Three bullets ended the life - and love story - of a 25-year-old in Basra recently. The young woman fell in love with a taxi driver whom she had met by accident. But one day her husband arrived home from work earlier than usual and found the pair in bed together. The husband shot and killed his wife. Traditional tribal justice demanded that the taxi driver pay the husband financial compensation and also that he relocate, moving to another town.
As for the husband he gave himself up to the police. He was sentenced to three years in prison for murder – which is the penalty for what are called “honour crimes” in Iraq. This sentence is set by Article 409 of Iraq’s penal code, which “reduces a murder sentence to a maximum of three years if a man ‘surprises his wife or one of his female dependents (who is) in a state of adultery or finds her in bed with a partner and kills her immediately, or kills one of them’.”
One of the young woman’s friends says she told him she was forced to marry her husband by her family in an arranged marriage but that she never loved him. “She told me that she had asked her husband for a divorce many times but that he refused,” the friend says.
In a conservative society, where tribal and religious codes of conduct prevail, honour killings are not unusual. And even if a man is reluctant to murder his own wife there are others who are willing to do the job for him.
“My friend discovered that his wife was having an affair with another man and he only wanted to divorce her and put an end to his marriage,” another local man tells NIQASH. “But his brothers knew about what the wife did. They kidnapped the wife and forced the husband to go with them by putting sleeping pills in his food. So he inadvertently took part in her murder.”
Two days later, the police found the woman’s body I the Shuaiba desert, outside of Basra. This is a common thing to do with the bodies of women slain in honour killings.
“The most honour crimes - committed either by a woman’s relatives or by unknown persons - are most common in Basra, then Zubair and then Shatt al-Arab,” Hassam Fadel Khalaf, a member of the community police, which is tasked with solving social conflicts like these, says.
Although there are no accurate statistics per region, Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights reports that around 160 women were killed in honour crimes over the last two years. Part of the reason for this, is that an honour crime can be hidden.
“For instance, a lot of people have light weapons and usually, during important occasions, they fire their guns into the sky. Some people die by accident,” Khalaf says. “So it’s easy enough to claim the woman died like this. Or that she was the victim of a kidnapping attempt or a robbery.”
Khalaf acknowledges how difficult it is to solve the problem. “But we have community police deployed all over the province and they try to stop these acts before they take place,” Khalaf says. The community police also try to educate the community about why honour killings are wrong, together with the help of the local university and civil society organisations.
Sociologist Yassir Jassim says that married women are more likely to commit something seen as illicit than unmarried girls. “Usually it is because parents force their daughters to marry when they’re too young,” Jassim says. “They force the woman to marry a man she has no feelings for when she is under 18 or a minor. Later on she will behave badly.”
While the basis of honour crimes is old tribal law, there are also tribal leaders who are trying to change things.
“We’re trying to settle these matters in a way that satisfies all the parties but without any need for bloodshed,” says Mohammed Yassir, one of Basra’s tribal leaders. “When a woman commits adultery, the adulterer pays money to the husband and to the wife’s family. Then the woman is divorced, which usually settles things.”
But Yassir also admitted things don’t always work out that way. “If the woman is unmarried and a virgin, then the adulterer should agree to marry her. If the adulterer cannot be identified or refuses to marry the woman, then the woman may be killed,” he explained.
Civil society activist, Hana Edward, the head of al-Amal organisation, believes that the best thing that could be done to resolve the issue of honour killings is to amend the Iraqi law.
“The law is very lenient with those who commit honour crimes. It doesn’t deal with those crimes in the same way it deals with others,” she argues. “The offender should be punished and tribal law shouldn’t be allowed to interfere. There are so many crimes committed against women in the name of religion – they should end.”
Actually there are plenty of legal holes in Article 409, notes Raad Abbas Dibis, a professor of law at Basra’s University. “After all, Article Two of the Iraqi Constitution states that” ‘No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established’. But Article 409 does contradict that because Islam prohibits acts of killing,” he says.
One of the senior tutors at the religious school in Najaf, Anmar al-Muthaffar, says that Islam doesn’t actually decree murder after adultery.
Instead he says that adulterers should be punished differently – with such things as stoning or lashes. But all of this is tricky nowadays, he says.
“For one thing, if a married woman is guilty, there should be four witnesses to testify that she is. It’s often difficult to find those four witnesses,” al-Muthaffar says. “If an unmarried woman commits adultery, then she should be carefully watched or kept inside the house. It’s also possible to punish an adulterer with a hundred lashes. But that beating can only be administered by certain people with certain religious qualifications and it’s very hard to find those people these days, if not impossible.”