Thursday 13 December 2007

More depressing news about violence against women in Iraq

Mark Lattimer provides a horrific account of routine violence against women in Iraqi Kurdistan:

They lie in the Sulaimaniyah hospital morgue in Iraqi Kurdistan, set out on white-tiled slabs. A few have been shot or strangled, some beaten to death, but most have been burned. One girl, a lock of hair falling across her half-closed eyes, could almost be on the point of falling asleep. Burns have stretched the skin on another young woman's face into a fixed look of surprise.

These women are not casualties of battle. In fact, the cause of death is generally recorded as "accidental", although their bodies often lie unclaimed by their families.

"It is getting worse, especially the burnings," says Khanim Rahim Latif, the manager of Asuda, an Iraqi organisation based in Kurdistan that works to combat violence against women. "Just here in Sulaimaniyah, there were 400 cases of the burning of women last year." Lack of electricity means that every house has a plentiful supply of oil, and she accepts that some cases may be accidents. But the nature and scale of the injuries suggest that most were deliberate, she says, handing me the morgue photographs of one young woman after another. Many of the bodies bear the unmistakable signs of having been subjected to intense heat.

"In many cases the woman is accused of adultery, or of a relationship before she is married, or the marriage is not sanctioned by the family," Khanim says. Her husband, brother or another relative will kill her to restore their "honour". "If he is poor the man might be arrested; if he is important, he won't be. And in most cases, it is hidden. The body might be dumped miles away and when it is found the family says, 'We don't have a daughter.'" In other cases, disputes over such murders are resolved between families or tribes by the payment of a forfeit, or the gift of another woman. "The authorities say such agreements are necessary for social stability, to prevent revenge killings," says Khanim.

As I've said before, the fact that these 'honour' killings are happening in Kurdistan, in many ways the part of Iraq which stands the best chance of developing into a stable democracy, is profoundly depressing. Though as Lattimer notes, the situation is even worse elsewhere in the country, especially in the increasingly theocratic and Iranian-influenced south.

Lattimer's report is worth reading in full, despite his attempt to pin the blame on the US invasion and to make tendentious links between localised abuses by American soldiers and this widespread, institutionalised misogyny. He may be right that the general climate of disorder and lawlessness that followed Saddam's removal has created the conditions in which unchecked oppression of women can flourish. However, to my mind Lattimer's article, in common with many Guardian reports, seems reluctant to attach sufficient blame to the reactionary, anti-feminist politics of the Islamist militias, or to the conservative religious forces that have been allowed to flourish in the wake of Saddam's demise.

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