A custom of cruelty persists in Iraq culture

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ROVIA, Iraq — She was a “good girl” and well-respected, people later told police. But being a good girl in a small Kurdish village also meant a dull life.

Unmarried at 23, Ronak Khalel Abdullah spent her days helping her mother cook and clean. So Abdullah’s reaction was perhaps to be expected when a handsome uncle, 14 years her senior, began looking at her in a decidedly unavuncular way.

“Come with me,” he urged, and on July 10 she did.

Within 48 hours, both were dead and Abdullah’s father was in jail, probably for the rest of his days.

All in the name of honor.
Throughout the Muslim world, hundreds of people – most of them young women – die each year in so-called honor killings. They are typically committed by male relatives angered by what they perceive as immoral behavior that has disgraced the family’s honor.

Dr. Jinan Qassin Ali finds the term “honor killing” repugnant.

“This is not a good word to use because it is murder,” she says, “and these people are criminals.”

Ali is minister of women’s affairs in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, which is trying to stem an increase in deadly violence against women and girls. The Kurdish government has overturned lax Iraqi laws and passed tough legislation in which defendants can be charged with “deliberate murder” and punished by execution or life imprisonment.

But the stiffer penalties have yet to have much of an impact.

In 2005, four women were reported murdered in the Kurdish north, while 22 committed suicide – often by setting themselves on fire – under pressure from relatives. Last year, 17 women were reported killed and the number of suicides soared to 64, police say.

Among the victims was a young woman in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, whose boyfriend photographed her naked on his cell phone camera. As the photos spread from phone to phone, neighborhood to neighborhood, outraged relatives killed the couple.

In the first half of this year at least 24 women died, including 17-year-old Do’a Khalil.

Do’a was a Yezidi, a member of an ancient faith that forbids marriage to outsiders. She fell in love with a Muslim boy and scandalized her village near Mosul when she failed to return home one night.

On April 7, several men dragged her into the street. They kicked her, punched her, threw stones at her and finally smashed her head with a concrete block. A grainy, horrific video that later surfaced on YouTube shows Do’a curled in a fetal position, trying to shield herself from the blows. A crowd of hundreds cheered when she died.

The Kurdish government runs several shelters for women who have been abused or threatened, but most women are afraid to go to them knowing they eventually will have to return home, says Ali, the government minister. A better solution, she says, is to help women get more education, skills and self-confidence.

“They need to depend on themselves economically and not be under the hand of a father or brother or later their husband,” says Ali, a dentist by profession. “It is important to give them a strong personality.”

But, she acknowledges, “we are an Islamic society and, of course, there are a lot of customs in our society. If you want to change a society from violence and make it more calm, it needs time.”

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While a few “honor killings” grab global attention, hundreds go unnoticed beyond the remote places in which they occur. Such was the case with Ronak Abdullah and her uncle.

Abdullah, dark-haired and full-bosomed, had never ventured far from her home in Badarash, a typically conservative village 90 minutes north of Irbil. The only men with whom she had regular contact were relatives like Saady Qadir, a 35-year-old father of three married to her mother’s sister.

No one paid much attention to Qadir’s frequent comings and goings – he was an uncle, after all – until late in the afternoon of July 10. That’s when Abdullah’s mother realized that she was missing, along with nearly $1,000 and a family photo album. About the same time, Qadir’s wife was trying to reach him on his cell phone.

Suspicion grew – some villagers said they had seen Abdullah and Qadir together. When he returned home that night, he was angrily confronted by his father and Abdullah’s father and grandfather.

Qadir insisted he had been in Mosul getting his car fixed, that his wife must have mistakenly dialed someone else’s number. But his phone showed the unanswered calls, and as the night wore on Qadir grew more and more agitated.

Finally, just after morning prayers, he confessed.

“I did a very terrible thing,” he told the men. He said he had raped and suffocated Abdullah, then shot her to make it look like a suicide. He had shamed his wife and could never go back to her.

“Please kill me,” he pleaded.

Abdullah’s father obliged. He pumped Qadir full of bullets, 15 to 20 in all. Then he turned himself in.

Hundreds of volunteers joined police in searching for Abdullah’s body. On July 12 they found her, head down in a shallow lake near the town of Rovia. Fish had eaten away her eyelids and part of her ears; her bloated, staring face was the same shade of purple as the flowers on her billowy gown.

Abdullah’s father, Khaled Taha, is in jail awaiting trial. He could get 15 years or more in prison.

Ali, the women’s affairs minister, finds the case remarkable only in that it was a man, not a woman, who was the victim of the “honor” killing. But she doesn’t hesitate when asked if Taha would have killed his daughter, too, for disgracing her family by running off with a married man.

“Of course,” Ali says. “This is the problem.”

What is an honour killing?

An honour killing is a murder in the name of honour. If a brother murders his sister to restore family honour, it is an honour killing. According to activists, the most common reasons for honour killings are as the victim:

Questions about honour killings

  • refuses to cooperate in an arranged marriage.

  • wants to end the relationship.

  • was the victim of rape or sexual assault.

  • was accused of having a sexual relationship outside of marriage.

Human rights activists believe that 100,000 honour killings are carried out every year, most of which are not reported to the authorities and some are even deliberately covered up by the authorities themselves, for example because the perpetrators are good friends with local policemen, officials or politicians. Violence against girls and women remains a serious problem in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Serbia and Turkey.

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