IRAQ: Women attacked for removing headscarves, NGO says
07 Mar 2006 15:00:33 GMT

Source: IRIN

BAGHDAD, 7 March (IRIN) – Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in early 2003, the number of women attacked for choosing not to wear head scarves and veils has more than tripled, according to the Women’s Rights Association (WRA), a local NGO in the capital, Baghdad.

"Women are being killed because they don’t wear headscarves and veils," said WRA spokeswoman Mayada Zuhair. "A life is being taken because of a simple piece of cloth, and someone should prevent more women from being killed by these ignorant people who that believe honour depends on what you’re wearing."

According to WRA, there have been 80 attacks to date against women and reports of four women being killed by their families in 2005. This is compared too 22 attacks between 1999 and March 2003 and one death.

"Women’s interest in using headscarves/veils in Iraq has decreased, not because they’ve forgotten their religion, but because, when Saddam’s regime was ousted, modernism and development stood before us and everyone wanted to be part of the change," Zuhair maintained. "Not wearing the headscarf/veil is one of the characteristics of modernisation."

Zuhair explained that the choice not to wear headscarves is much more pronounced in the capital because society there is more open to modernisation. This is opposed to the south of the country, where traditional family life has changed very little since the war in 2003.

"It’s difficult to say how many women wear headscarves and veils," Zuhair added. "But, before 2003, roughly, seven out of 10 were wearing scarves and coverings, whereas now, four in 10 do."

The three recent deaths happened in and around the capital, according to Zuhair. Two of them were single girls found walking in local markets without the covering, while the other two were married women who had abandoned their scarves and veils after marriage at the request of their husbands, Zuhair explained.

Often, women receive threats but are too afraid to seek help from organisations such as the WRA, Zuhair said. In many cases, fearing reprisals, women who feel threatened will ask a friend to approach the association for them, she added. Some women have reportedly been kept prisoners in their own homes or have received threats from parents or relatives.

Occasionally, the WRA has requested protection for women from police, but conservative social attitudes often prevent what is commonly viewed as "interference" in private matters. "Police interference is very difficult. In most cases, the husband is the one who has to search for help because we can’t interfere in issues related to traditional values," Zuhair noted. "The husband is the only one who has this right."

According to Sheikh Ali Muthilak, a spokesman at the Rahman mosque in Baghdad, women become the "property" of their husbands after marriage. "The husband makes decisions about their lives," he said. "Sometimes you get the impression that women are vegetables that can be easily exchanged, without feelings or ideas."

Compounding the problem, the law allows for abuses against women, say women’s rights activists. The Iraqi Penal Code, for example, states that "the penalty for killing a woman should be reduced if a crime was committed for reasons of honour". A so-called "honour killing" is where a woman’s relative kills her for what is described as an act which brings dishonour to the family. Not covering up, according to Zuhair, can be perceived as such an act.

Yehia Abdul Salam, 37, says his wife was strangled by her father in Baquba, some 70 km north of the capital. "My wife, Leila, was killed by her father because she went to visit him without her veil, which I asked her to take off after our marriage," said Salam.

"They [the parents] thought she had destroyed the honour of her family, and death was her penalty." Leila’s father has never been investigated for the crime, Salam added.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi police describe the issue as "delicate," involving a volatile mix of religion and tradition cultivated by Iraqi Muslim families for decades. "We’re in a Muslim country… if you interfere in family cases concerning veils, you’re considered a betrayer of Islam," explained police officer Ali Zacarias. "We cannot touch such cases."

Rahman Ala’a, a senior official in the interior ministry, blamed the constitution for not setting down women’s rights more clearly. "For the police to interfere in women’s rights issues, we need to have it well explained in the constitution, which at present doesn’t address such issues," he said.

Zuhair concluded that the challenge was therefore left to Iraqi women to assert their rights for themselves.

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