Honor killings in the liberated Iraq

In Iraq, the practice of killing rape victims to preserve a family's honor persists. And Americans aren't doing much to stop it.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published December 9, 2005 5:28PM (EST)

On Wednesday's "All Things Considered," NPR correspondent Anne Garrels had a heart-rending and infuriating story out of Baghdad on the Iraqi tribal practice of "honor killing." In this medieval tradition, families who suspect that a woman among them has had sex outside of marriage -- even if she was raped -- feel honor-bound to murder her in order to save the family from disgrace. Killing a rape victim in order to preserve one's honor may sound backward to you -- as backward, say, as invading a country where there are no terrorists and then claiming you've got to stay and keep fighting because the terrorists now see the place as a central front in their war with you. Welcome to Iraq!

Garrels tells the story of Fatima, a 16-year-old who was kidnapped by unidentified assailants in West Baghdad. The kidnappers threatened to rape and kill Fatima unless her brother quit the Iraqi police force. He did, and Fatima was released, but not, Garrels says, into safety. The mere possibility that she might have been raped was enough to seal her fate. Her family couldn't live with that kind of disgrace, and in order to preserve their honor, her cousin Sarhan shot her.

Sarhan, who speaks freely and with seemingly no remorse to Garrels, is a piece of work. Listen to her report just to hear his chilling quotes: "She knew the customs, but I don't think she expected we would kill her," he tells Garrels. "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."

Sarhan, a law school graduate who works as a traffic cop in the newly liberated Iraq, concedes that his actions weren't sanctioned by religion. But tribal customs require such killings, he says. "The traditions of the tribe are even stronger than religion," he says. "Islam forbids this, but our culture runs deep." To let Fatima live would have been a "catastrophe," he says. "Her life would have been hell... Her father could not raise his head in front of people. Our entire family would be destroyed."

Violence against women is just a part of life in Iraq, Sarhan says. He even admits to beating his wife with a rubber hose. "It's part of the tradition and the tribes."

NPR received many letters in response to its Garrels' report, and the ones it aired on Thursday evening go far toward describing the barbarity of the situation. The brutality, one listener wrote, "seems to reach deep beyond the heart and into the soul, where it remains like a persistent aching sorrow." Another said, "I found the story so chilling that I felt physically ill. It is hard to imagine a culture where men have such a twisted, cruel sense of power over women that they can murder without any worry of consequences. There is no honor in any country that would allow this treatment of its women."

And then there was this letter, which expressed something like hope. "How do we reconcile the fact that we are delivering aid, security and infrastructure to that part of the world, to those who to those who unabashedly kill and brutalize their girls, women and wives as a matter of traditional culture?" the listener asked. "The fact that these Iraqi values are utterly irreconcilable and absolutely contrary to American values should be the primary reason for why we are there. And we should fight to change and destroy the traditions of repulsive tribal morality."

But as Garrels' report pointed out, the large and costly American presence in Iraq is not actually doing anything to save the women there. Women's rights groups say that the new Iraqi constitution allows more repression over women than the old, Saddam government did. And do we hear American officials -- the president and his wife, who so frequently invoke women's suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan before we invaded those nations -- call on Iraqis to crack down on barbaric practices now? Not at all.

As Sarhan sees it, nothing will change these Iraqi customs. "It's a matter of generations," he says. "It's in our blood, custom and traditions."

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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