Iraq: Politicians resist honour crimes reforms

Middle East

April 3, 2008
Human Rights Tribune
By: Basim al-Shara’/IWPR, Baghdad -

Article 111 of the Iraqi penal code - passed in 1969 - allows a lesser punishment for the killing of women if the male defendants are found to have had “honourable motives”.

Under the law, a man can receive a maximum of three years in prison if he immediately kills or disables his wife or girlfriend after witnessing her engaging in a sexual act with another man. This sentencing also applies if the defendant immediately kills or disables the other man.

In most cases, the sentence is commuted if the defendant has no criminal background.

Acting minister of state for women’s affairs Narmin Othman is leading a campaign to change the Ba’ath-era law.

She is pushing for parliament to ditch the honour killings statute, so that men accused of such crimes are prosecuted for murder, the punishment for which is life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Othman’s initiative is primarily backed by secularists and has received the support of about 60 members of parliament from the secular Iraqi List and the Kurdish Alliance, according to Iraqi List MP Maysoon al-Damalogy.

However, representatives from the Shia United Iraqi Alliance - the most powerful bloc in parliament, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki - and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accord Front both oppose the legislation.

United Iraqi Alliance MP Qais al-Ameri argued that honour crimes are permitted under sharia, or Islamic law, “Illicit sex is the most dangerous thing in a society, and there should be severe punishments against those who practice it.”

Many have argued that honour crimes are cultural and not religious. Last year, members of the minority Yezidi religious community in northern Iraq stoned a 17-year-old Yezidi girl to death after she fell in love with a Muslim.

Iraqi Accord Front MP Hashim al-Taee said that he also supported the current honour crimes law because it is based on sharia. He said the courts need to be more vigilant in determining whether defendants have killed their wives or girlfriends because they’d had sexual relations with another man or are exploiting the honour crimes statute in order to get away with murder.

Al-Taee maintained that he personally opposed killing women whatever the circumstance. He called for the government to address poverty, particularly among Iraqi widows.

“A woman might be forced to practice prostitution for money,” he said. “Economic solutions are needed - not legal ones.”
Although Othman has not been able to obtain honour killings statistics from the justice ministry, activists claim that the crime is a serious problem in Iraq.

The ministry also refused IWPR requests for such information, and declined to put an official for an interview.
Earlier this month, Othman met women’s organisations in an effort to mobilise activists to change the law.

Damalogy said politicians have also talked with Iraq’s Marjiyas, or Shia clerical leaders. Among those he held discussions with was Sheikh Mohammed al-Yakoobi, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Fadhila party, which holds 15 parliamentary seats.

A spokesman from Yakoobi’s office told IWPR that a husband has a right to kill his wife if he catches her engaging in sexual activity with another man. The spokesman added that Yakoobi would not weigh on the issue of whether Iraq should reform current legislation on the crime.

Women’s activists have largely welcomed efforts to change the law and argued that government needs to prioritise women’s affairs.
Ibtisam al-Shummar, head of the Women for Women Rights organisation, said Othman’s initiative is a sign that the government may be taking the controversial issue seriously.

She is working with the ministry and other women’s rights organisations to hold workshops on honour crimes throughout Iraq. They plan to put together a legal committee to draft new legislation related to honour crimes.

“I am optimistic that, for the first time, the ministry for women’s affairs is changing the reality for women and not just speaking about it,” she said.

But former MP and lawyer Faiza Babakhan doubted that the parliament would reform the honour crimes laws, citing the weakness of the government and the conservatism dominating parliament.

“There’s no way the parliament will amend laws in accordance with human rights principles,” she said. “There are many human rights violations every day, and no one responds.”

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