By Diyar Raad
She had read many comments on her Instagram account that told her she was immoral for posting pictures of herself on social media, and that she was bringing shame on her family and all the women of the southern Iraq with such behaviour.
Then, a short while later, Nadia Ahmed* disappeared. Her family told her worried friends that it was suicide.
Ahmed had been a student at Dhi Qar university in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. She was outgoing and had many friends and certainly did not appear to have any suicidal tendencies. Her only misfortune appears to have been that she was born into a conservative southern family, and a city and culture that abandons its humane values when it comes to those who challenge customs and traditions. In this city, girls who post pictures of themselves online are considered to be committing a shameful act.
“Nadia’s death was such a shock to us, we just can’t get over it,” her close friend says, as she relates Ahmed’s story. “This young woman, in her 20s, was killed in cold blood because some other relatives, who were angry at her online behaviour, encouraged one of her brothers to kill her. The family says it was a suicide but the rumours tell another story altogether.”
Apparently Ahmed’s brother strangled her and then hung her by the neck with a rope, to make it look as though she had killed herself. As with so many other cases of what are known as “honour killings” – where a woman is thought to have besmirched her family’s name and the only way that this “shame” can be remedied is with “blood” – there were other rumours too, that Ahmed had died in a car accident or from an electric shock due to a faulty household device.
Most “honour killings” are classified as suicides. Other than the rumours, there is never any further information about what really happened. Families often pressure the doctor who writes the death certificate to change the cause of death to suicide or heart attack.
How Ahmed really died is known only to her family and the doctors who wrote her death certificate. This certificate has since disappeared.
In this part of the world, the law allows men to get away with killing their female relatives, if they think they have dishonoured them.
These tribal customs have become an excuse to get rid of any young females who dare to challenge the status quo, argues Iman al-Nuaimi, a local women’s rights activist. “Honour issues have become the reason for all of these crimes against women, and hate speech plays a significant role in this,” she says.
So-called “honour crimes” come under Article 409 of Iraq’s penal code. This says that if a man “surprises his wife or one of his female dependents (who is) in a state of adultery, or finds her in bed with a partner and kills her immediately, or kills one of them,” he will only have to spend up to three years in prison.
“The laws in Iraq need to be amended to deal with this oppression,” says local lawyer Ahmad al-Zubairi. “A lot of people simply make use of these laws to commit crimes and then escape punishment.”
The definition of a dishonourable act also continues to change.
For decades, a dishonourable act was defined as, for example, the loss of a woman’s virginity before marriage or extra-marital pregnancy or an affair. Today this circle of dishonourable acts has expanded to include girls who post their pictures on Facebook or Instagram, who make bold tweets or open social media accounts using their real names. Often women in communities where this is seen as taboo will use nicknames on social media to hide their real identities.
Another story concerns Zara Adnan*, a 20-year-old working in accounting at a private university. A cousin wanted to begin a relationship with her but she refused. Her spurned suitor began to spread rumours that Adnan was having illicit relationships with her work colleagues. Her male relatives heard about this and decided to kill her because of such shameful behaviour. They burned her to death and told outsiders that she was killed in a fiery accident while preparing dinner.
Alia Ahmad* was in her 30s, the daughter of a very conservative family where the women were banned from opening their own social media accounts. It was seen as immoral. However some family friends discovered that Ahmad had secretly opened an Instagram account and told her next of kin. The family then murdered Ahmad and, after cutting off her hand, hung it on their house door so that everybody could see they had “washed away their shame”.
Cases like those of Ahmad, Adnan and Ahmed are more common than one might expect. In many situations the truth will never be told. In some cases, it is well known what occurred but the murderers are well-respected members of the local community and they are excused by all, because a young woman’s death is considered the fitting punishment for dishonouring one’s family.
*The real names of victims have not been used.