The Women’s Union of Kurdistan sounded an alarm bell recently about the increase of suicide rate among Kurdish women due to forced marriages. Most of the cases reported were of women who spilled kerosene on their bodies and set fire to themselves to get rid of a life that they described as meaningless. Around 740 cases were reported this year alone among women aged 15 to 25. About 380 of them died because of severe burns.
The British Kurdish human rights activist Aso Kamal warned that these figures were deluding. Much more incidents remained unreported in the conservative society of Kurdistan where parents would pretend that their daughters acquired the deforming burns in cooking accidents. He also pointed that violent death of women in Kurdistan happens not only because of suicide but because a large number is murdered in honor killings. The 42-year old activist reported, “We want to speak out about this. There is silence in Kurdistan. People say it’s a family matter. We want to change the patriarchal system in Kurdistan. Honor killing is against the law but the law is not being enforced.
Aso Kamal indicated that as many as 12,500 women were murdered or committed suicide since 1991 in what he described as a phenomenon of group compliance to the patriarchal rules of society. A woman who erred against these rules is traditionally perceived as fallen and doomed by society. She causes disgrace to her family and becomes subject to the punishment of her male guardians who usually punish her to prove to the society that they handled their own disgrace in an honorable way.
The murder of these women is against the law; however, law is hardly enforced within the status quo of Iraq. In the time when political stability and sectarian unity are at stake, women come at the very end of the security priorities of the Iraqi legislators and security forces. Added to the absence of law is the deteriorating economic condition for most of the families in Kurdistan. An economically strained husband uses violence domestically not only to express his frustration but also his despair.
Aso Kemal has filed a request to the Kurdish authorities to work to protect women against domestic violence and the tyranny of the family patriarchs. Similar studies about Kurdish societies showed that there is a high rate of domestic violence against women in Western Kurdistan or Eastern Syria as well as an increasing suicide rate.
This can be related to the inherited patriarchy of the Ba’th Party that traditionally excluded the Kurds who in their turn excluded the women. Incidents of exclusion encompass political rights, education, work, personal status law, and individual freedoms. The law did not do much to protect the rights of women since they are still forced to marry while they are under the legal age of marriage.
In Syria in particular, clause 18 of the personal status law specifies that the legal age of marriage is 13 while clause 548 of the criminal law reduces the punishment of males who kill their female relatives upon seeing them in an act of adultery. The Kurdish legislative council in Northern Iraq has introduced amendments regarding a similar clause in the criminal law in August 2002 after several activists pressured the government to combat violence against women. Though these amendments have been introduced, activists complain that the process of putting them into action is rather slow because it clashes with inherited social customs.
Other forms of violence against women in Kurdistan include circumcision as a means to reduce female sexual activity thus reinforcing the idea that women are subjects of men.
Violence against Kurdish women was the main topic of discussion in a conference held in Bonn on June 30 and July 1. The conference identified three domains for violence against women: domestic, social and political, and the closing session highlighted several recommendations to fight these forms of violence and discrimination against women in Kurdistan.
The recent cases of suicide and murder point that Kurdish women are increasingly growing out of the dictates of the tribal customs that govern their lives. They rebel against arranged marriages and insist on marrying out of harmony and love. The cost paid for such non-conformity may be fatal, but it is definitely causing a great alarm that exposes not only the primitive and tyrannical practices of the tribe but also the inefficiency of the civil government to protect its own citizens within the governing laws.
Omneya El Naggar, MA, is a political commentator and researcher in comparative politics in the Middle East.