The United Nations Population Fund estimates that honor killings—which have been described as “murders carried out by family members against girls and women who are believed to have committed a sexual indiscretion, or to have caused gossip related to sexual behavior, that besmirches the honor of the family”1 —take the lives of thousands of women each year.2 While statistics for the specific number of women killed “in the name of honor” in Iraqi Kurdistan vary, it is clear that there has been an increase in violence against Kurdish women since the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War. Moreover, despite changes in Kurdish law to criminalize honor killings, such murders continue to rise in Iraqi Kurdistan and are even occurring in Kurdish diaspora groups in Sweden and the United Kingdom. In addition, since 2007, suicide by self-immolation has increased among Kurdish women, and these suicides are linked to pressure on women from family members to kill themselves for honor-related reasons.
The purpose of this paper is to explore honor killings of Kurdish women in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the Kurdish diaspora to gain a better understanding
of how the Kurdish women’s movement helped shape the current battle against honor-related violence. Beginning with background information of the movement and the methods it has utilized to fight honor killings, this paper also examines the exile community and how Kurdish women in Sweden and the United Kingdom have yet to be instrumental in the fight against honor killing, and moreover, have been victims of honor-related violence themselves. The paper also looks at new developments, such as the recent trend of suicides of Kurdish women by self-immolation and petitions by Kurdish women’s organizations to the Kurdish government to end violence against women. Finally, the paper highlights some of the many ongoing challenges facing the Kurdish women’s movement.
Social Conditions Conducive to Honor Killings
Activist Munira Muftizadeh of the Kurdish Women’s Organization explained that violence against women originates from a patriarchal society “which fails to regard women’s existence as full human beings.”3 In “No ‘Safe Haven’: Violence Against Women in Iraqi Kurdistan,”4 author Shahrzad Mojab reveals how honor killing in Kurdistan is condoned by social, economic, cultural, political, and religious structures.5 Mojab argues that six factors are primarily responsible for the increase in honor killings since the early 1990s. These factors include the deteriorating political, social, and economic framework of Kurdish society during wartime; the failure of political parties to make gender relations more equitable; the nationalist
politics of gender relations; increased Islamic fundamentalism in politics; the revitalization of tribal and feudal relations; and finally, a weak feminist consciousness in Iraqi Kurdistan which allows nationalism to support the state’s patriarchal
role. Background of the Movement
Founded in March 2000 in London, Kurdish Women Action against Honor Killing (KWAHK) works to raise international and national awareness about this heinous crime in Kurdish communities in Kurdistan and in the Diaspora.6 It evolved from the first organization to be established in response to violence against women in Kurdistan, the communist Independent Women’s Organization.7 KWAHK is comprised of both Kurdish and non-Kurdish activists. With its slogan “No Honor in Murder,” KWAHK’s mission is two-fold. First, KWAHK “attempts to establish dialogue with human rights organizations, international NGOs, the United Nations and Western governments who contribute to combating gender based violence by refusing to support regimes and parties who are violating women’s human rights.”8 The second goal focuses on “identifying strategies and legal procedures
most appropriate to the fight against different forms of violence against women.”9
To achieve these goals, KWAHK has hosted public debates and conferences in both Iraqi Kurdistan and London to bring attention to the issue of honor killings as a human rights concern that requires national and international attention. A June 2000 Conference organized by KWAHK in London attempted to create a dialogue between the Kurdish community and political parties in Kurdistan on the issue of honor killings and on the status of women in society.10 Recommendations for future actions were grouped into three main categories: 1) legal action, including changing existing laws and thoroughly investigating all murder cases, 2) using education and the media to prevent acts of violence, and 3) establishing shelters, medical and counseling facilities as well as rehabilitation centers to protect women who are threatened with violence or have been victims of violence.11 Organizational literature from KWAHK identifies these debates, as well as conferences at the United Nations and with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, as instrumental in changing Kurdistan’s law to criminalize
The exile Kurdish community, mainly in Sweden and the United Kingdom, is also important to the rise of the transnational Kurdish women’s movement against honor killings. Researchers Shahrzad Mojab and Rachel Gorman point out that “Kurdish feminists in the Diaspora have tried to introduce violence against women and gender inequality as central concerns in the process of reconstruction.”12 Iraqi Kurdish women activists like Nazaneen Rashid attest that Kurdish women are better able to advocate for women’s rights from abroad because they do not need to be affiliated with political parties to secure funding and receive recognition. She explains:
I have traveled all over Europe to raise the voice of Kurdish women. I think I am contributing and advocating against the plight of Kurdish women more effectively
while I am abroad than being in Kurdistan. I am free and I don’t need to be affiliated with any of the political parties to have legitimacy. I have to admit that I am in the Diaspora, but in my heart and head I live in Kurdistan every day.13
Legal Reform and Shelters for Victims
