Campaign to save Iraqi women

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Campaign to save Iraqi women

By Lisa Macdonald

Zarian was murdered in 1997 by her male relatives for marrying the man she loved without her father's permission. In 1997, Kazhal Kheder's male relatives cut off her nose; they had wanted to kill her but she was pregnant and local clergy ordered that the execution wait until after she gave birth. In 1995, Deldar was killed by her husband when she demanded alimony after he decided to marry another woman.

Ghonchech was killed by her brother in 1994 because she agreed with her daughter's decision to marry the man she loved. Delkash was murdered in 1998 by her neighbour, whom she had refused to marry. Seyran was killed by her cousin in 1997 because he disliked her working outside the home. Ayesheh was murdered in her home in 1991 for being an activist in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Around 5000 women have been murdered in Iraqi Kurdistan in similar circumstances since 1991 alone. They, the countless others who have been imprisoned, beaten and tortured by their male relatives and reactionary organisations, and those who have burned themselves to escape such a fate, are victims of the 1400-year-old Islamic laws that are still enforced in Iraq.

Under Iraqi penal law, it is not a crime to murder women who cause a "scandal". If a woman goes out at night without her father's permission, he is entitled to kill her, provided he has informed the police of what she did.

The law also states that a man may kill his sister for becoming pregnant before marriage, even if she subsequently marries her lover, because she brought dishonour on the family. A man who kills his female cousin for running away from home, thereby scandalising her family, is also considered innocent.

Under law no. 660, if witnesses attest that a woman who has been murdered had behaved "badly" and this was the reason for her murder, the murder is regarded as having been committed for the sake of honour and is not a crime. This is so even if the murder occurs years after the woman's supposed scandalous behaviour.

Speaking out

The Committee in Defence of Iraqi Women's Rights (CDIWR) campaigns to publicise these barbaric laws, and have them abolished. Layla Muhommed, a member of the Sydney-based CDIWR in Australia and a representative of the Middle East Centre for Women's Studies, told Green Left Weekly that the laws have been strengthened in the last decade.

The laws are some of the tools, Muhommed said, used by the Saddam Hussein dictatorship to subdue and control the population. "They use them to tell women: 'This is your fate, you can never change this fate, don't struggle'. That way they only have to watch the other half of the people", she said.

According to Muhommed, the overwhelming majority of women, and many men, oppose the laws. "They want real civil society, education, services", she said.

Rizan Nadir, secretary of the CDIWR in Australia, who also spoke to Green Left Weekly, pointed out that even in Australia and other countries, Islamic laws are used to control women and girls who have left Iraq. "One of our campaigns in Australia, and a demand we are making on International Women's Day (IWD) this year, is that girl children not be made to wear the veil", she said.

Last year, the Independent Organisation for Women (IOW) in Iraqi Kurdistan, which the CDIWR works closely with, organised a rally of 10,000 women and men on IWD, March 8, to demand that the anti-women laws be repealed and women be allowed to control their lives.

The rally forced the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which, along with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, rules Iraqi Kurdistan into promising to change the laws. However, under the pressure of reactionary Islamic forces, the PUK has since used numerous excuses to avoid acting on its promise.

A statement and a petition calling on the Iraqi government and all national parties to support the repeal of the laws is being circulated within Kurdistan and around the world through CDIWR branches.

Women's shelter

In August 1998, the IOW in Iraqi Kurdistan opened a women's shelter in the city of Sulaymaniyah. It is the only one of its kind in the Middle East, and is under constant threat. The shelter has so far saved from death, torture or abuse 74 women and their children. Kazhal Kheder is one of those women who are alive today only because IOW members found her in hospital and took her to the shelter.

Sulaymaniyah was chosen because it is a large city accessible to many women and it is where the IOW has its strongest support base. The Worker Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI), which also is strong in Sulaymaniyah, guards the shelter with arms, helps to raise funds so the shelter can stay open and helps rescue women from violent domestic situations or from jail to take them to the shelter.

The shelter is used by women from all over Iraq and while its location must be kept secret for fear of attack, its existence is publicised through word of mouth and the IOW's newspaper and radio programs.

The threat of attack is real. In 1998, the IOW office was bombed by a fundamentalists. The only political party in Iraq that supports the existence of the shelter is the WCPI. The IOW can continue operating only because the public rallies and protests it has organised have forced the government in Iraqi Kurdistan to stop the threats and attacks on IOW buildings and activists.

Nadir told Green Left Weekly that the shelter has a lawyer and can mediate between women and their families. In situations where the family will not guarantee the woman's safety, the IOW tries to raise money so the woman can leave the country and gain refugee status from the United Nations. Many women who return to their families stay in touch with IOW.

Muhommed and Nadir say they will not stop campaigning "until we get the laws changed". The CDIWR is appealing to all people who support human rights and women's right not to be murdered or abused to support the campaign for modern and progressive laws in Iraq by signing and distributing widely the CDIWR's statement and petition. Copies can be obtained from the CDIWR in Australia, PO Box 3051, Parramatta NSW 2124, by faxing (02) 9635 6783, or phoning 0414 332 559.

If you can help with a donation, however small, to help keep the shelter operating, contact the committee or make a direct deposit into the CDIWR account at any Westpac Bank, account number 032 23112 2669.

More information about the situation of women in Iraqi Kurdistan and the work of the IOW. A booklet is available from the CDIWR for $5 plus a 95 cent stamp.