May 17, 2007
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Killing in the name of honour: patriarchal community, power and politics in Kurdistan - By Dr. Choman Hardi

The devices of patriarchy

Honour Killing is a tribal practice which has its roots in patriarchy. Some anthropologists believe that the patriarchal system started with the agrarian era. When men, in order to survive, had to make a piece of land their own and plant it, women too became one of the things they claimed ownership over. Later, through the creation of norms and rules they managed to control women’s body, freedom and volitions. In patriarchal societies it is men who decide on the values and norms which need to be observed by everyone. They decide on what is right and wrong and whether or not an action deserves punishment. These norms are usually to the advantage of men. In the tribal Kurdish society, for example, common practices such as ‘exchange of brides’, forced marriage, dowry, polygamy and ‘exchanging a young one for an old one’ benefit men and treat women as commodity.

Traditionally, many laws have been used to further men’s interest and limit women’s freedom. For example, the Honour Killing law, which was practiced in Kurdistan till 2001 and is still being practiced in Iraq and other countries, increases men’s power and is used to control women. According to this law men who kill female relatives to preserve the honour of the family or tribe are given a reduced sentence. Over the years many men have taken advantage of this law to kill women. More recently, in the current Iraqi constitution women cannot travel without obtaining permission from a male member of their families. Polygamy continues to be legally accepted and socially sanctioned in Iraq. Although in Kurdistan polygamy has become legally restricted (only if the first wife agrees, if she cannot have children or if she is ill) it goes on being practiced. Most women do not dare to file a complaint against their husbands either because they are financially dependent on them or they fear them.

Religion is another tool which is the product of patriarchy. In order to control women and the world around them men not only used their own interpretations and law making abilities but they also resorted to a just God who is the ultimate creator. Obviously, it is easier for women to be sceptical of laws created by men but once they believe that a law has been imposed from above, by the single and all knowing God, it is more difficult to ask questions and doubt. Probably an example that shows how religions further men’s interest is the story of creation which has entered our culture through the monotheist religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). God created Adam first and when he got bored and lonely God created Eve for his sake and from his left rib (according to Al-Bukhari). In other words if Adam is the original example of a human being Eve is only a copy of this being who was created for his sake. This story portrays women as beings responsible for making men happy. Later, when Adam and Eve were in Eden, it was Eve who plucked the forbidden fruit and gave it to Adam and they ate it together. Eve is guilty of disobedience and of seducing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit as a result of which they are evicted from Eden. This is probably one of man’s most basic efforts to portray women as secondary beings (created after Adam and for his sake), guilty beings (who break the law and pluck the forbidden fruit), and seductive beings (she manages to convince Adam to eat the apple). From then on men have tried to limit the freedom and power of this seductive and guilty being. According to Islamic law two women witnesses are equal to one witness in court, a woman is entitled to half a share of her father’s wealth compared to her brothers and women are expected to accept sharing their husbands with up to three other women. These laws not only limit women’s freedom, opportunity and wealth but they also have the social consequence of making women seem untrustworthy and less worthy than men.

Increased violence against women in Kurdistan

According to statistics and research carried out by women’s organisations in Iraqi Kurdistan, Honour Killing has increased since 1991. This is not surprising considering the social, political and economic situation of the region throughout these years. Throughout the 1980s and during Iraq’s war with Iran the Iraqi government took advantage of the Kurdish men who did not want to go the battlefields and deserted the army. The regime armed the tribal chieftains (that did not play a major role in the Kurdish society anymore) and took advantage of them as commanders of National Defence Battalions (commonly known as jash). They led armed tribal men and became rich and powerful. The armed tribes acted as mercenaries for the government and were used against the peshmarga forces (Kurdish guerrilla fighters) and the civilian Kurdish population. In this way the government succeeded in reviving tribalism in the Kurdish community.

Kurdistan’s 1991 popular uprising was in some ways only possible through the support of jash forces. The Kurdish parties (who were based in Iran since the Anfal campaign in 1988) made contact with the jash leaders and sought their support for the uprising. In return they promised them an amnesty for their cooperation with the Baath government and for taking part in the genocide campaign of 1988. The jash took part in the uprising and were officially pardoned and granted immunity by the Kurdish parliament in 1992. From this day on the jash leaders became allies of the Kurdish parties and entered Kurdish politics. Each tribe aligned themselves with one party and in this way secured political support and protection. In the early 1990s when the Iraqi government imposed sanctions on the Kurdish region alongside the UN sanctions on Iraq, the economic situation of the region deteriorated rapidly. This historical period came after the destruction of the rural economy (more than 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed by 1988) and the killing of most males farmers (about 100,000 villagers were killed during the Anfal campaign). These factors contributed to the onset of abject poverty for the people in the region.

