Basra, in Southern Iraq: a city and province rich with black gold but dominated by militiamen. The province’s capital sometimes erupts into tribal conflicts while remaining under the yoke of religious parties loyal to Iran since the US invasion in 2003.
Basra hosts Iraq’s only access to the sea, on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river, which flows in the Persian-Arabian Gulf. This highly strategic hub has become a transit point for smuggling and importing of various goods.
Despite all the wealth transiting through the province, its population is still living in poverty while unemployment, armed groups, and corruption are rampant. These factors lead to insecurity while women remain the main victims of such social issues.
Just during the month of January 2021, the authorities found the bodies of 6 women, one of whom was stabbed in parts of her body, and the others were shot. Often, the victim’s families cannot hide their bodies for long, so they bury them or throw them in landfills.
Despite family secrets, tales and secrets of many women were told on social media after their killing. Social media have become the loud voice of Iraqi women looking for help or eager to expose honor crimes.
The weight of patriarchal values have cost many women their lives while also protecting the culprits from facing criminal charges, as the case of Dina Talib shows.
Earlier this year, Aya Talib, 20, from the village of Shuaiba, southwest of Basra, was in the middle of a phone call with her sister Dina, 17 years old, when the latter was killed by their brother. The man used an AK 47 rifle to end his sister’s life. Her family had recently discovered that Dina had been secretly dating a man: “In early 2021, my brothers found out that Dina was in a relationship with a man after someone sent a photo of her with him. My brother locked her in a room and shot her. When I arrived, she only had the time to mutter: “run away; they will kill you too” and then she died”, Aya described to The Red Line.
Later, my family told the police that the bullet was shot at her by mistake while my brother was cleaning the gun at home’’. They killed her to get rid of the shame of having an unmarried daughter spending time with a man and the police did nothing, Aya added.
In Basra’s al Zuhair district, where militias and tribes impose their rules on the population, women’s bodies are “disposed of like dominoes”, as several women subjected to domestic violence pointed out in their interview with The Red Line. In this game, the men of the family are the players and the victims are always women. It is a world where there is no justice within society; nobody listens to their cries.
In some cases, women prefered to commit suicide to end their own suffering instead of having to see a member of her family take their life with a gun a knife or even choke her to death. Officer Hussein Hameed, from the Community Policing in Basra, said that there were cases of women who were killed by men of the family simply for being accused of having relations with men.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Basra recorded 86 suicide cases in the province during the past year 2020, where 57 suicide cases were males and 29 females. Most of them were young people.
Ali al-Bayati, a member of Iraq’s human rights commission, said that official statistics indicate an increase in domestic violence in Iraq during the quarantine period imposed in the country because of the Covid-19 crisis. This includes heinous crimes, killing, and torture from a member of the victim’s family, usually committed by the father or brother against a women or a child. These only include official records, but there are many family killings simply recorded as “accidents”, Mr. al Bayati noted..
Noor Hassan is a 19 years old inhabitant from Maysan, southern Iraq. She tried to commit suicide by burning herself after being exposed to domestic violence. Tuqa Ali, one of her relatives, explained to The Red Line that Noor and her sisters were repeatedly subjected to violence by their brother. He would also prevent them from leaving the family house.
Recently, he attempted to force Noor to marry his friend, but she refused, so he held her in the bathroom for days. Then, Noor burned herself in an attempt to commit suicide,Tuqa added. When Noor was in the hospital, her brother vowed to slaughter her as soon as she got out.
The police often announce the discovery of murdered women who were killed with gunshot to the head and neck. Recently, a woman was also electrocuted with an electric wire put in her mouth by her brothers.
In a report published in April 2020, The non governmental Organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch (HRW) indicated that one in five Iraqi women is subjected to physical violence. The report also notes that 14% of the women were pregnant at the time of these abuses.
According to the World Health Organization, violence against women is defined as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
Dr. Kareem Ali said that he faced many cases of women who were killed or abused: “Often, we recieve women at the hospital and we instantly know that she was subjected to violence. Yet, most of the women are afraid to report their abuser for fear of being killed, or because they know that the abuser will come out anyway, even if he was arrested, so they are afraid of revenge, in addition to the social stigma faced by the victim if she reports about her family.
The causes of death for victims of honor crimes are often recorded in the death certificate as suicide or a heart attack, which is easily obtained by the family by threatening the medical staff who submit to the women’s families’ request for fear of tribal realiation. The danger is real to see the doctor’s clan being targeted if he refuses to obey them. In Iraq, the tribe’s authority has overcome the rule of law.
