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.”
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