Project MonMa in Iraq; Honour Killings, Sexual Harassment and War

Project Monma travelled to Northern Iraq to learn more about honour killings and self immolation. We wanted to document why honour killings and honour suicides are continuing in Kurdistan.

An honour killing is the murder of a relative, most commonly a girl or women, who is perceived to have brought dishonour to the family, usually because of her sexual liaisons. Self-immolation is a form of suicide, mostly by burning oneself, and is considered a sacrifice. It is often seen as a last resort for women hoping to escape domestic violence situations.

Although illegal, few perpetrators are ever brought to justice, because the crime is often explained as an accident, or the survivors refuse to speak out against their family.

This shroud of secrecy makes these forms of violence difficult to measure, though the United Nations estimates that the number of victims could be as high as 50 women every month.

Media outlet Al Jazeera last year reported that an estimated 1000 women have set themselves on fire since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Experts at the UN who work in Kurdistan explained the rationale for honour killings as being, ‘the culture.’ Honor killings are not confined to Iraqi Kurdistan however, neighboring Afghanistan is notorious for abrogating women’s rights, as is the rest of Iraq. The UN Population Fund estimated in 2000, the most recent statistics available, that there were 5,000 such killings every year worldwide. The number of honor killings is routinely underestimated, however, and most estimates are widely varying guesses. Definitive or reliable global estimates of honor killing incidences do not apparently exist.

The majority of the killings occur in the Middle East and South Asia; an increasing number of reports of honour killings have been found in Western countries, mostly involving immigrant families.
The worldwide average age of victims is 23, Phyllis Chesler, an American feminist scholar, wrote in The Middle East Quarterly. Just over half the victims were daughters and sisters; a quarter of the victims were wives and girlfriends of the perpetrators; the rest were mothers, aunts, nieces, cousins, uncles or non-relatives.

In the Muslim world, just under a quarter of the murders involved more than one victim, such as the dead woman’s children, boyfriend, fiancé, husband, sister, brother or parents. Honour killings are most often a family affair. Internationally, more than half the victims were tortured before they were killed, including being raped. Their deaths occurred by strangling or bludgeoning, stabbing, stoning, burning or beheading.

The UN General Assembly has approved numerous resolutions to condemn and put an end to honor killings and other honor-related crimes, yet these acts still go on. 

In our first interviews with the heads of several women’s empowerment groups in this city, for example, we were told that a woman could be killed by her own family just because she fell in love or she wanted to go to school.

Suzan Aref, the director of the Women Empowerment Organization said, ‘it’s a patriarchal system and everything is run by men. Women have seats on the legislature, but they are symbolic and that women are not represented in the executive and the judiciary branches of the Kurdish government, which is a self-ruling body separate from the Iraqi government in Baghdad.’

‘Women have no value here,’ said one Iraqi Kurdish man who in the past worked for a women’s empowerment center but now wishes to remain anonymous. ‘Women are treated more or less as objects for men to use for their own needs, which is why it’s all right to kill them when they step out of line from their role as subordinates; when they dare, say, to have a sexual relationship with a man to whom they are not married,’ he said.

He explained that it is a man’s right to be free, to do as he pleases, to go where he wants. And it is his right to control women, because this is the religion, the Koran says so. Women cannot have a boyfriend, but it’s an honor for a man to have a girlfriend. A divorced woman is like a disease, whereas a divorced man is just a man. A free woman is a bad woman, but a free man is a righteous man. Everything that a woman or a girl does is a reflection of the man in the home, he said. A girl is expected to do as she is told, which means going to school until her family decides that she has received enough education. Then it is time to get married and produce children.

Her responsibilities are to be focused on her husband and her children. She must cook, clean and take care of all the husband’s needs. Most important, she must be a virgin before she gets married. Should she step out of line or do anything that makes her husband suspicious that she is being unfaithful, like talking with another man in the street, it is his right to kill her.

