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Marked Women: A Rash of Unpunished Honor Killings Highlights the Harrowing Dangers Females Face in the New Iraq

Originally published in:
Time Magazine

Vivienne Walk/Baghdad

Shaima is running for her life. Her delicate face peeks out of a black head scarf as she nervously scans the sidewalk outside a Baghdad cafe. A 24-year-old prostitute, Shaima (not her real name) lives in fear of a man who is determined to kill her. The tormentor is her younger brother, who has been delegated by his parents to murder his sister and reclaim the family's honor.

He has already come close. Last month the brother spotted Shaima walking in the sprawling outdoor market in east Baghdad. He lunged at his sister with a knife, but she fled toward a policeman standing nearby. Shaima's brother explained to the officer that he was carrying out the family's desire to "cleanse" the shame over Shaima's profession. "Any other policeman would have turned me over to him," says Shaima. "For some reason, he shielded me." Her eyes darting around the cafe, Shaima says she does not expect to be so lucky the next time. "My brother's still out there - hunting me."

When U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein 15 months ago, the Bush Administration proclaimed that women's rights would be a centerpiece of its project to make Iraq a democratic model for the rest of the Arab world. But for many Iraqi women, the tyranny of Saddam's regime has been replaced by chronic violence and growing religious conservatism that have stifled their hopes for wider freedoms - and, for many, put their lives in even greater peril. For women like Shaima, the most terrifying development has been the rash of honor killings committed by Iraqi men against sisters, wives, daughters or mothers whom they suspect of straying from traditional rules of chastity and fidelity. Although such killings are hard to quantify and occurred during Saddam's regime as well, Iraqi professionals believe that women are now being murdered by their kin at an unprecedented rate. On the basis of case reports provided by police, court officials and doctors at
Baghdad's forensics institute, the number of victims of honor killings in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 may total in the hundreds. (By comparison, in neighboring Jordan, where women's-rights advocates have succeeded in bringing attention to the issue, activists report an average of h20 honor killings a year.) "This isn't just an issue about women. It's about the whole society," says Safia al-Souhail, a female Iraqi politician who was appointed ambassador to Egypt last week. "We have to stop it. It's going on everywhere, and no one is speaking about it."

The rise in honor killings comes amid ongoing violence, including four car bombs last week that killed at least 28 Iraqis. The instability that has plagued Iraq since the war's end 15 months ago has curtailed the spread of liberties that U.S. officials once promised would have taken root by now. Violent crime remains rampant. And while interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi last week vowed to "annihilate" the armed insurgents, few Iraqis expect relief from the dangers that have become part of daily life.

Women are at the greatest risk. Many have become virtual prisoners inside their houses, seeking a safe haven amid rising rates of rape, kidnapping and carjacking. At the same time, as the power of Iraq's Muslim clerics has grown, the everyday freedoms that Iraqi women enjoyed under Saddam's secular Baathist regime have eroded. Women who once felt free to dress in Western clothing and shop alone now must wear a hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf, when venturing outside. Many government offices require female employees to wear a veil at work. "Since the war, women feel they cannot go anywhere without it," says Jacqueline Zia, 30, who runs a hair salon in Baghdad. The perils of being out after dark have forced Zia to eliminate the salon's evening hours, which for years provided women with a social outing away from their husbands.

The deadliest threats often come from their own families. Reliable statistics on honor killings are nonexistent; as in other countries in the Middle East where the tradition is tolerated, such as Egypt and Morocco, honor killings are largely treated as private family matters in Iraq. In conservative tribal communities, women who lose their virginity before marriage or who have an extramarital affair are sometimes murdered by family members seeking to avoid the shame and social isolation that the clan is subject to if one of its female members has sex outside marriage. Under Saddam's laws, which are still in place, men convicted of honor killings can receive up to three years in jail. But because the crime is rarely reported, few are actually prosecuted. And since there is widespread sympathy for the killers among police and judges, those who are convicted rarely serve more than a few months.

The secrecy surrounding honor killings often begins in the virginity-testing room in Baghdad's forensics institute, where a woman's fate can be sealed. Typically brought in by suspicious family members, a woman lies face up on a bed fitted with stirrups and is examined by three male doctors, according to Iraq's legal requirements for such tests. The findings are then written down and may be critical to proving an honor-killing case later on. Pathologist Hassan Faisal al-Malaki, one of three doctors at the lab, says he currently tests about 10 women a week, up slightly from before March's invasion. Al-Malaki says the increase is due in part to parents' fears that racy television shows and Internet sites outlawed under Saddam but now freely available are influencing teens' sexual behavior. "Boys are much more oriented toward sex today," says al-Malaki, who says girls sometimes arrive at his office in terror, knowing that the results of the test could lead to their death.

