Concern Grows over Iraqi 'Honor Killings'

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Women's rights in Iraq are a subject of growing alarm for activists and some secular groups. The widely accepted and seldom prosecuted practice of "honor killings" — in which family members of women who have had extramarital sex have a right to kill her — is of particular concern.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A story now about an issue that's often lost in the daily reports of bombings and shootings in Iraq. In that country it's believed a woman brings shame on her family and tribe if she has sex outside of marriage, even if it's rape. And it's believed that the family has the right to kill her in such cases. These so-called honor killings are widely accepted and seldom prosecuted. NPR's Anne Garrels sent this report from Baghdad.

SARHAN(ph): (Through Translator) She was so dear to us. She was beautiful, innocent. I had taught her to read and write. She was our finest girl.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Three weeks ago 16-year-old Fatima(ph) was abducted from her family's house in west Baghdad. The unidentified kidnappers left a note demanding her brother quit the police, or Fatima would be raped and killed. He did as they demanded. Fatima was returned but not spared.

SARHAN: (Through Translator) She knew the customs, but I don't think she expected we would kill her. She was crying. I saw in her eyes that she thought we would take her in our arms and say, `Thank God you are safe.' But she got bullets instead.

GARRELS: Her cousin, 35-year-old Sarhan, pulled the trigger.

SARHAN: (Through Translator) Her brother couldn't do it, nor her father. I had just come back from work as a traffic policeman, so I had my service weapon with me.

GARRELS: Sarhan, who asked his last name not be used, is a small, dapper man with a perfectly trimmed mustache. He's a law school graduate, the first in his family to get a degree.

(Soundbite of beads moving)

GARRELS: He nervously fingers amber prayer beads as he speaks. He didn't ask Fatima what had happened. For him, the fact Fatima had been kidnapped and the mere possibility she had been raped was enough. In his eyes and the eyes of the family, she was irreparably damaged, and their honor was at stake.

SARHAN: (Through Translator) We couldn't know for sure whether she had lost her virginity or not. To go for a medical test would have just made the scandal worse. What really hurt us is people saying, `This is a curse on your family.' Tribal customs demanded she must be killed, so that our honor will be washed, polished. We managed to contain the whole situation. We have a friend who works in the cemetery in Najaf. They are in charge of digging graves. We gave them money; they buried her. It's over.

GARRELS: But Sarhan says he sees Fatima in his dreams, asking why, why he had to do this. He knows what he did is not condoned by Islam.

SARHAN: (Through Translator) The traditions of the tribe are even stronger than religion. Islam forbids this, but our culture runs deep. Anger is like a strong wind that sets the mind on fire. But after I killed her, I said, `What did I do?'

GARRELS: Despite this, he says he would do it again. He says to have let her live would have been even worse.

SARHAN: (Through Translator) It would have been a catastrophe. Her life would have been turned into hell. She could not have gone out of the house. We would have imprisoned her. Her father could not raise his head in front of people. Our entire family would be destroyed.

GARRELS: There was no one to defend Fatima. She was from a poor family and had never been to school, so there were no teachers to notice her absence. She was surrounded by tribal members. No one asked questions, not even the women in the family.

SARHAN: (Through Translator) At first, her mother protested. Her sisters wept. The men--they didn't say anything because they knew it was a question of honor. And in the end the women kept quiet, seeing that if we had not killed her, their own interests would have been hurt. Everyone turned a blind eye. No one went to the government.

GARRELS: Dr. Menal al-Rubaie(ph) is a gynecologist and a conservative Shiite.

Dr. MENAL AL-RUBAIE (Gynecologist): And their killing is a crime, but I believe the girl is responsible. She should be punished, not killed, not. But the girl is a victim of rape. She should be protected, if not by the family, by the law, by the society or by others.

GARRELS: She says families will sometimes bring in an unmarried daughter to be checked if they suspect she's been sexually active or abused.

Dr. AL-RUBAIE: They bring to me--sometimes the husband brings his own wife to the gynecologist to verify she is virgin. When I discover that the girl is not a virgin, I can't tell the family because I don't know their response.

GARRELS: Rather than sign a potential death sentence, Dr. Rubaie dodges the issue. She refers the family to the morgue, where a special panel of doctors is authorized to check if a woman's hymen is intact. If it's not, the young girl could well end up in the morgue again, dead.

(Soundbite of woman crying)

GARRELS: At Baghdad's morgue, a mother's agony echoes through the hallways. Her son has killed his sister. Like Fatima, she had been abducted. Leeth Ali Mohamed(ph) is a lawyer specializing in women's rights.

Mr. LEETH ALI MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Reached by phone, he says, `Iraqi law makes a distinction between murder and honor killing. The majority of so-called honor cases probably never even get to court. But when they do,' he says, `the sentence is perhaps six months or a year or, more likely, suspended.' Women's rights groups say religious leaders have done nothing to stop honor killing, which they claim is all too often a cover for common domestic violence. Nada Bayati is deputy chairwoman of the Organization for Iraqi Women's Freedom.

Ms. NADA BAYATI (Deputy Chair, Organization for Iraqi Women's Freedom): (Through Translator) We have been receiving more and more reports of violations against women who are victims of honor killing because she has tarnished the honor of the family. In most cases the police never find out or investigate the cases.

GARRELS: Bayati fears the new Iraqi Constitution will make the situation even worse.

Ms. BAYATI: (Through Translator) I'm expecting things to become worse since the Islamic constitution, endorsed by religious parties in parliament, provides no protection for women and could, in fact, allow more repression.

GARRELS: Her organization has safe houses for at most 10 women across the country, and she says these are the only facilities for women at risk. She hopes to do more. And at a recent congress, women in 19 political parties demanded and received assurances from their party leadership they would be given funding and more than symbolic positions in order to fight for women's rights. But if Sarhan, the traffic policeman, is any indication, it will be difficult. His seemingly benign demeanor belies hidden rage. He admits he beats his wife with a rubber hose and defends it.

SARHAN: (Through Translator) It's like honor killing. There is violence against women. It's part of the tradition in the tribes.

GARRELS: Among his police colleagues, several male relatives have been kidnapped. Their homecoming is cause for celebration.

SARHAN: (Through Translator) When a man is released, we slaughter sheep and make a party. When a woman is released, it's a disgrace.

GARRELS: It is a difference, he states, as indisputable fact.

SARHAN: (Through Translator) How can it change? It's a matter of generations. It's in our blood. It's custom and tradition. It can't change.

GARRELS: Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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