Article source co-authored with Johanna HIGGS : Killing is Not My Culture: Women Challenging Honor Killings in Iraqi Kurdistan

By Johanna Higgs and Amal Ben Hadda

Traditions shape our values and teach us our cultures’ defining morals. Most importantly, traditions evolve over time. We make decisions about our daily activities based on these assumptions of morality and build our laws and codes of conduct around them.

Throughout the many diverse cultural groups of the world, there are vastly different conceptions of morality and what is considered to be right and wrong. For example, what may be considered violent and unjust in one society could be tolerated and welcomed in another.

Indeed, human history has shown countless examples of culturally sanctioned acts of violence that have in some way or another been legitimated. Whether to defendacts of slavery or the use of children in sacrificial rituals, human beings have persistently found ways to justify violence in the name of culture and tradition.

However, with the gradual popularization of certain human rights-based, some of these violent practices been challenged and eliminated, in the interest of prioritizing human life and well-being.In some parts of the world however, human life is still not being valued and culturally sanctioned acts of violence are still taking place. Honor killings, for example, are still considered the appropriate form of justice in many cultures around the world.

An honor killing is based on the idea that a woman’s sexual behavior is linked to the honor of her family. She is expected to have no sexual relations outside of marriage and any deviation from this rule will, supposedly, result in the destruction of the family’s honor. According to this belief system, the only way to restore the honor is to kill the woman for her transgressions. There have been cases of women being killed for mere suspicion that she might be in a sexual relationship, or for things as small as being seen talking to a man on the street. Occasionally there are reports of men being punished through honor killings, but women are overwhelmingly the largest demographic of victims.

Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the areas of the world where honor killings are still prevalent.  According to Aso Kamal of the Doaa Network Against Violence, between 1991 and 2007, more than 12, 000 women were killed in honor killings in Iraqi Kurdistan. The organization WADI says the official number of honor killings each year are between 50 and 60 however, it is believed that the vast majority of honor killings go unreported.

The primary perpetrators of honor killings are typically husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles and sons.

In an interview with Suzan Aref, the director of Women’s Empowerment Organization in the region’s capital Erbil, she explained that the widespread acceptance of honor killings in Iraqi Kurdistan is directly related to societal attitudes. According to these cultural concepts of honor Aref explains, individuals feel that if they do not kill a female family member that has committed a sexual transgression, then their neighbors will think that they are not good people.

‘There have been cases where doctors have refused to help women with gunshot wounds because they suspect that it was an honor killing,’ Aref explains. ‘There have also been cases where lawyers won’t help a woman who has been the victim of an attempted honor killing because they’ll say that she is a bad woman and they don’t want their reputation to be affected.”

“Well-educated people such as lawyers and politicians have said that they would kill their daughter should she make a sexual transgression,” she adds.

The situation for women in Iraqi Kurdistan has, not always been so dire. In the 1970s and 1980s women enjoyed much more freedom, but the rise of Islamic groups’ influence has inspired people to become increasingly more “religious.”

For Bahar Osman from Zhyan Group, a woman’s rights organization in Iraqi Kurdistan, fighting against the many cultural traditions, that discriminate against women and girls, is not easy.

When she first began her work for women’s rights in Iraqi Kurdistan, she was threatened by some of the Islamic parties in the region who claimed that women’s rights were against their culture and against Islam.  Fearing for her life, she fled to Norway where she stayed for 13 years. She has since returned to Kurdistan to continue to her work for women’s rights work, but continues to receive threats from some of Islamists in the country. A security guard remains stationed at her gate. “It’s a very big problem to be a woman’s rights activist in Kurdistan,” she lamented.

A domestic violence law was been passed through parliament in 2008, officially outlawing honor killings in Kurdistan. However, religious leaders continue to claim that laws that protect women from violence are against Islam.  Despite this resistance,there are some Islamic scholars who have spoken against honor killings. Quoting texts from the Qur’an chapter 24 (Surah An-Nur) and from the Fiqh, they argue that in the case a sexual transgression is committed and where there have been at least four eye-witnesses, both the man and the woman involved in the sexual transgression should be punished.

Killing outside of self-defense deviates outside of Muslims beliefs. The Qu’ran does not allow for women to be killed and followers of Islam should observe these rules as stated in the initial verse of this chapter:


Whether one believes that sexual relations outside marriage should be permitted or not, what is certainis that that such extreme forms of violence against women, or any form of violence, is unacceptable, regardless of culture, tradition or religion. For women’s rights activists in Kurdistan, the struggle againstthe effects of these very harsh cultural codes of morality and honoron women continues. Yet, they remain positive and believe that change can come to the region.

For Aref, bringing an end to honor killings in Iraqi Kurdistan, involves changing the mentality of the people including the lawyers, the judges and the police. Bahar agrees that it is the mentalities that need to change. “Killing is not culture,” she adds. “All women want to have a good life, honor killings and forced marriage, they are not my culture.”