The transnational Kurdish women’s movement against honor killings has achieved two major successes to date. First, the movement was able to lobby both Kurdish governing political parties—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)—to overturn articles in the Iraqi Penal Code that allowed for honor killings. It is important to note that the success of this campaign was due in large part to efforts made by women’s organizations of the PUK and KDP in Kurdistan that were already in action at the time of KWAHK’s formation. On April 12, 2000, the PUK passed Decree No. 59, which stated: “Lenient punishment for killing women or torturing them with the pretext of purifying shame shall not be implemented. The court should not apply articles 130 and 132 of the Iraqi Penal Code no. 111 of the year 1969 to reduce the penalty of the perpetrator.”14
KWAHK was able to combine its advocacy efforts with NGOs on the ground in Kurdistan, such as the Swedish group Diakonia,15 as well as with the women’s organizations of the PUK and KDP political parties, to overturn articles in the Iraqi Penal Code exonerating honor killers in the territory of the KDP. In 2002, the KDP passed Law No.14 which states: “Crimes against women with the pretext of ‘honorable motivation’ will not be legally liable for lenient punishment and Articles 28, 130 and 131 of the Iraqi Penal Code no. 111 of the year 1969 will not be implemented.”16
The transnational Kurdish women’s movement against honor killings has also created shelters for women at risk. More shelters have been opening for women, particularly in Suleimaniya, that have been effective in preventing honor killings.17 In an 2004 article in The Christian Science Monitor, Nicholas Birch described how a young woman escaped from becoming a victim of honor killing to a shelter created by Diakonia on the outskirts of the city of Dohuk.18 Diakonia also helps the women who escape to the shelters find a future when they have no safe place to go and no income to sustain themselves.19
Recent Escalation of Violence
In spite of the reformation of the Iraqi Penal Code to criminalize honor killing in Iraqi Kurdistan, honor killings continue to escalate. The Kurdistan Human Rights Ministry reports that honor killings rose from 106 in 2005 to 266 in 2006.20 Activists blame the Kurdish government for not doing enough to protect women. Researcher Shahrzad Mojab agrees that the law has been unsuccessful due to a lack of effective governance. Mojab cites one interviewee who stated, “while male killers did not hide themselves before the resolution, now they no longer show off, and it is therefore difficult to identify them.” A 2007 article entitled “Kurds Speak Out Against Honor Killing of Women” describes how Kurdish women activists in Erbil, Iraq, are using an art exhibit of instruments typically used in honor killings to educate the public about this horrific act.22 In one of the stories included in the exhibit, a 17-year-old girl named Do’a Khalil, from the Yazidi sect, was stoned to death for being in love with a Muslim boy. Men from her community used cinder blocks to crush her skull and recorded their actions with their cell phone cameras.23 Chilura Hardi, the art exhibit organizer, “is trying to sustain the public outrage that followed Do’a Khalil’s death and change a culture that condones violence against women.”24 Hardi maintains that it is important to teach children at an early age that there is no difference between female and male in order for women to be seen as fully human. While it has been challenging for Hardi to reach out to adult males in the community, she stated that she feels encouraged by comments from men who have attended the exhibit who assert that “any man who sees the exhibition will be changed.”
Anisa is 28 years old and lives in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. She lives with her husband of 11 years and her three children. Their home has running water, but no electricity and the nearest market is 20 minutes away on foot.
More than anything, Anisa stresses the importance of education for herself and her children. She has two daughters and one son, and she and her husband hope to have at least two more children. Anisa is pleased with the improvement in the availability of education for Afghans but there is more to be done, especially for women like herself who have never been to school before. “If I could tell President Obama about women, I would tell him to help Afghan women to be educated,” she said.
All of Anisa’s kids are in school, it’s very important to her that she see her children receive the education she never had. “Girls should go to school in order to be educated,” she said. “We need [education] for female doctors in the future.” Educating women to become doctors is particularly important in Afghanistan. After decades of preventing women from being educated, all Afghan doctors are male. Yet in Afghanistan, men and women are not allowed to be alone in a room together, even as doctor and patient. This means that when a woman goes to the doctor, she must be accompanied by her husband, impinging on her privacy or, worse still, she must sit behind a curtain and explain her ailments to the doctor without him examining her physically. This of course leads to inaccurate diagnoses and generally poor healthcare for women.
She began Women for Women International’s program in January and has been a participant for nearly six months now. “I have learned many useful lessons about women’s rights,” she said, “and I really like tailoring class!” Like the majority of Afghan women who enter the WfWI-Afghanistan program, Anisa faces discrimination and reduced freedoms because she is a woman. Although voting is legally open to all Afghans above the age of 18, including women, Anisa says that she does not vote because she “is not allowed.” When leaving the house, she must first consult her husband and can only go out accompanied by her son. But the education she is receiving from Women for Women is already helping to empower her to understand her rights as an Afghan woman. “Both men and women are equal, and women can also work and study,” she says. “Everyone can live free, get education, and work.”
Marzari is 32-years-old andhas been with Women for Women International-Afghanistan for nearly six months. She lives in Kapisa with her husband of 20 years and seven children. Although she was married at age 12 to a man she had never met before, she describes their marriage as a happy partnership. “He is a very kind man…we do not do anything until we discuss with each other.”
