Revolution #90, May 27, 2007
From A World to Win News Service
“Honor Killings”--Who’s to Blame? A Look at Iraqi Kurdistan
The following article is from A World To Win News Service, May 14, 2007. It has been lightly edited for publication here.
On or around April 7, Doa Khalil Aswad, a 17-year-old from the village of Behzan in Iraqi Kurdistan, was stoned to death in public by her family and clan in a most distressing way in the town of Bashiqa near Mosul in Neyneveh province of northern Iraq. Doa was from the Yezidi religion, which is practiced in some parts of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, Turkey and Syria. She was murdered in this horrific way because of her “crime” of falling in love with a Moslem Arab. She ran away from her family and reportedly converted to Islam to marry him. The “crime” of choosing her own mate proved to be unforgivable to her family and tribe.
Doa was tricked back home when her father sent a message telling her that the family had forgiven her and she could return home. But everything had been readied to murder the young woman in the most dreadful way. As she arrived near the town, reportedly she was dragged from behind a car. While covered in blood but still alive and crying for help, stones and concrete were thrown at her until she died when a large block was dropped on her.
Clips of the scene recorded by cell phones were circulated on the Internet. Those who saw these clips watched the final painful moments of her life. While Doa was surrounded by a hostile crowd, including her uncles, brothers, and cousins, it is clear that she still hoped for deliverance--but in vain. The clips show around a hundred or more people witnessing the scene, while the security forces make sure that the stoning of Doa takes place without interference. In another clip, the police are blocking off the scene and preventing some people from entering. Doa’s lifeless body lay untouched for several days until she was buried in a grave in the area.
However the story did not end there. Around two weeks later, it was reported by the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times that in retaliation on April 23, an armed group (according to some Kurdish sources, an armed Islamic group) stopped a bus near Bashiqa, separated 24 Yezidi workers from other passengers who were returning home from work, and shot and killed them all. Die Standard, an Austrian paper, reported on April 27 that after the death of Doa, the mosques of Mosul had issued a fatwa calling for the death of Yezidis. The killings struck terror among the Yezidis, who feared more attacks.
Following the massacre, a big demonstration by the Yezidi community erupted in protest against the threats in Erbil, Dhuk and Zakho and also against the Kurdish clerics' fatwa targeting the Yezidis. Some protestors stormed the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the towns of Khana Sor and Jazira, west of Mosul. It was also reported by the International Campaign Against Honour Killings that on April 29 in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish regional government, “women and men came together to protest the public murder of Do'a Khalil Aswad… The demonstration was organised by 90 NGOs and attracted protesters from across the whole Kurdish region.” (website of the International Campaign Against Honour Killings)
Honor Killings in Kurdistan and the Regional Government
Although the brutal killing of 24 Yezidi workers might have been in retaliation for Doa’s murder, it cannot by any means be considered as support for Doa. If Doa had been a Muslim Kurd or an Arab and had fallen in love with a Yezidi or even another Muslim man and run away from her family, she hardly would have been treated any better. The evidence is what is happening to women all over Iraq, whether Kurd, Arab or Yezidi. Was Doa the first woman to be treated so savagely in Kurdistan or other regions? Is she going to be the last one? Why is such inhuman behavior going on and on? Who is responsible? And how can things be changed? In particular, what has been the impact of the U.S. war and occupation?
Kurdistan in the last several years has seen the murder of Pela many young women by their family, with the Kurdish government repeatedly taking a lenient approach towards the perpetrators. Doa was murdered simply because she was a woman who had dared to cross a red line drawn by the dominant classes in the society, a red line that is enforced by many in the name of tradition or religion. It is a red line that, if not enforced, leads to social isolation and other consequences for failure to protect the “honor” of the family.
Doa, like many other young women in our male-dominated world, was a victim of what is called, in terminology that turns reality upside down, an “honor killing.” It was considered that she had brought “shame” to her family, especially the men. She was considered to be a “stain” on the family that could be washed out only by her brutal killing. This was agreed by her family and her tribe, her neighborhood and community, and even the security forces that assisted. Honor killings have a long history in the region. They represent not only a system of violent suppression of women that violates their right to life and security and degrades and humiliates them, but also the tribalism and feudalism that control the women and enforce the power of men over women as a whole. Honor killing has been practiced for a long time in a context where backward relations have served as the basis for such practice, and Islam has served as the dominant religion of the region, reflecting and reinforcing those backward relations of production. This practice thus became part of tradition in Kurdistan and many similar regions.
