Recently, a mob of frenzied men beat and stoned to death a 17-year-old girl, Du’a Khalil Aswad, in northern Iraq. She was murdered by relatives and neighbors for falling in love with someone that her community did not approve of, in what’s typically called an “honor killing.” Her murder has received a fair amount of media coverage, not because “honor killings” are an anomaly in today’s Iraq, but because this particular attack was videotaped and released on the Internet.
Throughout Iraq, and elsewhere, attacks like Du’a’s brutal murder are used to punish women who make autonomous decisions about issues such as marriage, divorce, and whether and with whom to have sex. In the US, most people think that this brutality is exactly the kind of thing that the US “democratization” of Iraq was meant to stop. In fact, the opposite is true. Since the US invasion, “honor killings” have been on the rise across Iraq, due in large part to measures enacted by the US.
The US has empowered Islamist political parties whose clerics promote “honor killing” as a religious duty.[i] As Iraqi women’s rights advocate Yanar Mohammed explained, “Once the religious parties came to power, Iraqi men began hearing in the mosques that it was their duty to protect the honor of their families by any means. It is understood that this entails killing women who break the rules.”[ii] Women who are raped by men outside of their family are considered to have shamed their families. Consequently, the overall rise in rape and kidnapping under US occupation has elicited a rash of “honor killings.” In October 2004, Iraq’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs revealed that more than half of the 400 rapes reported since the US invasion resulted in the murder of rape survivors by their families.
The US also destroyed the Iraqi state, including much of the judicial system, leaving people more reliant on conservative tribal authorities to settle disputes and on unofficial “religious courts” to mete out sentencing, including “honor killings.” At the same time, however, while the US saw fit to violate international law by eradicating most of Iraq’s legal system, it maintained Article 130 of the penal code, which provides vastly reduced sentences for “honor killings” (as little as six months, as opposed to life imprisonment, which is the minimum sentence for murder).[iii]
Although the US is obligated, as the occupying power, to protect Iraqis’ human rights, including the prevention and prosecution of “honor killing,” it has not done so. Official negligence promotes “honor killing” because perpetrators are confident that they will not be prosecuted.
What is “Honor Killing”?
“Honor killings”[iv] are usually murders committed by men acting to restore “family honor” tarnished by a woman’s “immoral” behavior. “Honor killings” resemble so-called “crimes of passion” in US, European, and Latin American jurisprudence, in that sentencing is not based on the crime, but on the feelings of the perpetrator. For example, in 1999, a Texas judge sentenced a man to four months in prison for murdering his wife and wounding her lover in front of their 10-year-old child.[v] As in an “honor killing,” adultery was viewed as a mitigating factor in the case. But while individualistic societies, such as the US, tend to locate honor in the individual, communities that suffer “honor killings” vest honor in the family, tribe, or clan. “Honor killings” are therefore often reluctantly condoned as necessary for the greater good of the community-sometimes even by those who are grief-stricken by the woman’s death. In the ethical and legal framework that condones “honor killings,” there is an inversion of the relationship between perpetrator and victim as understood in most formal legal systems. The woman who is killed (along with anyone who tries to defend her) is considered the guilty party because she has tarnished the honor of her family. In contrast, her killer, who is the dishonored party, is seen as the victim.
The Culture Card: Religion as an Excuse for Violence against Women
Despite the many ways that US policies have contributed to the increase in “honor killing” in Iraq, most people in the US continue to view these crimes as an invariable part of Iraqi, Arab, or Muslim “culture.” For instance, US journalist Kay Hymowitz defines “honor killing” as part of the “inventory of brutality” committed by men against women in the “Muslim world,” railing against “the savage fundamentalist Muslim oppression of women.”[vi]
Hymowitz echoes a commonly held assumption, namely that gender-based violence in the Middle East derives from Islam. In fact, “honor killings” are not condoned by any Islamic texts, but are rooted in customary law that pre-dates Islam and Christianity. Identifying Islam or “Muslim culture” as the source of violence against women serves to dehumanize Muslims and justify violence against them. It also deflects attention from factors (such as politics, economics, and militarism) that influence the prevalence of gender-based violence, and obscures the ways that US actions have exacerbated conditions that give rise to violence against women.
In fact, culture alone explains very little. Like all human behavior, “honor killing” does have a cultural dimension, but like culture itself, “honor killing” is shaped by social factors such as poverty and women’s status that change–and can be changed–in ways that can either help combat or promote “honor killing.” For instance, poverty-inducing economic policies, such as the 2003 US decision to fire all public-sector workers in Iraq (40 percent of whom were women), have contributed to the rise in “honor killings.” Increased poverty has made people more dependent on tribal structures for jobs, housing, and other scarce resources and compelled more women into polygamous, forced, and abusive marriages, where they are at greater risk of “honor killing.”
Therefore, culture is a context, but not a cause or a useful explanation for violence, in Iraq or anywhere else. It makes much more sense to examine gender, a system of power relations whose number-one enforcement mechanism is the threat of violence against women. There is nothing “Muslim” about that system, except that its Muslim proponents, like their Jewish, Christian, and Hindu counterparts, use religion to rationalize women’s subjugation. In Iraq, those championing “honor killing” as a means of social control and moral policing are the ones that the Bush Administration has propelled to power.
Confronting “Honor Killings” in Iraq: Iraqi Women Activists
Next time you hear Bush praising the founding fathers of the new, democratic Iraq, think of Du’a Aswad. Think of Iraqi women activists such as members of the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) who are standing against “honor killing,” aiding potential victims, and working for a secular, truly democratic government in Iraq. In partnership with MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization, OWFI has created the Underground Railroad for Iraqi Women, which, inspired by the network of courageous individuals who operated the Underground Railroad during slavery in the US, seeks to provide women threatened with “honor killing” with the means and resources to escape and begin to build a new life. Members of OWFI have also initiated a campaign calling on the Iraqi Kurdistan government to hold the perpetrators accountable for Du’a’s murder, and establish and enforce laws that criminalize the “terror[ization], murder, and oppression of women.”[vii]
Remember Du’a, the countless women she represents, and Iraqi women activists like those of OWFI–who, in the face of death threats and ongoing intimidation, are bravely confronting an epidemic of gender-based violence fueled by US policies–and work to hold the Bush Administration directly responsible for the daily terror and erosion of women’s rights with which Iraqi women are now forced to contend.
YIFAT SUSSKIND is communications director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization. She is the author of a book on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and a report on US culpability for violence against women in Iraq, both forthcoming.
[i] For reference to Sistani’s fatwa, see: Doug Ireland, “Shia Death Squads Target Gay Iraqis,” Gay City News, March 23-29, 2006.
[ii] Interview with Yanar Mohammed, April 25, 2006.
[iii] American Bar Association Iraq Legal Development Project, “The Status of Women in Iraq: An Assessment of Iraq’s De Jure and De Facto Compliance with International Legal Standards,” July 2005.
[iv] Like “crime of passion,” the term “honor killing” communicates the perspective of the perpetrator, and thereby carries an implicit justification. Some women’s rights advocates therefore prefer the terms “feminicide,” “shame killings,” or “so-called honor killings”.
[v] See paragraph 35 of Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective: Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 2001/49, Jan. 31, 2002, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2002/83.
[vi] Kay S. Hymowitz, “Why Feminism is AWOL on Islam,” City Journal, Winter 2003, .