Suzan Aref a local woman’s activist said, ‘it’s a patriarchal system and everything is run by men,’ she said. ‘Religious leaders claim that it is against Islam. They say a father needs to be in control of his children and a husband needs to be able to beat his wife, and they ran a campaign against the law,’ she said of the religious leader.

‘There have been cases where doctors have refused to help women with gunshot wounds because they suspect that it was an honor killing,’ Aref explains. ‘There have also been cases where lawyers won’t help a woman who has been the victim of an attempted honor killing because they’ll say that she is a bad woman and they don’t want their reputation to be affected.’
‘Well-educated people such as lawyers and politicians have said that they would kill their daughter should she make a sexual transgression,’ she adds. 

For Bahar Osman from Zhyan Group, a woman’s rights organization in Iraqi Kurdistan, fighting against the many cultural traditions, that discriminate against women and girls, is not easy.
When she first began her work for women’s rights in Iraqi Kurdistan, she was threatened by some of the Islamic parties in the region who claimed that women’s rights were against their culture and against Islam. Fearing for her life, she fled to Norway where she stayed for 13 years. She has since returned to Kurdistan to continue to her work for women’s rights work, but continues to receive threats from some of Islamists in the country. A security guard remains stationed at her gate. ‘It’s a very big problem to be a woman’s rights activist in Kurdistan,’ she lamented.

A domestic violence law was been passed through parliament in 2008, officially outlawing honor killings in Kurdistan. However, religious leaders continue to claim that laws that protect women from violence are against Islam. Despite this resistance, there are some Islamic scholars who have spoken against honor killings. Quoting texts from the Qur’an chapter 24 (Surah An-Nur) and from the Fiqh, they argue that in the case a sexual transgression is committed and where there have been at least four eye-witnesses, both the man and the woman involved in the sexual transgression should be punished.

However, some efforts are being made to reject such culturally entrenched violence and discrimination against women and girls in Iraqi Kurdistan. In an interview with Osman Ocalan, a founding guerrilla leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK and brother of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, said in an interview in Erbil that the PKK, which has renounced its original Marxist ideology in favor of ‘democratic federalism,’ has criticized the bottom rung role of women in Kurdistan.

‘My brother wanted to help the most helpless in society, which has usually been women who have been shamed,’ he said. His brother has been imprisoned since 1999 in Turkey, which considers the PKK a terrorist faction.

Amongst other aspects of Kurdish culture, the PKK rejects honor killings. ‘The first women who became involved with the PKK were women who had been sexually assaulted and would have been killed by their families,’ Ocalan said. ‘When they joined the PKK they were respected.’ The PKK has created all female guerrilla units, a process in which Ocalan was largely involved.

Ocalan and his brother recognized that taking away women’s sexual rights was violence.

For Aref, bringing an end to honor killings in Iraqi Kurdistan, involves changing the mentality of the people including the lawyers, the judges and the police. Bahar agrees that it is the mentalities that need to change. ‘Killing is not culture,’ she adds. ‘All women want to have a good life, honor killings and forced marriage, they are not my culture.’

Whether one believes that sexual relations outside marriage should be permitted or not, what is certain is that that such extreme forms of violence against women, or any form of violence, is unacceptable, regardless of culture, tradition or religion. For women’s rights activists in Kurdistan, the struggle against the effects of these very harsh cultural codes of morality and honor on women continues. Yet, they remain positive and believe that change can come to the region.

Sexual Harassment in Iraq

Project Monma travelled to the Kurdish region of Iraq to learn more about sexual harassment. We met with a number of men and women to learn more about their perspectives on how prevalent sexual harassment is in Iraqi Kurdistan.

All the women we spoke with reported daily cases of being sexually harassed while on the street. Women reported cars slowing down to follow them down the street, men staring aggressively, inappropriate comments and unwanted touching.

Basma and Nahla, two Yezidi women living in a small, makeshift home on the outskirts of Erbil described how they fled their homes in Sinjar when ISIS invaded and took thousands of girls to be sold as sex slaves. They then spoke about their lives in Erbil.

