August 17, 2009

V. Family, Gender, "Honor"

Idris, whom militiamen tried to kidnap and kill, told us that "I come from a tribal family. And my fear is from them even more than the militias."[89] His friend Majid, whose parents and neighbors learned he was gay when the militia invaded his home, says, "If I am safe from the Mahdi Army, I will never be safe from my family-never. They will kill me right away."[90]

If a diffuse anxiety over endangered masculinity perturbs mosques and media alike, the pressure to "be a man" begins at home. Violence enforces it. Many we spoke with pointed to the intense patriarchal values of tribal structures, in which each member's conduct can inflect the status of the entire extended unit.  A 25-year old professional from Baghdad said hesitantly,

My father is the head of the tribe, and he started spying on me and reading my text messages on my phone, and listening whenever was on the phone. He got more suspicious, and he beat me up. ... My brother told me, "If our father finds proof you are a pervert he will kill you immediately." We are a tribal family: it is completely unacceptable.[91] 

Under Saddam Hussein-and especially in the regime's crisis years after 1991-the government fostered tribal hierarchies, augmenting their authority and legal status in the hopes that clan heads could seal and deliver their members' loyalties. The state gave tribal sheikhs power to settle disputes and decide internal affairs, in what some called a "retribalization" of Iraq.[92] The impoverishment of a once-prosperous society in the 1990s by Western sanctions, and the implosion of security after the 2003 invasion, both compounded the renascence of tribalism. They compelled much of the population to rely on blood connections for subsistence, patronage, and protection. Tribal ties have become not just a material requirement but, in the process, a key psychological component of identity for many Iraqis. Outside their rural heartlands, they define the terms of urban life: Ali Allawi estimates that "up to 164 different tribes and clans," and over 300 local tribal leaders, were represented in the vast slum of Sadr City after Saddam's fall. Broader, sectarian-identified and cross-tribal forces like the militias had to find ways to co-opt or cooperate with tribal structures, even while seeing them as competing centers of authority.[93] Signs suggest that the Mahdi Army may have curried tribal leaders' favor in embarking on its morality campaign.  A Sadrist-affiliated "executioner" told a reporter in May 2009 that "We had approval from the main Iraqi tribes here [in the Shaab area of Baghdad] to liquidate those [men] copying the ways of women."[94]

Saddam's regurgitated version of tribal legal principles took possibly its most damaging form in 1991, when he amended the Criminal Code to read (in paragraph 128) that "The commission of an offence with honorable motives or in response to unjustified and serious provocation by a victim of an offence is considered a mitigating excuse."[95]  This provision is still in place.[96]

As in many other countries, so-called "honor crimes" thus have a privileged status in Iraqi penal law. Worldwide, such crimes typically take the form of violence against women, including murder, motivated and justified because she has "dishonored" the male members of her family. Standards of "honor" almost always include norms of sexual purity: women who have sex, or are believed to have sex, with men before or outside marriage violate them. There are other ways, however, in which women can endanger the status and reputation of parents or husbands. Dressing or walking the wrong way can subtly infringe against gendered expectations for how women should behave.

Despite wide acknowledgement that violence against women is a serious crisis in Iraq, state authorities have ignored it, and most NGOs have concentrated on "public," political patterns of attacks on men.[97] Amid this neglect, the question of whether and how violence targets women for non-heterosexual behaviors has been doubly neglected. In researching this report, Human Rights Watch was unable to locate or interview women in Iraq who have experienced intimate or sexual relationships with other women. The pressures to marry and to conform make those women invisible. Only anecdotal accounts suggest what they might face.  Mashal, for example, told us:

I heard about one girl-her cousin killed her at the entrance of her house because she is a lesbian. He cut her throat the same way you would slaughter a sheep. He opened the door so people could see the body, a public show of cleansing. I know someone who saw it.[98]

Men, however, also bear the "honor" of their families and tribes. Human Rights Watch heard testimonies from Iraqi men who faced violence or murder because they were not "manly" enough, incurring shame on the whole extended household. These stories suggest the importance of treating "honor" as an issue, and an incitement to rights violations, that cuts across genders. They also show how urgent it is to investigate gender-based violence and honor crimes in Iraq in all their forms-including the unexplored area of attacks against women suspected of sex with other women, or women whose dress or bearing brand them as not "feminine."

Punishments for not being "man" enough start when young. "Since I was 12, my father and my brothers beat and insulted me for my feminine appearance and behavior," Tayyib, 24, from Baghdad, told us. "My father beat me all the time, and he also burned my hands and arms with heated metal. My brothers would beat me up whenever they saw me playing with girls, for example. My mother tried to protect me, but she couldn't do anything to stop it."[99]

Ramiz, 30, who grew up in the southern city of Amara, left first his home town and then the country after years of family violence:

From the time I was very little, my family knew I was different. I had artistic inclinations; I liked to write and draw and design fashions. Because of this, I was always severely insulted and abused at home, especially by my two older brothers. They beat me about it all the time, to control what I could do. They would tell me, "You are a failure at everything: you will never be anything." My middle brother, older than me, was especially cruel. Several times he pulled a machine gun on me.  
It gets to you, it gets inside you, but I managed to hold myself together. Before the [2003] war, I knew of a lot of abuse of gay men that happened in families. But there were no killings that I heard of; the regime was very severe for people who committed murder. 
In Amara in 2003, immediately after the war, two gay friends of mine were killed in honor killings by their families, and the police were paid to keep quiet. My fears got to the point where I had a nervous breakdown. ... Now my mother is the only person I'm in contact with. I have no contact at all with the rest of my family. [100]

Mu'ayyad was born in Baghdad. Although his parents have lived and worked abroad since his early youth, he pursued his studies in Iraq from elementary school through medical school. We spoke to him in another country in the region after he escaped his homeland. "All through my childhood," he told us, "people would call me a sissy, a faggot, even though I cut my hair short and changed the way I walk. They hated the way I talked, they hated everything about me, and I had no friends."

