Alarming Increase in ‘Honor Killing’ of Kurdish and Iraqi Women

An increasing number of women are being murdered in the Iraqi Kurdistan region in the name of "honor,” as local authorities fail to pass and enforce laws against these crimes, and social norms allow those responsible to avoid accountability.

Killing women on the basis of honor is deeply rooted in the tribal and religious mentalities of Kurdish and Iraqi societies, and even within Kurdish and Iraqi communities living in diaspora. Due to the recent surge in these cases, the prospect of eradicating the issue in the near future appears bleak.

This sentiment is captured in the striking opening to Kurdish-Iranian writer Ata Nahai’s award-wining novel, "Bet on Halala’s Luck,” as it reads: "It is your fate Halala, that a dagger chase you beyond the mountains and several frontiers, until it digs deep into your breast, here in the Swedish capital of Stockholm.”

The dagger in the novel is a symbol of tribal thinking that consequently leads to the tragic killing of the protagonist, Halala, a Kurdish girl who escapes Kurdistan’s civil unrest to find a new life in Sweden, and marries a former Kurdish fighter. But she ends up being murdered by her husband in a so-called honor killing crime, even after the two legally separate.

Official statistics show a sharp rise in killing women in the name of "clearing dishonor,” or forcing women to commit suicide. In 2018, 46 women were killed in this manner, and 50 in 2017.

According to statistics by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Directorate of Combatting Violence Against Women, 120 women were killed in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) in 2019. Official statistics show a sharp rise in killing women in the name of "clearing dishonor,” or forcing women to commit suicide. In 2018, 46 women were killed in this manner, and in 2017 the number was 50.

On November 20, the body of a 26-year-old Kurdish woman was found hanging in her own home in Kalar town, 140 km southeast of Sulaimaniyah governorate. According to police, the woman had problems with her husband, and their divorce case was underway. Four people, including the woman’s three brothers were arrested. The three brothers confessed to hanging their sister and are now facing murder charges under paragraph 406 of the Iraqi Penal Code.

Two young sisters were also killed by their father in the town of Chamchamal, west of Sulaimaniyah, on September 9, in the name of honor-saving issues.

Lately, the Kurdish authorities have decided not to provide any statistics of violence against women to the local and international media, claiming their decision is meant to avoid the release of inaccurate statistics. Instead, they will issue a report combining data from other legal sources at the end of each year going forward.

The situation in Iraq is worse even as it is difficult to have a precise number of honor killing victims since the police do not interfere in such cases and often record them as suicide.

"While the scale of honor killings is unknown due to severe underreporting, the latest estimate indicates that several hundreds of girls and women become victims of honor killings in Iraq each year,” reads the report presented to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in the summer of 2018. "Iraq lacks proper legislation to prevent and punish honor killings. Article 409 of the Penal Code permits ‘honor’ as mitigation for crimes of violence committed against family members. In that connection, while sexual assault is criminalized, article 398 of the Penal Code provides that charges may be dropped if the assailant marries the victim.”

The increased use of social media platforms by Iraqi women during the Covid-19 lockdown measures, amid strict tribal rules and legal flaws, are seen as the main factors behind the spike in gender-based violence (GBV), including honor killings, across Iraq.

Iraq currently lacks a law against domestic violence, as efforts by Iraq’s parliament to pass a draft law have not made headway so far.

Iraq currently lacks a law against domestic violence, as efforts by Iraq’s parliament to pass a draft law have not made headway so far.

A Human Rights Watch report in April urged Iraqi lawmakers to accelerate passing the law, after the death of a 20-year-old woman in the holy city of Najaf – likely at the hands of her husband – shocked the Iraqi people.

Although the Kurdistan parliament passed the Act of Combating Domestic Violence in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (Code No. 8 of 2011), honor-based crimes against women and girls are increasing annually. This has raised questions regarding the effectiveness of issuing similar laws in Iraq, especially as enforcement of such laws lags and most cases of honor killings are left for the powerful clan leaders to settle among feuding families.

Moreover, most women are afraid to take legal action against their husbands or family members, who in turn will likely threaten to kill them; they believe that seeking justice might only fuel the anger of assailants and eventually lead to their death.

KRG shelters take in many women whose lives are under threat. Yet, the shelters cannot protect women forever, and there is a strong chance they could be killed by their relatives once they leave. Indeed, the woman who was killed in Kalar and the two sisters from Chamchamal, were living in shelters before they were murdered.

In the mentality of most Iraqi and Kurdish clans, there is a notion that when a woman falls in love with a man or has an intimate relationship outside of marriage, both the woman and the man should be killed in order to "cleanse” the honor of their respective families.

Most cases of honor killing are linked with adultery or Zina— the penalty for which, according to the Islamic Sharia law, is death by stoning.

Some 97 percent of Iraq’s population is Muslim, and most cases of honor killing are linked with adultery or Zina— the penalty for which, according to the Islamic Sharia law, is death by stoning.

Article 409 of the Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 (1969) remains in effect in Iraq and is often used to justify cases of "honor killings” by men.

"Any person who [catches] his wife in the act of adultery or finds his girlfriend in bed with her lover and kills them immediately . . . or assaults one of them so that he or she dies or is left permanently disabled is punishable by a period of detention not exceeding three years,” reads the article. "It is not permissible to exercise the right of legal defense against any person who uses this excuse nor do the rules of aggravating circumstance apply against him.”

"The main reason behind the increasing number of women killed in the name of honor is that men in our society think they own women entirely, in every aspect,” Twana A. Hassan, Research Fellow at the American University of Iraq, told Inside Arabia during a conference on Gender-Based Violence held in Sulaimaniyah city on December 3.

The alarming levels of violence against women and honor killings in the Kurdistan region and Iraq in general point to a need for not only stronger legislation against gender-based crimes but also stronger enforcement and punishment, as well as widespread education and awareness. As of now, the increasingly dire situation reveals local authorities’ failure to enforce existing laws on perpetrators of these heinous acts and the utter government disregard of Iraqi women’s most basic of human rights: the right to life.