UNAMI, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, in its 10th report on the human rights situation there, states that: "Between January and March 2007, UNAMI received information on some forty cases of alleged honor crimes in Arbil, Dohuk, Sulaimaniyah, and Salaheddin where young women reportedly died from accidental burns at their homes or were killed by family members for suspected immoral conduct." The organization of Kurdish Women against Honor Killings (KWAHK) reported that between 1991 and 1998 hundreds of women had died in so-called "honor killings" in northern Iraq. The report listed more than 100 individual cases of women killed during the 1990s by their husbands, brothers, cousins and other family members in northern Iraq. Among reasons given for the killings were that the women had committed adultery, refused to marry against their will, or left home in order to marry a man of their own choice.
The Kurdish government has been particularly lenient towards these sorts of crimes and has dismissed or reduced the statutes of these crimes under the justification of “honorable motivation.” The case of Pela, for example, won international attention. Pela, who was unmarried and living in Sweden, was shot by her uncle Rezgar Atroshi in Dohuk while visiting Kurdistan in 1999. She was still alive as her mother and sister were trying to help her, but Rezgar reappeared and shot her in the head, after which she died. The court in Kurdistan convicted Pela’s father and her uncle Rezgar of killing. But following an autopsy report that she had lost her virginity, the court invoked the justification of “honorable motivation” and gave the the father and uncle each a suspended one-year prison sentence. Another famous case was Kajal Khidr. She was 24 and pregnant when she was accused of adultery by her husband’s family near the town of Rania, Sulaimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was tortured, part of her nose was cut off, and then she was told she was going to be killed after the birth of her child. She managed to run away. With the help of local human rights activists, she fled to Syria in 1999 and then in 2000 to a third country. Two men were arrested by PUK authorities in relation to this torture but were released without any charge within 24 hours on the basis of the family’s “honor.”
Under international pressure and faced with negative publicity in Europe, first the PUK and then the KDP amended the law to criminalize “honor killing,” but human rights observers agree that these changed laws have remained merely on paper, and the Kurdish authorities have little desire to enforce them. In many cases they turn a blind eye rather than get involved.
Arguments Around Doa’s Murder
The spread of the news of Doa’s murder gave rise to a variety of arguments about what caused it. While some have tried to relate it to the backward mentality of the people and the perpetrators, others have related it to the backward culture of Kurdistan and the region, and others have blamed certain religions. The reality is that this type of behavior and these traditions have emerged in a specific historical situation, and it cannot be said that the people of these regions have always acted like this and are doomed to carry on forever.
All oppressive class societies have based themselves on patriarchy. Religion and tradition in this region and every other region of the world have always been in the service of the dominant class interests and production relations. Backward and semi-feudal societies have their own form of enforcing male supremacy. They enforce it in particular ways to protect their particular types of society. Religion and tradition cannot be separated from that.