On the other hand, decades of political violence by the Iraqi state had its echoes in the community. On top of extensive use of chemical attacks, destroying villages and killing its civilians, the Iraqi government through the use of imprisonment, torture, widespread surveillance and public executions in the main cities had made political violence part of everyday life. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war the Iraqi TV stations broadcast a programme called, Swar min Al-Maaraka (Images from the battlefield) which proudly showed images of the broken and mutilated bodies of Iranian soldiers as a symbol of bravery and success. In this sense cruelty in Iraq was normalised and the society was brutalised. Similarly in the 1991 popular uprising, the Kurds showed no mercy when killing members of the Iraqi security and intelligence offices. These people were not only killed but parts of their bodies, such as ears, fingers and penises, were cut and they were exhibited on the streets and in the main squares for days. This should have been a warning signal to tell us that the new community which was just beginning was going to be as brutal and merciless as the one it was replacing.

In the 1990s the Kurdish parties that had no experience of democratic co-existence started competing for resources and territory. Each of them wanted to attract more members. This may be the reason why they did not want to upset the large tribes. In these years the powerful armed tribes had a free rein without a united government that could control them. If one party challenged them the other would happily take them in. This is why none of the political parties tried to impose limits on their authority. Obviously in a brutalised society, which has regressed back to tribalism, where there are many armed men and no accountable government women are one of the main groups that are victimised. Later, civil war and terrorism further destabilised the region and contributed to the continuation of the circle of violence. Important concerns such as women’s issues and helping the Anfal survivors took a back seat in the minds of Kurdish politicians.

We know that two World Wars in Europe and the killing of many men meant that increasing numbers of women contributed to the work force. In the long run this helped women secure more rights. While in Kurdistan despite the fact that women took advantage of the post-uprisings freedom and became active in many fields the results have not been as good as expected. It is true that the majority of the women’s organisations were initially politically orientated and because of this they could not work together or criticise the government of their own party but in the last years cooperation has taken place and there are independent women’s organisations and individuals who have done a lot of good work. I believe the main reason why the achievements have not been according to expectation is the political and social upheaval in the region during this period. If we compare the situation in Kurdistan after the first gulf war to the situation of Europe after the World Wars we will see that in most European countries the security situation was soon brought under control, peace was restored, the government was in charge and law was enforced. In this sense people were able to get on with their work and take part in the reconstruction and development of their communities. On the contrary in Kurdistan war and turmoil carried on, the tribes were always more powerful than women’s organisations and there was no united Kurdish government that women could rely on (even to change the Honour Killing law women had to convince both the PUK and the KDP governments). Throughout these years law was not enforced to defend women and the Kurdish politicians had other priorities.

The mechanisms that contribute to the continuation of violence against women

There are many dimensions to this and here I will try to mention the main ones:

First: Although the law regarding Honour Killing was changed, the new law is not unanimously practiced. Generally speaking only men who do not have strong tribal and political backing are investigated and imprisoned. Unless men know that killing women is a taxing and punishable offence they would not stop repeating this crime. The law must be imposed without exceptions and everyone must realise that they cannot get away with this easily.

Second: Changing two laws regarding honour crimes and polygamy is not enough to solve women’s problems in Kurdistan. The government must have a comprehensive plan to defend and support abused and threatened women. Do’a for example is reportedly taken to the KDP office in Bashiqa and after one hour she is given back to her community because a spokesman told Hawlati: ‘We thought the problem was not too big and they can solve it themselves.’ In other words the government still believes in tribal resolution for such conflicts which experience tells us ends with women being murdered. In this system threatened women rely on the few shelters run by women’s organisations which are prison-like and unsafe. Kurdistan Regional Government must provide secure shelters, financial support, safe housing and the right of protection to women who are threatened. So far the government has no plan for women who have escaped death and end up in women’s shelters. How long will these women stay in these shelters? What will happen to them if they leave? How will they start a new life? Who will protect them?

Third: The common norms and culture of the society victimise women. From childhood girls’ bodies are associated with shame and honour. Little girls are continuously told to sit properly and cover their legs. They are taught to clean after their fathers and brothers. Little boys are taught that females should be at their service. Lack of public awareness and disregarding equality play an important role in this process. A dreadful aspect of Doa’s killing is the presence of so many witnesses and bystanders who do nothing to protect her or at least to object to this brutality. This is an example of lack of public consciousness and disrespect for life and death. If a society reaches a stage where violence, brutality and murder are considered wrong and abnormal it would be very difficult to imagine how a girl like Do’a can be smothered for 30 minutes by so many men without anyone protesting.

Fourth: An education system that is not committed to equality. Children are not taught to accept difference and respect people’s freedom and space. Boys are not taught to treat girls as equals. Unless democracy, autonomy and equality are embodies in the education system the children will not be different from today’s adults.

Working on domestic violence and Honour Killing requires the government to work in all the mentioned directions. A holistic approach is necessary to solve these problems. Despite what people think in Kurdistan this is not in the scope of women’s organisations. The government should listen to women’s organisations and pay attention to their achievements and learn from them. These organisations work in the community and are aware of the obstacles to progress and the complexity of the problems. They need government support to succeed in their work. It is the government that by changing sexist laws, practicing the laws without exception, creating a comprehensive programme of support for threatened women, raising public awareness and changing the education system can achieve change.


