Activists Seek to Protect Iraqi Women from Honor Killings Volunteers in Iraq are setting up secret shelters for battered women. Activists have documented 2,000 honor killings since the fall of Saddam Hussein, as the rights of women seem to diminish in the face of strengthened tribal life.

Activists Seek to Protect Iraqi Women from Honor Killings

Activists Seek to Protect Iraqi Women from Honor Killings

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Volunteers in Iraq are setting up secret shelters for battered women. Activists have documented 2,000 honor killings since the fall of Saddam Hussein, as the rights of women seem to diminish in the face of strengthened tribal life.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

There are secret houses across Iraq where women escaping bad marriages or abusive relatives go to stay. These shelters get no funding from the Iraqi government, which is still trying to form a coalition cabinet.

In this report from Baghdad, NPR's Jamie Tarabay met some domestic violence victims and the women who take care of them.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Ban is a tall, striking Kurdish girl, with long black curls that cascade down her back. She's dressed in snug pants and shirt, a flamboyant style of dress typical of most Kurds. But then she lifts a trouser leg to show a swollen ankle, and the scars where the chains used to be.

BUN: (Through translator) My father used to chain both my legs and my hands as I lay on the bed.

TARABAY: Bun isn't her real name. She's been living in Baghdad for a year now, after having fled the Kurdish north and her abusive father. He'd forced Bun to marry her cousin against her will when she was in love with someone else.

BUN: (Through translator) I was 17 when my family forced me to marry my cousin. I lived with him in great agony. He used to beat me and treat me very badly.

TARABAY: During the seven years they were married, Bun would often leave her husband and seek refuge at her parents' home, but her parents always sent her back. Eventually, she managed to procure a lawyer, and a divorce, and then she went home again, hoping to marry her sweetheart.

BUN: (Through translator) My family promised me they would let me marry him if I came back to the house. It turned out to be all lies.

TARABAY: She says when she returned to the family home, her father locked her up in the house - in her room, chained to the bed, for two years.

BUN: (Through translator) My sisters could never help me. One day, one of my sisters cried after seeing that the chains were hurting my hands. She said to my father, why are you doing this to her? What did she do? He scolded her and beat her and said it wasn't any of her business.

TARABAY: One day, an aunt returned from abroad, and Bun's whole family was invited over for a meal.

BUN: (Through translator) I said to myself, this is my only chance to escape. Everyone was so busy with my aunt. All the relatives were there, so no one noticed me. I said I wanted to use the bathroom, and I escaped.

TARABAY: Bun fled to a friend's house. She saw an interview on television with a spokesman of the Women's Freedom Organization, and reached one of the shelters, and then soon after, came to Baghdad. A year later, she's rested, calm, and according to Nada al-Bayati - one of the organization's leaders - Bun is also eating again.

Ms. NADA AL-BAYATI (Women's Freedom Organization, Iraq): (Through translator) She was very skinny when she arrived, and she's still sick. Yesterday, we took her to the doctor. She's always complaining about her stomach. Her health is very bad.

TARABAY: Bun can't go back home, because she says her male relatives want to kill her for abandoning her husband. She's one of more than a dozen Iraqi women Nada al-Bayati has currently placed in the homes of sympathetic families across the country.

Al-Bayati says they keep numbers low so as not to arouse suspicion in their neighborhoods.

Ms. AL-BAYATI: (Through translator) We receive aid from international organizations - from the United States, from Denmark, as well as women activists abroad. But we get no support or aid from any official or government body.

TARABAY: They do have plenty of volunteers. Here at the office headquarters in Baghdad, female nurses treat domestic violence victims. Other activists also help women push their cases through court. The volunteers often have stories of their own. Dalal Juma was also a victim of domestic violence.

Ms. DALAL JUMA (Iraqi Women's Activist): (Through translator) By nature, an Iraqi woman is too shy to admit to her family that she has been beaten by her husband. I was beaten - my nose was broken, my cheek. I got stitches in my head and my arm. But it took me a long time to report that to my family.

TARABAY: Juma says the organization set up the shelters in secret because the Iraqi Ministry of Labor refused to help.

Ms. JUMA: (Through translator) They said such a place would cause them trouble, because it clashes with the social traditions and tribal customs that don't approve of such a thing.

TARABAY: It's not only the tribes who don't approve. Many of these activists say the incoming government won't approve, either. Nada al-Bayati estimates that since the fall of Saddam Hussein, more than 2,000 women have died in traditional honor killings, and those are only the numbers her organization knows about. She blames Saddam for strengthening tribal traditions already common in Iraqi society, for curtailing women's freedoms even more today.

Ms. AL-BAYATI: Male domination is rife and getting even more deep-rooted. Any man now forbids his sister or daughter or wife or cousin from going out. He even tells her how to dress, how to be behave.

TARABAY: The women's organization has repeatedly been threatened for its ideas and for protecting victims. Center Director Nada al-Bayati travels everywhere with personal security, and male guards patrol the perimeter of the Baghdad office.

She says it all comes with the territory of trying to change the way women live in Iraq.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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