Wednesday, 09 April 2008, 03:25 GMT
One year since Du'a

Women demonstrators from local NGOs are protesting in front of Kurdistan parliament against honor-killing. GLOBE PHOTO

The Globe- Erbil
By Eleni Fergadi

Has anything changed since the murder of young Du'a Khalil?

On April 7, we remember the brutal murder of Du'a Khalil. The only thing is that the cost of raising one's voice is too high a price to pay, and this is something the Kurds themselves know all too well.

So-called "honor killings" take place every day around the world. From South Asia to the Middle East and Europe, women are being attacked, beaten, driven to suicide, and murdered in the name of family honor. Numbers are not clear since many cases go unreported and statistics are unreliable; however, in the last UN human rights report (March 15, 2008) in Iraqi Kurdistan, women have died "typically by burning, to protest spousal abuse or after disputes with family members, while others were found shot dead." The report also draws our attention to the practice of female genital mutilation (commonly known as female circumcision) and notes the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) efforts in the area of violence against women, mentioning the '07 establishment of a new department addressing such issues.

Some have attempted to correlate so-called "honor-killings" with ethnicity and/or religious affiliation. Some argue that these acts are a practice found only in Muslim societies and that this can be "explained" by referring to the Koranic verses legitimizing violence against women. For instance, we are informed that attempts by Islamic scholars to interpret verse 4:34 ("Men are responsible for women. Virtuous women obey. Admonish those of them whose part you apprehend disobedience and keep them out of your bed and beat them.") have not been effective in dissolving whatever ambiguity may exist. However, on the other hand it has been argued that "honor" is a notion originating from tribal customs dating back to the pre-Islamic era, which helped form both Western and Islamic family law (see R.A. Ruane, Comment, Murder in the Name of Honor: Violence Against Women in Jordan and Pakistan 14 EMORY INT'L L. REV. 1523, 1533 (2000)). Along the same wavelength, Dr. Sharif Kanaana, a professor of anthropology at Birzeit University, is being quoted in several sources saying: "What the men of the family, clan, or tribe seek control in a patrilineal society is reproductive power. Women for the tribe were considered a factory for making men. The honor killing is not a means to control sexual power or behavior. What's behind it is the issue of fertility, or reproductive power." (Middle East Report; Commodify Honor in Female Sexuality: Honor Killings in Palestine)

Professors Sharzad Mojab and Amir Hassanpour, who have extensively researched and published on the subject of so-called "honor-killings" in Kurdish society, talk of the culture of patriarchy and misogynism "readily present in folklore, language, literature...in a word, the "lived experience" of individuals," and stress that these cultural traits are "similar, if not the same as, the Western, Christian, patriarchal" cultural traits that have led to the blowing up of abortion clinics and the assassination of doctors who perform them. According to them, Kurdish nationalism, the legal systems of Middle Eastern states within which Kurdish communities exist, the policy of "respect for cultural differences" by European states that host many Kurds, as well as the academic environment of social theorists who, out of fear of "being labeled racist, Orientalist, or neocolonialist, prefer silence...and when they have to talk about honor killing, they reduce the institutionalized crime to a 'practice' that has little to do with culture, Islam, or the exercise of male power," factors that contribute to the reproduction of the crime. (In Memory of Fadime Şahindal: Thoughts on the Struggle Against "Honor Killing," 2002)

Professor Mojab recognizes the dire conditions and dangerous risks women who participate in relevant NGO's within Iraqi Kurdistan have to face; however, she has openly criticized the nature of these organizations, which are "controlled and run in the same way as any classical administrative office." For her, the processes of bureaucratization, professionalization, and institutionalization prevent women's movements from turning into true social movements.

A year since Du'a

The story of Du'a was a "standard" example of how family "honor" is turned into an acceptable reason for committing murder. Du'a, belonging to the Yazidi sect, was spotted with a Muslim boy; after a series of interventions from family elders she was dragged and beaten to death by a cheerfully cursing group with the police silently watching the whole affair unfold. After her death last year I inquired about the reasons behind this lynching and I was told by several people that, in this case, as in others within the Yazidi sect, it was more of a political rather than a "family" matter; however, no one was prepared to go further or speak on the record about it.

It is clear that after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq has risen as a response not only to the power vacuum but also due to the post-9/11 discourse of fear that has overtly demonized Islam. While, as in the words of Slavoj Zizek "...'terror' is...gradually elevated into the hidden universal equivalent of all social evils," this does not really explain the practice that one way or another and at a closer and more careful look finds a great extent of supporters among the Kurds. It is indicative that whenever I have discussed the issue with Kurds of either Turkey or Iraq, while they are against killing "in the name of honor," they do recognize the importance of honor and would rather "solve the problem" by either marriage or sending the girl away. But this apparent "choice" in the eyes of the family is like what Zizek says when he talks about the "choice" between "democracy or fundamentalism," a forced choice where "you're free to decide, on condition that you make the right choice." And he continues: "What is problematic in the way the ruling ideology imposes the choice on us is not 'fundamentalism' but, rather, democracy itself; as if the only alternative to 'fundamentalism' is the political system of liberal democracy." (Welcome to the Desert of the Real, p. 111, 3) As if the only alternative to so-called "honor-killing" is the systematic denial of women as people with a voice, with desires and aspirations, with a brain, whose decisions may go against what the family, the tribe or clan, the nation considers as the "right" or the "proper" thing to do. The only thing is that the cost of standing in front of a woman to be killed in the name of "honor" is too high to be paid, and this is something women themselves know all too well.

Du'a's case, however, is distinct in that it belongs to a new trend of digitalized, movie-like, almost unreal events that feed the voyeuristic instincts of the peoples of the 21st century and in particular the Westerners' gaze. But more worryingly, it is toward the West that local and international non-governmental organizations, petitions, and women's rights associations mainly address issues such as Du'a's lynching, looking for support, and awaiting a statement of condemnation for such practices. But one has to always bear in mind that this is the same West that has its particular interpretation and application of democracy, its own understanding of what women's rights is all about, its very own fictional reality. But this is hardly the way to do justice to the century-old presence of Middle Eastern women in press, in advocating women's rights, in writing and in poetry as Dr. Mojab informs us.

In the wake of fresh attempts to change Article 111 of the Iraqi penal code, which allows for a three-year reduced sentence in cases where "dishonor" is established as a motive, so as to treat these kind of killings as "pure" crimes, it is clear that apart from some 70 MP's led by the Minister for Women's Affairs, Narmin Othman, the main political actors oppose any change to the legal system. The Iraqi Crisis Report dated March 28 informs us that both the Shia United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and Sunni-led Iraqi Accord Front (IAF) parties have opposed any attempts to change the relevant law with MP Qais al-Ameri, member of the UIA, arguing that "illicit sex is the most dangerous thing in a society, and there should be severe punishments against those who practice it."

A bit of return to the real "reality" is much needed.