They pointed across the street to a construction site and said that previously they were not even able to come out of their homes because the harassment from the workers, was so bad.

The harassment also happens on the street. ‘The men in cars slow down to say bad things to us,’ explained Basma. ‘I don’t like to go outside alone.’

Another group of Yezidi woman nearby who were living in an abandoned construction site explained how they too, were experiencing incessant sexual harassment from the local men. They explained how when they first fled to Erbil from Sinjar, local men would come by the construction site to harass them.

Zaiton Hassan, a 25 year old Yezidi girl living in the building said, ‘it was a living hell. We couldn’t leave our house to just sit outside. They would come and stare at us and make us feel really uncomfortable.’ 

For Ahmed Sarad, a young 15-year-old boy from Mosul, who fled the city with his mother and sister after ISIS invaded, he’s afraid for his sister. He’s heard that there have been cases of women and girls being kidnapped and so he’s worried. He also knows that sexual harassment is commonplace.

Sitting in a small café in the centre of Erbil he explains how he has seen many men harassing women on the street. When asked if they know that it’s wrong to harass women he nods his head, ‘they know it’s bad but they do it anyways.’

All of the men interviewed reported that they were aware that sexually harassing women causes harm, however few seemed concerned about the effects of their behavior.

A small group of Peshmerger soldiers all burst into laughter when asked about sexual harassment. They all agreed that sexual harassment was common in Iraqi Kurdistan and knew that it caused harm to women.

Their laughter however, did not subside.

Shivan, an Iraqi Kurd and a leadership fellow at East West Centre attended a women’s rights march where men began men harassing some of the female protesters. He was there to protest violence against women. He was shocked by the sexual harassment that unfolded that evening. ‘They were bullies,’ he said.

When asked why the men had acted in such a disrespectful manner, he explained that Iraqi Kurdistan is an extremely patriarchal society where manners towards women are not always promoted.

‘It comes from ignorance,’ he explained. ‘We are in a part of the world where even if we have progressive laws to protect women from violence, when it comes to putting them into practice, we are not doing well. When it comes to domestic violence and honor killings, we are not doing well.’ 

When asked why he decided to attend the protest as a Kurdish male he linked it to his upbringing. ‘My father believed in gender equality. My father treated my sisters and me equally. I too believe in gender equality.’

For Jihan and Roj, two young Syrian girls living in Qushtapa camp not far from Erbil, sexual harassment has also been a part of their daily experience. They fled to Erbil after ISIS invaded their homes in northern Syria.

Jihan explained how cars slow down in the street to stare her and make inappropriate comments. She was also threatened while at work. ‘I was working at a mall and one man would always come to harass me, he threatened to kidnap me.’

When asked how the harassment makes them feel Roj responded, ‘It makes me very angry.’

According to Fatima, a social worker in Baharka camp near Erbil housing around 3000 IDP’s fleeing ISIS, says that emotional, psychological and sexual violence against women is common and even begins with girls as young as six years old. Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence but most girls fear to report it out of fear that they will be shamed. There are cases of women being raped by their husbands and girls as young as 11 years old being married.

‘The families marry them so young as a way of protecting them from being harassed by other men,’ said Hashim. There are reports of trafficking and little protection from security forces in the camps.

One Kurdish woman who preferred not to be named explained how there is no freedom for women in Kurdistan. Men have total control.

‘The traditions and the culture are against women’s freedom, there’s no sexual freedom for women. Every week there are women who are killed just because she was seen walking with a man or something like this. If the family knows that there is a physical relationship, she’s dead,’ she said.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, a girl is expected to be a virgin until she is married. Should the woman or girl engage in a sexual act before she is married, culturally, it is understood that she should be killed in order to restore the family honor.

She recounted one story, of a man who she knew, who had cut off the head of his own mother, simply because she had been seen talking to a man on the street.

‘It’s really hard for women here in Kurdistan,’ she said quietly.

