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Abuse of women continues

Saleem al-Wazzan
Karima Damad dressed in black and was married in complete silence with no ceremony. The marriage was arranged in the early 1990s after one of her relatives killed a relative of her now husband.
29.07.2010  |  Basra

Her case is not rare. Inter-tribal disputes like this are often resolved when one tribe presents the other with one or more females as compensation.

Karima, now 30, was beneath the legal marrying age when she was wed in the al-Qarna district of Basra. Later, her husband married another woman from his own tribe. Describing her feelings about the marriage, she says she feels she has been imprisoned for life.

"I have no rights and I work as a servant for my husband's family," she says.

"His family all call me ‘Fasliya’, even in front of my four children – that’s the biggest humiliation for me and I will suffer it until I die.”

Fasliya is the Arabic word for marriages arranged as compensation and a fasliya marriage is not celebrated. The word is derived from fasi, meaning ‘decisive judgement’ and many tribal conflicts are resolved this way.

According to the Iraqi Society for Human Rights more than 800 women were married in this way in Basra since the beginning of year.

Zainab was married in the same way and suffers the same conditions as Karima. She was 11 years old when she was given to an old man in al-Hayaniya district following an armed confrontation between two tribes.

Zainab's husband passed away, leaving her with two children. Remembering her life with her husband, Zainab says she was treated like an animal.

"When the family commemorated the anniversary of their son’s death, my husband would beat me. Every single day, the whole family looked at me as if I was the one who killed their son.”

According to Hani al-Asadi, the president of the Iraqi Human Rights Society, fasliya marriages are not officially registered and the children of such marriages do not hold official papers.

“Women in Iraq are still the victims of unjust tribal norms,” he says. “Human rights societies in Basra help these women to divorce and we have succeeded in ending the suffering of many women.”

The marriages are illegal under Iraqi law because the women are coerced into them, which runs counter to the Personal Status Law. Anyone forcing a woman into marriage can be imprisoned for up to ten years.

“So far, not a single man has been convicted for such an offence,” says Ibrahim al-Uraiybi, a lawyer. "These deals are concluded without informing the government,” he adds.

The state claims to have very limited ability to control such practices because no accurate information or reliable statistics exist. Basra Council’s Women’s Committee is trying to change that.

“We want to create an information centre to document these marriages. Without accurate information, it’s very hard to deal with negative social traditions,” said Natiqa Thamer Shayaa, who heads the committee.

As well as contradicting Iraqi law, Sheikh Hameed al-Maliki, a Shia cleric says that the phenomenon “contradicts the teachings of Islam.”

He says the marriages are illegal and that women should be treated better.

“Islam respects women and gives them rights. These marriages are mentioned nowhere and it is forbidden to offer women as gifts under Islamic Sharia. In Islam, both men and women should approve any marriage.

Tribal leaders defend the marriages, however, claiming that they maintain order and keep tribes close to one another.

“The aim of such marriages is to build kinship between tribes fighting each other to prevent hatred and resentment in the future,” said Sheikh Sami Madhi, of the al-Sada al-Musawiya tribes in al-Zubair district.

The marriages began during Ottoman rule and in those days, tribes would offer eight women as compensation for the death of a son.

"In some incidences women were given away if a dog belonging to the tribal leader was killed," adds Sheikh Madi.

"Today things have changed and new norms govern these marriages. The marriages are a penalty and are supposed to deter tribe members from committing crimes. It’s the ultimate humiliation for a murderer to see his sister married off in this way.”

Human rights activists and women’s groups are waging a war to get rid of the phenomenon. Nidhal al-Khafaji wants an end to the treatment of women as commodities. She wants religious leaders to intervene.

“Why is there no fatwa banning tribes from auctioning women as commodities?” she asks. The fasliya marriage is the worst sort of violence and oppression that society practises against women.