is a punishable offense in Iraq. During this time, a relative came to the prison and told an official there that the family was planning to kill Awas when she was released. The prison administrator told the Independent Women’s Center, and Awas went straight from prison to the shelter.
The women working at the shelter said they haven’t told Awas that a relative specifically threatened her, but she knows anyway. “I can’t go back to Kirkuk. I know my family will kill me,” she said.
The Women’s Center keeps the locations of the honor killing shelters secret for security reasons. But, because Awas’ family in Kirkuk likely does not know that she is in Suleimaniya, she isn’t in as much danger as women from Kurdistan in similar circumstances. So she is staying temporarily in a shelter for battered women while the shelter workers figure out a longer-term solution.
A 2000 U.N. report documented honor killings from Bangladesh, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, India, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Brazil, Ecuador, Uganda and Morocco.
“The practice of ‘honor killings’ is more prevalent although not limited to countries where the majority of the population is Muslim. In this regard it should be noted that a number of renowned Islamic leaders and scholars have publicly condemned this practice and clarified that it has no religious basis,” the report said.
One notorious honor killing in January was of an Iraqi Kurd woman living in Sweden who had campaigned against honor killings. After she had a relationship with a Swedish man her father shot and killed her. The father is now living in the Kurdish province of Dohuk, out of Patriotic Union control and thus legally untouchable for now.
But there are success stories, too. Faraj points at a recent issue of the Independent Women’s Center’s newspaper, which has a photo of a recent honor killing victim whose alleged killers were arrested. Because of the new law, she says, “this man is in jail now.”
Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
For more information:
The Independent Women’s Center newspaper, Rewan
(Kurdish and Arabic):
Amnesty InternationalLinks to information about honor killingshttp://www.uiuc.edu/ro/amnesty/articles.html
U.N. report on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
Chapter V, section C focuses on “honor killings”
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