KURDISTAN, Iraq — For many women in Kurdistan, life is anything but honorable.
We have come to this autonomous region in northern Iraq as social anthropologists to research violence against women — particularly, honor killings — by interviewing local experts, including United Nations personnel.
We were told by a Kurdish man here that women have no value. The man, who in the past worked for a women’s empowerment center but now wishes to remain anonymous, said that women are treated more or less as objects for men to use for their own needs, which is why it’s all right to kill them when they step out of line from their role as subordinates; when they dare, say, to have a sexual relationship with a man to whom they are not married.
We were told that it is a man’s right to be free, to do as he pleases, to go where he wants. And it is his right to control women, because this is the religion — the Koran says so.
We wanted to document why honor killings and honor suicides are continuing in Kurdistan if not on the rise, some people say. Honor killings are the killing of a relative, usually a girl or a woman, who is perceived to have brought shame to the family, often from breaking codes of morality regarding her sexual behavior or more ordinary acts. Self-immolation is mostly done through setting oneself on fire and is considered a sacrifice for a wrongdoing.
The streets are prosperous here in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, with upmarket cafes, good coffee and fast Internet. But there are almost no women on the streets. In April, as we conducted our research, the stories we were told and information we learned revealed an extreme bias against women in Kurdistan. In our first interviews with the heads of several women’s empowerment groups in this city, for example, we were told that a woman could be killed by her own family just because she fell in love or she wanted to go to school.
Women cannot have a boyfriend, but it’s an honor for a man to have a girlfriend. A divorced woman is like a disease, whereas a divorced man is just a man. A free woman is a bad woman, but a free man is a righteous man.
Though there are new laws in Kurdistan promoting women’s rights, they are not accepted generally, said Suzan Aref, the director of the Women Empowerment Organization, a 10-year-old nonprofit group in Erbil that offers skill-building workshops and other training on enhancing one’s rights.
“It’s a patriarchal system and everything is run by men,” Aref said, adding that women have seats on the legislature, but they are symbolic and that women are not represented in the executive and the judiciary branches of the Kurdish government, which is a self-ruling body separate from the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Despite honor killings having been declared illegal since 2008 in Kurdistan, Aref said that religious leaders claim that it is against Islam. “They say a father needs to be in control of his children and a husband needs to be able to beat his wife, and they ran a campaign against the law,” she said of the religious leaders.
“Things can change with awareness and education with the new generation,” Aref added, noting that mothers need to be taught, too, to educate their children not to discriminate between boys and girls.
Even advancing women’s rights can be lethal in Kurdistan.
One female activist whom we interviewed and leads an organization advocating women’s rights asked not to be named because she has received death threats. Most honor killings, she explained, occur outside Kurdistan’s big cities, and they are not taken seriously by the police or the legal system.
Tanya Darwesh, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party, manages the Rasan Organization in Erbil, which was started in 2004 to offer legal advice to women. She said that one of the biggest problems for women is that even though there are laws to protect their rights, most women do not know the laws exist. Ignorance about the laws extends to the police, she added, most of whom are men.
Honor killings are not confined to this region; neighboring Afghanistan is notorious for abrogating women’s rights, as is the rest of Iraq. The UN Population Fund estimated in 2000, the most recent statistics available, that there were 5,000 such killings every year worldwide. The number of honor killings is routinely underestimated, however, and most estimates are widely varying guesses. Definitive or reliable global estimates of honor killing incidences do not apparently exist.
The UN General Assembly has approved numerous resolutions to condemn and put an end to honor killings and other honor-related crimes, yet these acts still go on.
The majority of the killings occur in the Middle East and South Asia; an increasing number of reports of honor killings have been found in Western countries, mostly involving immigrant families.
The worldwide average age of victims is 23, Phyllis Chesler, an American feminist scholar, wrote in The Middle East Quarterly. Just over half the victims were daughters and sisters; a quarter of the victims were wives and girlfriends of the perpetrators; the rest were mothers, aunts, nieces, cousins, uncles or nonrelatives.
In the Muslim world, just under a quarter of the murders involved more than one victim, such as the dead woman’s children, boyfriend, fiancé, husband, sister, brother or parents. Honor killings are most often a family affair. Internationally, more than half the victims were tortured before they were killed, including being raped. Their deaths occurred by strangling or bludgeoning, stabbing, stoning, burning or beheading.
In Kurdistan, the UN estimates that the number of honor killings might be as high as 50 each month, and that most of the deaths go unreported. One reason that they continue to be a leading cause of death for women may be the increasingly oppressed position of women in Iraqi society. An Iraqi Kurdish writer, Berivan Dosky, wrote in The Guardian that conditions for women in post-war Iraq are a disaster, including in Kurdistan. Dreams of equality and peace that emerged among women after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime (and complicated by the United States’ invasion) have diminished, as many women still bear the burden of their families’ honor.
Experts at the UN who work in Kurdistan explained the rationale for honor killings; that it boils down to one simplification: “It’s the culture.” Many people said that violence against women escalated after 1991, when more people began to keep guns in their homes and were reacting to the violent politics of Hussein, the Iraqi president at the time, whose repression against Kurds was deadly until a no-fly zone was installed by Western powers at the end of the second Gulf War in 1991.
In the 1980s, many rights activists said, women had been freer in society. But those days are long over. Deviations from societal expectations regarding a girl’s sexuality — like falling in love with a boy or a man — are so unacceptable that the only way to redeem a family’s honor is to kill the girl.
We asked the male Kurdish activist who used to work for a women’s group to clarify this mind-set.
Everything that a woman or a girl does is a reflection of the man in the home, he said. A girl is expected to do as she is told, which means going to school until her family decides that she has received enough education. Then it is time to get married and produce children.
Her responsibilities become focused on her husband and her children. She must cook, clean and take care of all the husband’s needs. Most important, she must be a virgin before she gets married. Should she step out of line or do anything that makes her husband suspicious that she is being unfaithful, like talking with another man in the street, it is his right to kill her.
Yet some honor killings are apparently occurring because husbands are said to be cheating more, and when a wife gets angry he attacks her. Darwesh said that there was a lot of prostitution in the region, fed by an influx of foreigners coming from Iran and Europe to work, as Kurdistan is becoming an oil region. Refugees flow in from Syria as well, “so it’s very easy for a man to betray his wife,” Darwesh said, “inciting many cases of a wife wanting a divorce.”
She tells women who might want to get divorced that “it’s not the end of the world.”
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Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, focusing on the militarization of child soldiers in Colombia. She has worked in the development sector in various countries, including the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Uganda. Higgs is the director of Project MonMa, an international nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She speaks English and Spanish.
Liga Rudzite is a Marie Curie fellow, working on her Ph.D. in economics at Tallinn University in Estonia, focusing on efficiency of international development cooperation programs in Central Asia. She has been involved in the community development sector in Latvia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia through designing educational and social programs and serving as a development policy adviser at Latvian Platform for Development Cooperation.