Last November, Qadisiyah Misad, 16, ran away from her family's home on the outskirts of Baghdad. Within days, one of her brothers and a cousin tracked her down on a city street and hauled her back home. According to Essam Wafik al-Jadr, the judge who prosecuted the case, one of Misad's brothers cornered his teenage sister in the living room; he then drew a pistol and shot several bullets into her. "The parents requested that the brothers kill her," says al-Jadr, who learned of the killing when Misad's body turned up in Baghdad's city morgue. He decided to prosecute the brother for an honor killing. The punishment hardly fit the crime: Misad's brother received a year in jail, and al-Jadr is not even certain he is still incarcerated, since he was eligible for parole within a few months of his conviction.

Most perpetrators face even milder retribution. Al-Jadr's court in southwest Baghdad has tried at least 10 men since January for killing women in their family. But most of the killers are not called to account. In many cases, the women's parents do not want the men prosecuted, viewing their daughters' death as unavoidable. Even when investigators find evidence of a murder, they often fail to persuade family members to cooperate. Last month a Baghdad coroner reported the death of Mouna Adnan Habib, 32, a mother of two, who had been delivered to the city morgue with five bullets in her chest. Habib's left hand had been cut off ^Ë a practice common in honor killings, in which men amputate the woman's left hand or index finger to display as proof to tribal leaders and relatives that the deed has been done. In Habib's case, relatives suspected her of having an affair. "They saw her talking to a man a few times," said al Jadr, whose staff investigated the case. Local police have told al-Jadr that they believe Habib was killed by her nephew rather than her husband but that they cannot find the man, who they say has not since returned to the family house.

Some believe the breakdown in law and order has contributed to the spike in honor killings. An unintended consequence of Saddam's fall is that there are fewer restraints on violent young men bent on taking matters into their own hands. Last September, Ali Jasib Mushiji, 17, shot his mother and half brother because he suspected them of having an affair and killed his 4-year-old sister because he thought she was their child. Sitting in a jail cell in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, he says he wiped out his family to cleanse its shame. He had thought about killing his mother for some time but says it wasn't until the fall of Saddam that he was able to buy a Kalashnikov and carry it out. "With the security before, it wasn't possible," he says.

Activists seeking stiffer punishments face bitter opposition from religious and tribal leaders. Like many other professional women, Julanar al-Zubaidi, a Baghdad schoolteacher and mother of four, fears that the state of women's rights could get even worse if Iraqis elect a government dominated by religious hard-liners. "The current government we can live with," she says. "We're very worried about what comes next." Those anxieties are spurring a few activists to venture into the political arena; the only chance they have to eliminate honor-killing laws, they say, is to flood political parties with women who can win positions in the government and fight from the inside. "Nothing will change unless we get elected," says al-Souhail, who has emerged as a leading women's-rights campaigner. "It's going to be a big fight because no one in Iraq declares it a crime."

The persecuted women do have a few places to turn. The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, a project run by Iraq's Workers' Communist Party, is hiding three women in a safe house hundreds of miles from their families. One of them is a 16-year-old girl named Rana who was raped by her neighbor last April in the city of Nasiriyah. When her family discovered what had happened, her brothers decided to kill her, since she was no longer a virgin. A cousin who was aware of the plan took Rana to a nearby Italian military base; she was later moved to Baghdad and finally to a secret location farther north. Having fled her family, she is unlikely ever to return home. "We hope to get a written guarantee from her parents that she will not be killed," says Zemnakow Aziz, a Workers' Communist Party official. "Even then we cannot be sure they will stick to it." Ultimately, Aziz says, he will try to find an Iraqi family abroad to take her in.

Shaima, the Baghdad prostitute, still hopes she can one day go home, perhaps when her father dies. "My mother might take me back then," she says. She first left her family at age 19, after her parents forbade her to marry her neighbor, with whom she had fallen in love. Five years later, Shaima still waits for a reconciliation that will come only when the country decides to value her life as much as her family's honor.

With reporting by Brian Bennett/Washington and Scott Macleod/Cairo