May 18, 2007
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.
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.
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
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
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.
"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
[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,
[vii] See the "International
Campaign against killings and stoning of women in Kurdistan,".