Get the Story Right


(Joanne Peyton of the International Campaign to Stop Honor Killings may be able to stop by and share more information with us in the comments. If she is not able to make the live discussion (she's in London) she will add information in comments tomorrow – please remember to come back and check on her update)

Over the past few days, there's been a burst of media coverage of the horrific 'honor killing' of Du’a Khalil Aswad, a young Yazidi woman in Iraq. The murder itself occured around April 7th and we had first discussed it a few weeks ago when an Amnesty International report was released.

As the media discovers this murder they are also using the killing as one more sign of the "evils of Islam." CNN International puts it this way :

The case portrays the tragedy and brutality of honor killings in the Muslim world.

While CNN is certainly right that this killing was brutal and a tragedy, they make a critical mistake – Du'a was a Yazidi woman. The Yazidi are not Muslim (nor Arab). In fact, the Yazidi are a rather closed tribal group, living mostly in Kurdistan and are often quite hostile to their Muslim neighbors (many Kurds are also quite hostile to them.) We do not honor her by ignoring the actual facts which led to her murder.

CNN also does not mention another fact. As Yifat Susskind, the communications director of MADRE, reminds us:

while the US saw fit to violate international law by eradicating most of Iraq's legal system, it maintained Article 130 of the penal code, which provides vastly reduced sentences for "honor killings" (as little as six months, as opposed to life imprisonment, which is the minimum sentence for murder).(iii)

Susskind then continues:

Despite the many ways that US policies have contributed to the increase in "honor killing" in Iraq, most people in the US continue to view these crimes as an invariable part of Iraqi, Arab, or Muslim "culture." For instance, US journalist Kay Hymowitz defines "honor killing" as part of the "inventory of brutality" committed by men against women in the "Muslim world," railing against "the savage fundamentalist Muslim oppression of women."(vi)

Hymowitz echoes a commonly held assumption, namely that gender-based violence in the Middle East derives from Islam. In fact, "honor killings" are not condoned by any Islamic texts, but are rooted in customary law that pre-dates Islam and Christianity. Identifying Islam or "Muslim culture" as the source of violence against women serves to dehumanize Muslims and justify violence against them. It also deflects attention from factors (such as politics, economics, and militarism) that influence the prevalence of gender-based violence, and obscures the ways that US actions have exacerbated conditions that give rise to violence against women.

In fact, culture alone explains very little. Like all human behavior, "honor killing" does have a cultural dimension, but like culture itself, "honor killing" is shaped by social factors such as poverty and women's status that change–and can be changed–in ways that can either help combat or promote "honor killing." For instance, poverty-inducing economic policies, such as the 2003 US decision to fire all public-sector workers in Iraq (40 percent of whom were women), have contributed to the rise in "honor killings." Increased poverty has made people more dependent on tribal structures for jobs, housing, and other scarce resources and compelled more women into polygamous, forced, and abusive marriages, where they are at greater risk of "honor killing."

The media's adoption of the tragedy of Du'a's death as an example of "Muslim" "traditions"– once again demonizing Islam (and hence another way of justifying the continued occupation) — is something that needs to be countered with accurate information.

Honor killings occur in many countries.  The International Campaign against Honor Killing works to stop them, not only by providing accurate information on these tragedies but by taking action and working with groups like The Committee for the Defense of Iraqi Women's Rights and The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq.Joanne Peyton of the Campaign contacted me after our first discussion of the case and they could use our support. Please go to their site and consider supporting their work

It's important to honor the memory of Du'a by working for women's rights and putting an end to 'honor killings.'

(The photo above is from the International Campaign against Honor Killing and is of a demonstration in Arbil/Hewler, capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan after the public stoning of Du'a Khalil Aswad.)

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