Project MonMa in Iraq; Honour Killings, Sexual Harassment and War

Project Monma travelled to Northern Iraq to learn more about honour killings and self immolation. We wanted to document why honour killings and honour suicides are continuing in Kurdistan.

An honour killing is the murder of a relative, most commonly a girl or women, who is perceived to have brought dishonour to the family, usually because of her sexual liaisons. Self-immolation is a form of suicide, mostly by burning oneself, and is considered a sacrifice. It is often seen as a last resort for women hoping to escape domestic violence situations.

Although illegal, few perpetrators are ever brought to justice, because the crime is often explained as an accident, or the survivors refuse to speak out against their family.

This shroud of secrecy makes these forms of violence difficult to measure, though the United Nations estimates that the number of victims could be as high as 50 women every month.

Media outlet Al Jazeera last year reported that an estimated 1000 women have set themselves on fire since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Experts at the UN who work in Kurdistan explained the rationale for honour killings as being, ‘the culture.’ Honor killings are not confined to Iraqi Kurdistan however, neighboring Afghanistan is notorious for abrogating women’s rights, as is the rest of Iraq. The UN Population Fund estimated in 2000, the most recent statistics available, that there were 5,000 such killings every year worldwide. The number of honor killings is routinely underestimated, however, and most estimates are widely varying guesses. Definitive or reliable global estimates of honor killing incidences do not apparently exist.

The majority of the killings occur in the Middle East and South Asia; an increasing number of reports of honour killings have been found in Western countries, mostly involving immigrant families.
The worldwide average age of victims is 23, Phyllis Chesler, an American feminist scholar, wrote in The Middle East Quarterly. Just over half the victims were daughters and sisters; a quarter of the victims were wives and girlfriends of the perpetrators; the rest were mothers, aunts, nieces, cousins, uncles or non-relatives.

In the Muslim world, just under a quarter of the murders involved more than one victim, such as the dead woman’s children, boyfriend, fiancé, husband, sister, brother or parents. Honour killings are most often a family affair. Internationally, more than half the victims were tortured before they were killed, including being raped. Their deaths occurred by strangling or bludgeoning, stabbing, stoning, burning or beheading.

The UN General Assembly has approved numerous resolutions to condemn and put an end to honor killings and other honor-related crimes, yet these acts still go on. 

In our first interviews with the heads of several women’s empowerment groups in this city, for example, we were told that a woman could be killed by her own family just because she fell in love or she wanted to go to school.

Suzan Aref, the director of the Women Empowerment Organization said, ‘it’s a patriarchal system and everything is run by men. Women have seats on the legislature, but they are symbolic and that women are not represented in the executive and the judiciary branches of the Kurdish government, which is a self-ruling body separate from the Iraqi government in Baghdad.’

‘Women have no value here,’ said one Iraqi Kurdish man who in the past worked for a women’s empowerment center but now wishes to remain anonymous. ‘Women are treated more or less as objects for men to use for their own needs, which is why it’s all right to kill them when they step out of line from their role as subordinates; when they dare, say, to have a sexual relationship with a man to whom they are not married,’ he said.

He explained that it is a man’s right to be free, to do as he pleases, to go where he wants. And it is his right to control women, because this is the religion, the Koran says so. Women cannot have a boyfriend, but it’s an honor for a man to have a girlfriend. A divorced woman is like a disease, whereas a divorced man is just a man. A free woman is a bad woman, but a free man is a righteous man. Everything that a woman or a girl does is a reflection of the man in the home, he said. A girl is expected to do as she is told, which means going to school until her family decides that she has received enough education. Then it is time to get married and produce children.

Her responsibilities are to be focused on her husband and her children. She must cook, clean and take care of all the husband’s needs. Most important, she must be a virgin before she gets married. Should she step out of line or do anything that makes her husband suspicious that she is being unfaithful, like talking with another man in the street, it is his right to kill her.

