Harsh Reality for Many Iraqi Women

A Family Killing Raises Debate; Women's Rights Have Deteriorated in Iraq


May 10, 2007 —

In a nation seized by horrific violence, it is rare for any one killing to stand out. But the case of a recent "honor killing" in Iraq has the world's attention.

The killing of a 17-year-old girl named Doa was conducted in public by members of the victim's family as retaliation for a forbidden relationship with an outsider. Doa was a member of the Yazidi tribe, a subsection of Kurds that practice a discreet religion that forbids marrying outsiders.

The killing was captured on video by cell phone and the graphic images were soon distributed around the world through the Internet. Though revenge killing is a longtime practice in this region, this particular crime's capture on video meant that the gruesome tradition was put on international display as the United States is desperately trying to forge a stable future in Iraq.

The killing occurred a full two months before the video surfaced, and though there is now an international outcry for justice from human rights groups, including Amnesty International, the incident initially went unnoticed by authorities even though the video shows Iraqi police officers present during the killing.

Though shocking, the circumstances around Doa's death may be anything but extraordinary, and point to a larger problem the United States and Iraq faces in forging a civil society that protects human rights.

"Incidents like this are shocking when they become publicized," Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told ABC News. "One of the unfortunate realities as any human rights report can tell you is they occur far too often and that almost all of them are simply ignored and are part of everyday life, grim as that may be."

While the appalling nature of revenge killings like Doa's prompt strong reactions, Cordesman warns that sweeping efforts by outsiders to change centuries-old attitudes and practices will likely be ineffective.

"It's a brutal reality that you can pass human rights laws that are very modern, put them into a constitution, have them passed by a council of the republic in Iraq and it has almost no meaning in remote or tribal areas," he said. "In many of these areas the police don't deal with many of these issues or they will simply ignore them. You can't bring them to trial. People will give way to a tribal leader or to a conference of tribes. If there is an accepted custom in which revenge killings take place or the rights of women are ignored because tribal custom doesn't protect them, that's the reality on the ground, and it's true in Afghanistan and most of central Asia."

Justice for victims of honor crimes is rare. Iraqis often permit monetary payments to substitute for criminal prosecution. Cultural norms also allow for the perpetrators of revenge killings to mitigate the seriousness of their crimes through claims of a perceived act of dishonor by the victim.

"People guilty of so-called honor crimes get off with very, very light sentences because the fact that it was for family honor is considered a mitigating circumstance," said Beth Ann Toupin, Iraq Country Specialist for Amnesty International. "You get a year of probation or very, very light sentences."

Toupin said that human rights advocates face compound challenges in Iraq. "The justice system in Iraq , you can call it nascent at best. They have nothing really to build on. You had decades of a no functioning justice system that would meet any kind of international standards. What has been pulled together so far is a work in progress."

Berkeley anthropologist Laura Nader argues that competing value systems are complicating the situation in Iraq. "There are several justice systems operating in Iraq," she explained. "There's a tribal system of justice, customary law, there is the leftover of the amalgamation of French and Islamic law. There is military law -- occupation laws, all kinds of law."

"That's the big mistake that we make," said Nader. "We think there is a blank slate there. There is no blank slate, there is plenty of law. It's just which is more powerful than the other. Is customary law now more powerful than Islamic law, or is military law now more powerful than all the laws?"

Still, Toupin believes that even now, incremental progress toward respect for human rights in Iraq is possible.

"The problem hits us from all angles here, because you do have cultural practices that you are dealing with, and that you could deal with through a legal system but it's a legal system that is highly flawed at this point in time. It's not easy so what you do is try to chip away at it. You are not going to turn it around overnight, it's entrenched."

But in areas populated by tribal cultures, the challenges are even greater, warns Cordesman. "To suddenly insert groups into the middle of tribal areas is very different than going into the middle of developed areas that are part of the Kurdish zone where you have a much more modern structure."

Cordesman adds that even under ideal circumstances, an effort to effect change in long-held attitudes should be undertaken with patience. "I don't think we should ever assume that you get quick and sudden progress without almost constant follow-up, without educational efforts, without human rights and other groups being active in the field, and obviously in a war zone that kind of progress is almost impossible."

The widespread violence sweeping Iraq also overshadows efforts to draw attention to individual human rights violations. Michael O'Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institute, warns that dealing with honor killings will fall below several other security priorities in Iraq.

"There is obviously no way to condone this on cross-cultural or cultural sensitivity grounds. There is such a thing as a core element of morality and basic human rights that is culturally blind," he said of revenge killings.

Still, O'Hanlon points out, the reality in Iraq demands that attention will be focused elsewhere. "Iraq has problems that are much more frequently manifested than this and sheer hatred across sectarian lines and the paranoia across sectarian lines that drive people to kill, those are more common than this sort of extremism run amock."

An unchecked practice of revenge killing is only one factor among the list of threats to the welfare of Iraqi women said O'Hanlon. "Women are worse off in Iraq today than they were under Saddam. I think that they actually could be substantially worse off."

"You took a society that was probably about the most progressive in the Middle East among the major Arab states on women's rights, and you've made it into a place where there is pressure to dress conservatively, there is pressure for women not to work, there is a general sense of violence that affects everyone and therefore makes people more apt to stay inside and be more nervous about living a life where they are out and about in their community," he said. "You take all that together and I think it actually has made the life of a professionally oriented women who is apolitical a lot worse."

Nader agrees, and points to the diminished status of women in Iraq as a great irony of the U.S. invasion. "[Before the U.S. invasion] there were more women engineers at the University of Baghdad than there were at Berkeley," she said.

Nader also warns that an outside focus on human rights that humiliates local populations can have the perverse effect of actually increasing violence against women. "Law is not something you can just impose from the outside, it has to have some philosophical base," she said.

Nader fears that an out-of-context focus on Doa's murder will actually do harm. "What we do when we take cases like this and we silhouette them is we further increase the problem of anti-Arab racism that exists very deeply in this country," she explained.

"This is a classic case of how you develop positional superiority," said Nader. "We can feel superior because we don't murder women who go off with a Sunni instead of marrying a Yazidi, but then we did it with black people, we hung them publicly and it took the civil rights movement to bring that to a close, and that's very recent."

Nader also fears that human rights issues can be used as a guise to impose Western norms. "There are now a large number of social scientists that are examining the human rights field as a form of neocolonialism. It isn't that we aren't supporting human rights and the Amnesty International efforts, but they are selective and it does great harm to do that kind of selecting."

Toupin argues that Doa's death presents an opportunity to address a growing problem in Iraq. "You have such an increase in very conservative religious ideas taking hold and it has severely impacted women's lives in the country. So you are seeing a much higher incidence of honor crimes. This is not an isolated incident, what is different about it is that it was captured on video."

It was the grainy cell phone video which captured Doa's excruciating final moments that brought international attention to her murder.

"It is so easy to look away," said Toupin. "It can be very important to have these images and for people to make themselves watch them, because it seems that such things aren't necessarily real to a lot of people.

Toupin continued, "It's an awful thing to watch and it's terrible but hopefully the seeing of it spurs people to action. If nothing else you try to take this moment to try to motivate people to act. International pressure to make change can work."