Things have improved for Marzari and her family in the past five years. She has running water and electricity in her home, and all of her children are in school, including her three daughters. “Before, my husband was jobless and my children were not in school. Now they are, and my husband is working as well.”
Marzari says that the situation for Afghan women has improved as well. Now she is able to leave her house by herself as she pleases. She is learning her rights through WfWI-Afghanistan’s rights awareness training, and knows that women and men are equals. “Everyone can live free, can work and study,” she says.
An educated woman herself, Marzari stresses the importance of sending her seven children to school. Marzari went to school until the 11th grade, but at that time she was still barred from furthering her education and finding employment. Now, as Afghanistan undergoes reconstruction, Marzari is aware of the opportunities that may be open to her daughters as they grow up in the new Afghanistan. “Both my sons and my daughters are in school. Girls should be educated as well because the government will need them.”
Marzari is proof that the opinions of Afghan women should be taken into consideration as Afghanistan continues the process of reconstruction. She demonstrates her understanding of the current security situation in Afghanistan and prioritizes national police- and national army-training as a means of increased security. Women like Marzari are hopeful that they and their daughters will have increased opportunity to voice their opinions and take an active role in securing the future of Afghanistan.
Safiya, 17 – Safiya is a 17 year old girl living in Nijro province. She is in school and has been with Women for Women International – Afghanistan (WfWI-Afghanistan) for almost one year. Safiya represents a new generation of Afghan women, allowed to pursue an education and who at nearly 18 remains unmarried with no children. Safiya is aware of this new role, she says, “[Afghanistan] has changed a lot, especially in education.”
But she and her family continue to live in debilitating poverty. While she has access to healthcare, education and other services and commodities, Safiya must walk at least 40 minutes to her school and to the nearest health clinic. Forced to live on rental property, Safiya says of her situation, “We have economical problems. [My family needs] a house, it is very urgent.”
Safiya is becoming educated about women’s rights and voting from Women for Women. Not yet 18, she is not legally allowed to acquire a voting card yet but plans to when she is old enough. But Safiya is wise despite her youth. “Even though I am not completely 18, [my] view point is a good leader is a person who serves his homeland.” Her greatest wish for the next ten years in her homeland is for the restoration of peace and security. “We have 50 percent security in Afghanistan, not 100 percent. When our national police and national army really serve our homeland then security will improve; if they continue to take bribes, it is not possible.”
Safiya’s education has increased her awareness of the gender disparities Afghan women face. “Both men and women have equal rights, but usually men do not accept this matter.” This is the reality for most Afghan women. Despite strides made in women’s access to education and being given the legal right to vote, Afghan society often dictates otherwise. “Sometime it is very difficult for women, like when men force them to do something and they don’t want to…and even they are not allowed getting out of the house.” Knowledgeable young women like Safiya inspire hope in the eyes of many Afghan women. She is well educated and confident in her vision for the future of Afghanistan. Continuing to invest in the futures of women like Safiya help to ensure a stronger future for Afghanistan and for Afghan women.
Amplifying the voices of women in Afghanistan
Noor and Malai's Story
Afghan women are determined for their daughters to have more and better choices in their lives. Noor was just 12 years old when she was married to a man 28 years her senior. Today, at age 35, she has nine children. Four are daughters, and Noor is determined they will have a different kind of future. Through Women for Women International’s vocational training program Noor has learned skills that will help her earn extra income, which she plans to use to pay for her daughters’ school expenses.
In 2008, a total of 4,434 Afghan women enrolled in Women for Women International’s yearlong sponsorship program. Women receive letters and financial support from their sponsors. They meet in groups of 20 for rights awareness training facilitated by local women. They learn to read and write. Some are trained as health and traditional birth attendants. Women entrepreneurs can learn vocational and business skills and have access to small loans which they pay back as their projects grow.
Like Noor, most women begin the program illiterate and with no way to earn money. These obstacles, along with traditional views about gender roles, keep women from realizing their full potential.
In the evenings when the housework is complete, Noor shares with her daughters what she has learned through her trainings – not just work skills and literacy, but also about the rights of women as documented in their nation’s constitution.
Before her Women for Women International training Malai, age 20, didn’t know she had the right to participate in elections. Neither did her husband. To help Afghan men understand how the advancement of women has a positive effect on families and communities, Women for Women International launched the Men’s Leadership Program in 2008. So far, 20 male community leaders have been trained to instruct their peers about the negative effects of restricting women’s participation in economic and social spheres.
Though progress is slow and difficult, Noor is dreaming, “I wish for my daughter to finish school and then marry a man she loves.” Some women have already made life-changing decisions. Raissa negotiated with her daughter’s future in-laws that they will allow her to complete her education. “I think my daughter will have a happy life in the future.”
We've created a video to give an update about how Women for Women International is working in Afghanistan, and to demonstrate the impact of the programs in Afghan communities.
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