Suzan Aref a local woman’s activist said, ‘it’s a patriarchal system and everything is run by men,’ she said. ‘Religious leaders claim that it is against Islam. They say a father needs to be in control of his children and a husband needs to be able to beat his wife, and they ran a campaign against the law,’ she said of the religious leader.

‘There have been cases where doctors have refused to help women with gunshot wounds because they suspect that it was an honor killing,’ Aref explains. ‘There have also been cases where lawyers won’t help a woman who has been the victim of an attempted honor killing because they’ll say that she is a bad woman and they don’t want their reputation to be affected.’
‘Well-educated people such as lawyers and politicians have said that they would kill their daughter should she make a sexual transgression,’ she adds. 

For Bahar Osman from Zhyan Group, a woman’s rights organization in Iraqi Kurdistan, fighting against the many cultural traditions, that discriminate against women and girls, is not easy.

When she first began her work for women’s rights in Iraqi Kurdistan, she was threatened by some of the Islamic parties in the region who claimed that women’s rights were against their culture and against Islam. Fearing for her life, she fled to Norway where she stayed for 13 years. She has since returned to Kurdistan to continue to her work for women’s rights work, but continues to receive threats from some of Islamists in the country. A security guard remains stationed at her gate. ‘It’s a very big problem to be a woman’s rights activist in Kurdistan,’ she lamented.

A domestic violence law was been passed through parliament in 2008, officially outlawing honor killings in Kurdistan. However, religious leaders continue to claim that laws that protect women from violence are against Islam. Despite this resistance, there are some Islamic scholars who have spoken against honor killings. Quoting texts from the Qur’an chapter 24 (Surah An-Nur) and from the Fiqh, they argue that in the case a sexual transgression is committed and where there have been at least four eye-witnesses, both the man and the woman involved in the sexual transgression should be punished.

However, some efforts are being made to reject such culturally entrenched violence and discrimination against women and girls in Iraqi Kurdistan. In an interview with Osman Ocalan, a founding guerrilla leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK and brother of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, said in an interview in Erbil that the PKK, which has renounced its original Marxist ideology in favor of ‘democratic federalism,’ has criticized the bottom rung role of women in Kurdistan.

‘My brother wanted to help the most helpless in society, which has usually been women who have been shamed,’ he said. His brother has been imprisoned since 1999 in Turkey, which considers the PKK a terrorist faction.

Amongst other aspects of Kurdish culture, the PKK rejects honor killings. ‘The first women who became involved with the PKK were women who had been sexually assaulted and would have been killed by their families,’ Ocalan said. ‘When they joined the PKK they were respected.’ The PKK has created all female guerrilla units, a process in which Ocalan was largely involved.

Ocalan and his brother recognized that taking away women’s sexual rights was violence.

For Aref, bringing an end to honor killings in Iraqi Kurdistan, involves changing the mentality of the people including the lawyers, the judges and the police. Bahar agrees that it is the mentalities that need to change. ‘Killing is not culture,’ she adds. ‘All women want to have a good life, honor killings and forced marriage, they are not my culture.’

Whether one believes that sexual relations outside marriage should be permitted or not, what is certain is that that such extreme forms of violence against women, or any form of violence, is unacceptable, regardless of culture, tradition or religion. For women’s rights activists in Kurdistan, the struggle against the effects of these very harsh cultural codes of morality and honor on women continues. Yet, they remain positive and believe that change can come to the region.

Sexual Harassment in Iraq

Project Monma travelled to the Kurdish region of Iraq to learn more about sexual harassment. We met with a number of men and women to learn more about their perspectives on how prevalent sexual harassment is in Iraqi Kurdistan.

All the women we spoke with reported daily cases of being sexually harassed while on the street. Women reported cars slowing down to follow them down the street, men staring aggressively, inappropriate comments and unwanted touching.

Basma and Nahla, two Yezidi women living in a small, makeshift home on the outskirts of Erbil described how they fled their homes in Sinjar when ISIS invaded and took thousands of girls to be sold as sex slaves. They then spoke about their lives in Erbil.

