By Houzan Mahmoud, from the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq: What the brutal ‘honour killing’ of a girl in Iraq’s Kurdistan province shows about the country’s headlong descent into sectarian violence. Houzan Mahmoud, an Iraqi Kurd who lives in Britain, is the overseas representative of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and initiator of the Campaign against Killing and Stoning of Women in Kurdistan.
When 17-year-old Doa appealed to the men to stop their attack, she was completely ignored. Surrounded by an excited, baying crowd of dozens of mature, burly men, she was beaten to death. Slowly. Having thrown her to the ground, they surrounded her and began a barrage of stones and chunks of concrete, mostly aimed at her head, deliberate blow after deliberate blow. Periodically she was disdainfully kicked by some of her assailants. Her suffering was dragged out for half an hour, long enough for many of the killers to film her death throes on their mobile phone videocams.
Doa’s crumpled figure now adorns several websites. This horror-porn emanates from Iraq, in particular, from Iraqi Kurdistan, my own homeland and one that I believe is descending into the wider maelstrom of religious sectarianism that is tearing post-Saddam Iraq apart. And in Doa’s death, I think we can see a terrifying portent of a future Iraq increasingly eviscerated by primeval sectarian hatreds. But let us go back to poor Doa.
She was a 17-year-old girl called Doa Khalil Aswad. This teenager came from the Yezidi community in northern Iraq, one of the country’s religious minorities, an ancient Kurdish faith with strong links to Sufism and non-Islamic ancient Babylonian beliefs. Her misdemeanour, her ‘crime’, was to fall in love with a local Sunni Muslim boy. And her fate was sealed, it seems, when, one day last month she spent a night away from her family home. Rumours circulated that she had ‘converted’ to Islam and suddenly there was a witch-hunt for the couple, especially for the female now deemed guilty of a ‘crime of honour’. A Yezidi tribal leader in the town of Bashika initially sheltered the girl, but his house was stormed and in broad daylight she was dragged outside and literally stoned to death. The boy escaped and is said to be in hiding.
Kurdish websites are now buzzing with postings on Doa’s death and there are both photographs and gruesome videos of her last minutes. The videos show other spectator-participants holding their phones aloft, capturing their own trophy shots even as the girl writhes in pain in front of them.
With its echo of Abu Ghraib, the sickening insensitivity of the Bashika men’s behaviour seems to reveal something about group dynamics and torture. At first it seems hard to understand how dozens – hundreds – of people could take part in an act described by Amnesty International as ‘truly abhorrent’? Massed together and infused with a zeal to ‘cleanse’ their community, they nevertheless quickly descended into bestiality.
As Iraqi women’s groups have been reporting for years, the key factor is Iraq’s particular brand of patriarchy. While Saddam Hussein was no emancipator of women, there was at least no direct persecution of women under the Ba’ath dictatorship. His removal, however, aggravated by a despised occupation, has unleashed vile forces hell-bent on women’s subjugation.
During the last four years leaflets have been appearing all over Iraq issuing dire warnings to women against going out unveiled, putting on make-up, shaking hands or mixing with men. Dozens of women have been killed for ignoring these threats.
In the past similar threats and ‘exemplary’ killings certainly occurred. But the difference now is that the enforcers of ‘honour’ codes are heavily armed and in positions of power – either formally or informally. The Doa death video clearly shows uniformed police officers ‘keeping order’ as Doa is manhandled out of a house and brought out to be killed. Several members of her family do most of the dirty work, but the overall crowd is immense, estimated by some at a thousand people. Everything about their behaviour suggests that their actions are invested with communal ‘authority’ – permitted, even ‘required’, necessary to exert control and good order.
Obviously ‘honour killings’ are not new, either in Iraq or in numerous other places in the world. But the public dimension to Doa’s killing is. As Amnesty International again says, ‘we must fear for the future of women in Iraq’ unless ‘the authorities respond vigorously’ to Doa’s murder and other honour killings in Iraq.
Indeed latest reports are that two suspects have been detained and six other people – including two of her uncles – are being officially sought. Her body has been disinterred and sent to a laboratory in Mosul (though for what precise purpose is unclear and the fear is that this will have included a ‘virginity test’ to determine Doa’s level of ‘guilt’).
But meanwhile what about the law enforcement officials and their part in the crime? What about the cheering onlookers? And what about the killers of a busload of 23 Yezidi men gunned down on 22 April in an apparent revenge attack against Doa’s murderers, one ‘claimed’ by a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq? And, for the matter, what about the Yezidi rioters who have now been laying siege to Kurdish Democratic Party headquarters in towns around Mosul? The spiral is already many twists on from Doa’s death and the chances of real justice is already slipping further and further out of sight.
Iraq is succumbing to bloodletting and blood feuds. A new toxic mix of intolerant religion and violent misogyny is poisoning minds all over the country. The genie is indeed out of the bottle and Iraqi sectarianism is adding wayward teenagers and headstrong women to its portfolio of ‘issues’. How many more Doas must go to their deaths before we realise that post-Saddam fundamentalism in Iraq is lethal to women, and growing stronger by the day?