Northern Iraq, “The deadly fire of shame”

Northern Iraq, also known as Iraqi Kurdistan, has developed economically in the last few years. As a result, more women are able to progress to university level and obtain jobs in the job market. However, due to such traditional settings, women’s rights still have a long journey in order to be fully recognised. Due to having a patriarchal and conservative society, women in Iraqi Kurdistan are faced with discrimination, social injustice and domestic violence. Some Women in the Kurdish culture are faced with:
• Early marriages
• Forced marriages
• Not allowed to work
• No continuation in studies
• Women are preferred to stay at home

The above factors mostly occur in villages and collective towns due to ancient traditions.
A recent BBC report “Why women in Iraqi Kurdistan setting themselves on fire?” by Mahmut Hamsici states that between 250 to 400 incidents a month occur where women set themselves on fire in a hospital in Erbil. The regional minister of human rights, Youssif Mohamed Aziz, stated that in 2007, 97 women attempted suicide through self-immolation during four months. These 97 women were from the following cities in Iraqi Kurdistan:
• 60 from Erbil
• 21 from Dahouk
• 16 from Sulaymaniyah

These types of incidents are suicide attempts in order to escape embarrassment and shame. When their families find out they had committed shameful behaviours or acts they would set themselves on fire. When these women were questioned by authorities, they usually do not disclose the real reasons behind their injuries and state that they had an accident. The absence of truth in police files makes it difficult for researchers to obtain accurate information on what is truly happening in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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The hidden beauty of women’s rights in Iraq

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Several women in Iraq are victims of violence and backward religious traditions. Due to this women have had to seek protection and shelter in order to remain safe and escape random acts of belligerence towards them.

There are different types of threats the women of Iraq are faced with:

  • Honour Killings which are usually carried out by their husbands or any male relatives.
  • If the woman is thought to have brought upon herself shameful behaviour or acts she could possibly face being burnt or mutilated
  • Can be shot by the police and executed publically
  • The woman could be kidnapped then secretly murdered
  • Some women commit suicide as it is their only choice in a state of despair

Due to the above factors millions of women throughout Iraq go through sexual discrimination that is encouraged by Saddam Hussein’s regime and by the Islamist activists. Saddam Hussein introduced article 111 into the Iraqi Code Penal in 1990, which exempts men from being prosecuted and punished for killing their female relatives in defence of their family’s honour. Since the introduction of this article there have been 4000 honour killings in Iraq (UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, January 2002). It was encouraged that all ‘god loving’ men to oppress their women and to abide to the Islamic submissive lifestyle that was established hundreds of years ago. As a result women are not able to obtain minimal standards of human dignity.

There are also other contributory factors that have resulted in decline of social status of women within the country:

  • As a result of the consecutive wars in Iraq hundreds of thousands of women were widowed including the genocide that were executed by Saddam Hussein’s army
  • These widowers became responsible of their family due to the economic sanctions which spread out poverty to ridiculous extents.
  • Changes in the civil law allow over the years allow honour killings and encourage old barbaric tribal law
  • The Baath party applied Islamist misogynist practice’s which applied mass killings of women due to the absence of supremacy.
  • Women’s social status is affected by cultural traditions

According to a UNICEF survey it states that 57% of young girls between the ages of 15-19 covering the years 2002-2009 had been hit or beaten by their husbands. Another area that women’s rights that would need more attention in Iraq are women’s prisons and police custody. During detention women were treated poorly and raped during interrogations. When women are arrested they go through three horrific phases that starts with humiliation, then torture and generally ends with rape. There are different methods of torture used in prisons:

  • Physical and psychological torture
  • Deprivation
  • Terrorization and blackmail

There are many women’s rights organisations in Iraq but they struggle to promote and enhance women’s rights as they face harassment and intimidation. These organisations seek to improve women’s status in the law and many other areas, which include:

  • Education
  • Workplace
  • Within the home
  • Women’s prisons
  • As a whole within the Iraqi society

Shelters have been created by women’s rights organisations in Erbil, Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Nassiriya. These shelters provide aid to those victims of honour crimes by their families for both women and their couples in secret and guarded places. However in 2007 these shelters became too dangerous for the women and had to be closed down for their safety. The solution to this was women had to be accommodated in host families, which is an expensive process hosted by the organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq.

By Dunia Alhaydari

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