The Role of Islam and Some Background
There is no doubt that Islam, like many other religions, has been an important factor in strengthening women’s oppression in the region. What is especially important is that due to years of struggle by the Kurds against national oppression, women started to play a role, however limited, in that struggle generally and also against their own oppression. But their role has been even more restricted due to subsequent developments in the region. The seizure of power by the Islamic Regime in Iran, along with the promotion of Islam by the Western imperialists in the years of the Cold War, especially around the time of the Soviet social imperialist invasion of Afghanistan, exerted more pressure to push the Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq towards Islam. Shahrzad Mojab, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, Canada, who has extensively researched the situation of women in Kurdistan, also describes the impact of Islam in Kurdistan as follows:
“The KDP and the PUK have persistently ignored the demand for gender equality and for the criminalization of honor killing, both bowing to the demands of a handful of mullahs and their Iranian overlords. Kurdish clerics (mullahs and sheikhs), who never pushed for theocratic governance before the introduction of an Islamic regime in Iran, now demand the Islamization of gender relations, and the subordination of Kurdish women according to their own breed of Islam. Financed and organized by Iran and the Taliban (before their fall), some Kurdish Islamist groups have aimed at establishing a theocracy. Not surprisingly, Kurdish leaders who were secular before 1979 now entertain Islamists and espouse Islamic ideas. The two Kurdish governments have opened more mosques than women’s shelters. In fact, they have not initiated the opening of any women’s shelters. Even worse, the PUK government launched an armed attack on a women’s shelter operated by an opposition political party (the shelter operated by the Independent Women’s Organization in Sulemani).” ( MEWS Review, Spring/Summer 2002 ,“'Honor Killing': Culture, Politics and Theory”)
In the years between the first and second Gulf wars in Iraq, the U.S. and its allies (UK and also Kurdish forces in the north of the country) relied on the Shia clergy and fundamentalist forces to bang together a new regime for Iraq after Saddam. At the same time, the Saddam Hussein regime also attempted to consolidate its power through alliances with conservative religious leaders and powerful tribal chiefs. It made use of a process of Islamisation in Iraqi society as well as Kurdistan to achieve this. As a result, women lost many of their rights and the pressure on them increased. The number of women wearing hejabs (head scarves) increased, the number of honor killings increased, polygamy was allowed, and so on. As far as the Kurdistan region is concerned, in the draft of the Kurdish constitution, Article 7 states that the law of Kurdistan should observe the Sharia (Islamic laws). Kurdish women are currently waging a campaign against that article.
The Role of Culture
Some blame the backwardness of the people and the culture of the region for the brutal murder of Doa. The fact that family members were the main perpetrators and that around a hundred or more observers were supporting the stoning or remained silent may have led some people to this conclusion. In fact, such conclusions had already been formulated in the academic sphere and by some bourgeois theoreticians, as they divorce this backwardness from the dominant production relations in the region and portray it as an integral part of the culture of these societies. They connect the people of these regions to a culture without connecting that to the relations of production that constantly produce and reproduce male chauvinism in the form of covering up women and treating them as the property of men. The viewpoint of “cultural relativism,” while treating the backward forms of enforcing male chauvinism as culture, at the same time treats this culture as eternal and as part of the character of that society.
However, Shahrzad Mojab rejects this idea and argues instead that the violence against women is a universal culture and that only its form of enforcing it is different: “This (honor killing) culture is similar to, if not the same as, the Western, Christian, patriarchal culture which has allowed men and women to blow up abortion clinics and assassinate doctors who conduct abortion in the United States and Canada. One may argue that the culture of honor killing is traditional, tribal, feudal or rural. But what is the significance of this traditionalism if we consider the fact that in the United States men kill 10 women every day? While these murders are not necessarily motivated by ‘honor,’ the motivations are hardly more humane: the decision of a woman to end a relationship prompts the male partner to kill her. Seventy-four percent of these killings 'occur after the woman has left the relationship, filed for divorce or sought a restraining order against her partner'…” (same source as above)
In fact, those proud of regaining their “honor” by brutally killing a woman whose only “sin” was to fall in love with a man of her choice are also in another way victims of society--victims who themselves play an important and crucial role in the functioning of the backward relation. They practice patriarchy to protect the system of tribalism and feudalism and other backward relations. They might not know what they are in fact protecting. But they know that, under the name of protecting their honor, they are protecting the advantages this system has presented to them as men to dominate the women in their family and in the society, and they represent the dominant relations in the family. So it is not only the whole system and the relations that this system is based on that are responsible for the death of Doa and many other young women victim of “honor killings” but also those who act so fiercely to protect those relations. Smashing backward relations without a revolutionary transformation of society is not possible. However, changing the system is impossible without changing the people’s consciousness through struggle in the domain of ideas and behavior so that they despise protecting this so-called “honor.” This means that the struggle for revolutionary change goes hand in hand with the struggle against male supremacy whenever it takes place and in whatever form it occurs.
The invasion of Iraq by U.S. imperialism and its allies, their reliance on the most backward forces in the country, and the increasing pressures on women in that country all provide a vivid example of the role that the imperialists play in protecting these relations.
A World to Win News Service is published by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.
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