There are no exact statistics about the number of women who are subjected to murder or violence, due to the inability of violence victims to report. Moreover, Iraqi law allows a husband or father to “discipline” his wife and children provided that they are not exposed to permanent disability. With the absence of implementation of the law on domestic violence and the lack of safe shelters for women, the police usually go for a settlement between the abuser and the victim… if she survives the wrath of her relatives.
It is worth mentioning that Iraq has never adopted any law on domestic violence. Only the autonomous Region of Kurdistan in the north of Iraq has such a legislation, which it still fails to implement effectively. Moreover, Iraq’s penal code encourages lighter sentences for “honorable motives.
Influence of Armed Groups
According to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, women are disproportionately impacted by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. The guns are a predooninant tool used in cases of violence against women in domestic settings.
The League indicated that there is no central institution in Iraq tracking cases of violence against women, eventhough a number of institutions collect data without structuring their research. This data is usually not aggregated in a common database. As a result, there is no reliable database providing sex-disaggregated data on acts of violence.
With the proliferation of weapons and the growing power of armed religious groups in Iraq, the lack of independence of the security forces, as well as the influence and pressure on institutions and the judiciary by political groups and tribes is weighing heavily on women’s rights. Local militias have regularly killed women since the US invasion in 2003, claiming that they were working with foreign forces or even sometimes for not wearing Hijab. The bodies of women were thrown in the streets while their families were warned not to approach them or bury them, according HRW’s report previously mentioned.
The New Generation
Samea Ramy, a Basrawi feminist activist, explained that the serious violations committed against women are generally not investigated, and the abuser usually go unpunished. By fear of retaliation, the police, who often know the identity of the killer, do nothing. “Women’s lives are expandable within society as Iraqi authorities turn a blind eye on the situation. We are here to speak out against corrupt practices.”, the activist explained.
Sociologist, Ruba Ali, said that, “Poverty and social persecution lead directly to domestic violence, especially against women, as well as underaged marriage for girls. The latest protests that shook Iraq in 2019, led forward by a young generation, is slightly helping to move away from this patriarchal system, as we saw many activists women playing a key role in the demonstrations, but it takes time to change a society.
Ruba believes that honor crimes systematically target women who deviate from the authority of patriarchal society, and the word “honor” is used to justify the crime against her. Iraq needs laws that protect women. A special focus should be put on the abolition of laws allowing a rapist to marry his victim with impunity. Community police force has proven inefficient to protect women as they often return the victim to her abuser(s) under the pretext of protecting the family. Instead, the authorities should provide shelters for women fleeing domestic violence.
The Community Police is a security force of men and women tasked by the Ministry of Interior since 2008 to build trust between the police and local communities. It was formed for the need to humanize the work of the police, and make it closer to the people.
The new generation is looking in a new, open, and respectful way at all women’’, Ruba added. Yet, there are still many obstacles to change the current situation. Religious parties within the Iraqi parliament rejected the domestic violence law under the pretext that it violated religious values and the man’s necessity to control his wife and daughters.
Nada Fadel still has clear scars on her face and her tired body. Each one of her wounds tells a story of years of violence caused by her father and brothers before she married a man fifteen years older than her in exchange for money to her father.
“My husband used to go through periods of tantrums whenever he was unable to buy drugs. He was beating me badly and when he tried to hit our baby, I ran away to my father’s house but he beat me in order to force me to return to my husband’s house, so I decided to escape with my child to another city.”, Nada recalled. Nada now lives in a shelter for battered women and is unable to get any official documentation for her child.
With the beginning of the protests on Oct. 1, 2019, women joined to protest with men for the first time in many years. They came out united in feminist movements in the center and south of the country to promote their agenda.
The October revolution movement managed to force a government to resign, but was brutally repressed by militia’s security forces. Still, it might be the first step toward justice for women after years of oppression by patriarchal rules and the absence of protection laws which made women a commodity in society..
During the 2019 and 2020 protests, Iraqi women also took to the streets of central Baghdad and southern Iraq in defiance of a Muqtada al-Sadr cleric’s calls for gender segregation at anti-government protest sites. Many women faced threats, were killed or forced into exile as a result of this, underlying how long and painful the road to gender equality and women protection will still be in Iraq.
While the memory of murdered women has not been righted with justice, other ones are facing the same destiny. The lack of legislation to prevent domestic violence in Iraq has turned women into a potential target and victim at all times. This situation has managed to develop alienation inside families where women have to guard each other’s secrets and stories away from men that could represent a possible threat.