My uncles on my father's side despised me. ... They used to put me in the middle of the living room and make jokes about me: "See how he looks, see how he holds his head!" I begged my mother to get me out, to take me to where she lived. She said, "Iraq is a manly society and maybe they'll make you a man." 
I lost interest in life. My uncles on my father's side are heads of the tribe; they told me I shamed the tribe because I was not a man. I would bring them gifts and try to make them like me, and they would put me on a chair in the garden and not let me go inside.
Then I met a man and I thought he loved me. I gave him my all.
After four years, suddenly he turned evil, and started to blackmail me, demanding more and more money. He told me: "If you don't pay up, I will use the pictures I have of you." He said, "I know where all your uncles live." I thought it was a sick joke.
One day, in mid-2007, we had a quarrel. And later that day my sister called me downstairs. She was shaking; I will never forget her face. She said, "I have just gotten a call from your aunt"-one of my uncles' wives. "All your family is meeting at your oldest uncle's house."
Each of my uncles had found a CD with a paper under his door. The CD had pictures of me with my lover, kissing and hugging, that made clear I was gay. The paper said that I was one of the biggest gays in Baghdad, and that everywhere I went with gays I used my tribe's name and told people I was so proud to be a member. And it said, "See the shame he has brought you."
My uncle's wife liked me a little bit. She told my sister that my uncles were deciding how to kill the shame. They wanted to take me to a small town north of Baghdad; they were discussing who would start the work of slaughtering me in public there.
I was crying.  My sister said, "There is no time to talk. I'd want you to be anywhere else rather than see your name on a grave." I took only the most important things I had and some money.  ... My uncle's neighborhood was far away and they needed to cross lots of checkpoints to reach me. I had time to escape.

Mu'ayyad fled to a neighboring country, where he was able to use his medical education to get a hospital job.

My parents knew about the crisis but my sister, who felt I was sick and couldn't help it, persuaded them that the CD was faked. ... But my dad cannot stop my uncles at all. It is a matter of shame. And in Iraq if anything is between two lips, it will be between two thousand. Scandal always spreads; my uncles know if I set foot in Iraq, they will not be man enough to head the tribe.
For the next six months, I was interning in a hospital, and I thought I was safe; I thought my uncles wouldn't care as long as I wasn't in their sight.
Suddenly one day in March 2007, during my break, I saw six of my eight uncles down in the reception area. The receptionist was pointing the way to where I was. Obviously they had come for me.
I jumped, I ran immediately. I went to my apartment near the hospital. I just grabbed my bag and some money and left everything else. The next morning I took a bus and fled the country. My sister later told me she may have slipped and mentioned to someone on my mother's side of the family where I was, and then it reached my uncles. But I had never believed they would come all that way, that they would hunt me down to kill me.[101]

[89]Human Rights Watch interview with Idris (not his real name), Iraq, April 24, 2009.

[90]Human Rights Watch interview with Majid (not his real name), Iraq, April 24, 2009.

[91]Human Rights Watch interview with Nadim (not his real name), Iraq, April 22, 2009.

[92] See Faleh A. Jabar, "Shaykhs and Ideologues: Detribalization and Retribalization in Iraq, 1968-1998," Middle East Report 215 (2000).

[93] Ali A. Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 267-70.

[94]Quoted in Nizar Latif, "Iraqi 'Executioner' Defends Killing of Gay Men," The National, May 2, 2009, 

[95]Criminal Code: Law Number 111 of 1969 and its Amendments (Third Edition), ed. Nabeel Abdelrahman Hiyawi (Baghdad: Legal Library, 2008). 

[96] In 2000, however, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan repealed the provision in the territory it controlled, and in 2002 the Kurdistan Parliament did so throughout the territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).  Despite this, however, fears remain that prosecution and sentencing for honor crimes in the KRG are still inadequate in practice.  In a 2009 report, Amnesty International voiced concern that "at least in some cases [KRG] criminal courts have continued to pronounce inappropriately lenient sentences for men convicted of killing a female relative": Hope and Fear: Human Rights in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, an Amnesty International report, MDE 14/006/2009.  Moreover, tribal courts or komalayeti often hear cases that never reach Kurdish government courts; the dispensation of justice by patriarchal elders further limits the impact of the reforms.

[97]See, however, Trapped by Violence: Women in Iraq, an Amnesty International report, MDE 14/005/2009.   Several works by Iraqi and Western authors have tried to bring attention to violence against women in the country, both during the Saddam period and under the occupation. See Nadje Sadig al-Ali, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present (London: Zed Books, 2007); Nadje Sadig al-Ali and Nicola Pratt, What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); and HaifaZangana, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman's Account of War and Resistance (New York: Seven Stories, 2007).

[98]Human Rights Watch interview with Mashal (not his real name), Iraq, April 20, 2009.

[99]Human Rights Watch interview with Tayyib (not his real name), Iraq,  April 25, 2009.

[100]Human Rights Watch interview with Ramiz (not his real name), Beirut, Lebanon, April 28, 2009.

[101] Human Rights Watch interview with Mu'ayyad (not his real name), April 26, 2009.