They pointed across the street to a construction site and said that previously they were not even able to come out of their homes because the harassment from the workers, was so bad.

The harassment also happens on the street. ‘The men in cars slow down to say bad things to us,’ explained Basma. ‘I don’t like to go outside alone.’

Another group of Yezidi woman nearby who were living in an abandoned construction site explained how they too, were experiencing incessant sexual harassment from the local men. They explained how when they first fled to Erbil from Sinjar, local men would come by the construction site to harass them.

Zaiton Hassan, a 25 year old Yezidi girl living in the building said, ‘it was a living hell. We couldn’t leave our house to just sit outside. They would come and stare at us and make us feel really uncomfortable.’ 

For Ahmed Sarad, a young 15-year-old boy from Mosul, who fled the city with his mother and sister after ISIS invaded, he’s afraid for his sister. He’s heard that there have been cases of women and girls being kidnapped and so he’s worried. He also knows that sexual harassment is commonplace.

Sitting in a small café in the centre of Erbil he explains how he has seen many men harassing women on the street. When asked if they know that it’s wrong to harass women he nods his head, ‘they know it’s bad but they do it anyways.’

All of the men interviewed reported that they were aware that sexually harassing women causes harm, however few seemed concerned about the effects of their behavior.

A small group of Peshmerger soldiers all burst into laughter when asked about sexual harassment. They all agreed that sexual harassment was common in Iraqi Kurdistan and knew that it caused harm to women.

Their laughter however, did not subside.

Shivan, an Iraqi Kurd and a leadership fellow at East West Centre attended a women’s rights march where men began men harassing some of the female protesters. He was there to protest violence against women. He was shocked by the sexual harassment that unfolded that evening. ‘They were bullies,’ he said.

When asked why the men had acted in such a disrespectful manner, he explained that Iraqi Kurdistan is an extremely patriarchal society where manners towards women are not always promoted.

‘It comes from ignorance,’ he explained. ‘We are in a part of the world where even if we have progressive laws to protect women from violence, when it comes to putting them into practice, we are not doing well. When it comes to domestic violence and honor killings, we are not doing well.’ 

When asked why he decided to attend the protest as a Kurdish male he linked it to his upbringing. ‘My father believed in gender equality. My father treated my sisters and me equally. I too believe in gender equality.’

For Jihan and Roj, two young Syrian girls living in Qushtapa camp not far from Erbil, sexual harassment has also been a part of their daily experience. They fled to Erbil after ISIS invaded their homes in northern Syria.

Jihan explained how cars slow down in the street to stare her and make inappropriate comments. She was also threatened while at work. ‘I was working at a mall and one man would always come to harass me, he threatened to kidnap me.’

When asked how the harassment makes them feel Roj responded, ‘It makes me very angry.’

According to Fatima, a social worker in Baharka camp near Erbil housing around 3000 IDP’s fleeing ISIS, says that emotional, psychological and sexual violence against women is common and even begins with girls as young as six years old. Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence but most girls fear to report it out of fear that they will be shamed. There are cases of women being raped by their husbands and girls as young as 11 years old being married.

‘The families marry them so young as a way of protecting them from being harassed by other men,’ said Hashim. There are reports of trafficking and little protection from security forces in the camps.

One Kurdish woman who preferred not to be named explained how there is no freedom for women in Kurdistan. Men have total control.

‘The traditions and the culture are against women’s freedom, there’s no sexual freedom for women. Every week there are women who are killed just because she was seen walking with a man or something like this. If the family knows that there is a physical relationship, she’s dead,’ she said.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, a girl is expected to be a virgin until she is married. Should the woman or girl engage in a sexual act before she is married, culturally, it is understood that she should be killed in order to restore the family honor.

She recounted one story, of a man who she knew, who had cut off the head of his own mother, simply because she had been seen talking to a man on the street.

‘It’s really hard for women here in Kurdistan,’ she said quietly.

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