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TK MyersTue, 05 Jun 2007 17:59:47

I think these countries need to get with the times and follow moral practices liek other normal countries around the world. The incident that happend recently with the teenage girl who loved someone from a  different religion and was stoned to death is appalling and disgraceful those men should feel sick and ashamed for what they did and to carry on with every day life knowing they attacked this poor
innocent girl for doing nothing wrong but following what her heart  felt.... SHAME SHAME SHAME.... change the laws women deserve respect stop being vultures and sadistic animals stop killing innocent women for nothing for idiotic reasons this world is insane..


Delia PedersonFri, 01 Jun 2007 08:14:36

until the video of that poor girl, I did not know about Yazidi's. I have had some sympathy for Kurds because of the atrocities commited upon them and apparently, the Yazidi's make up a small portion of that community, however, I believe the Kurdish community and the world must take a stand against this atrocity.

This is the 21st century!!! Why oh why must this woman hating religious lunacy continue!! I am crying as I write this because my hope for humanity is being lost. Religion should be a source of hope and love and goodwill. When this political and sexist hatred gets mixed up with what for the most part is ingrained superstition and fear (and I mean all organized fundamentalist religions) religion is destroyed,spirituality is destroyed,  women are destroyed and men are filled with violent hatred that just increases.

I will pray (in my own private, secular way) for this poor child, that she went into shock and didn't feel the pain, though I know that is probably not the case. I am sure she felt every blow, to her body and her soul. I will pray that the hatred that filled the hearts of these men and the millions of more around the world who feel the same way, will be dissolved and replaced with compassion and empathy. I will pray for the part of human nature that calls out for revenge be replaced with control. I will pray that there is some justice on earth and that those guilty of the murder are jailed and that they are not tortured but educated.And I pray to the Higher Power (as I understand it to be)that we humans wake up and change our hateful, base instincts and replace them with the loving and compassionate ones that hopefully are still there and are dominant in the majority of the human race. Please people. Let's not forget this tragedy nor all the others and lets actively change the world in a peaceful manner.

Where you FromNew York


Dr. K. ArtinFri, 25 May 2007 06:00:19

Bravo Dr. Hardi for your excellent review and analysis. The key element in the discrimination and its subsequent suffering of the disavantaged is the lack of equality or wanting less opportunity for others than for oneself. More women like you are needed to avoid victim mentality and promote not only their own cause but to educate the dominat gender that it is in the society's best interest to have
equal rights. I hope KRG continues to make progress and ensures that equality becomes the law and the law is enforced. Despite their shortcomings and limitations they are already ahead of many governments in the region that have been established for decades. They still have much to learn from people like you.

MARYLYNNSun, 20 May 2007 08:33:11

I live in Michigan and am a Christian..I really believe in my heart that even though this young girl suffered a horrible death she is now in peace forever with the Lord..What is the answer to the Men in these countries having all of this control  over women??

The laws need to change now..It is shameful and horrible to realize these things still go on in the 20th century..The men who did this horrible crime will pay in eternity...It does not matter here on earth..That is just a short time..I mean eternity..

Peter StittSat, 19 May 2007 00:56:38

Dear Dr Choman,

This article is so very important and I thank you for writing it. 

I may be a Scot but I love your people because I view your country as my "second nation" and think there is so much that is good that has come from the Kurdish people.  Yes there are some negatives that stem from culture and people being brought up with a distorted misinterpretation of Islam in some rural areas but, overall, the Kurdish people are a beacon of free-thinking in the middle-east and Kurdistan has long deserved to be a nation.

Long live Kurdistan and may free thinking thrive in the new nation that should have always been,


Robert BruceThu, 17 May 2007 19:18:19

People see this horror, they read how this Muslim sect is killing that one, how Fatah kills Hamas, Shiites kill Sunnis for whatever stupid reason, on and on, and is it any wonder  they believe that Muslims are some sick bile dumped here from the Dark Ages?

Ignorance, failed leadership, centuries of hatred, creating nothing, producing nothing, teaching nothing.  That is why eventually, maybe 100 years from now, but eventually these people will vanish from the Earth.  The demise of these sick Arab people will hopefully be hastened by the development of alternate
forms of energy rendering their economies bankrupt like their souls.  No wonder they think there are 72 virgins waiting for them.  They're doing a damn good job of killing them all here.

FromWestchester, NY


Kimberly AdkinsThu, 17 May 2007 17:24:13

All over the world women suffer as a result of patriarchal abuse.  When not attacked directly, religious propaganda is often used to indirectly condone the maltreatment of women.  Portraying women as inferior, untrustworthy, criminal, or even evil, works to create a perceived 'threat' to a male dominated society.  While in many aspects women's rights have improved, religion continues to influence misogynistic cultural practices which help to justify attacks against a
'feminine enemy'.  One means to counter socially sanctioned violence against women is to replace the fictitious and inaccurate information invented to support masculine conventions with the truth.  Women need to make their voices heard.  Silence can be fatal. 

FromCayce, SC


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