A Marriage Made In Hell – The Suppression and Murder of Women in Kurdistan and Iraq

Posted: July 8, 2010 in Features

Polygamy is defined within the Oxford Dictionary as “the custom of having more than one wife at the same time”. To some men this may sound like a salacious dream. After intense investigation I find out that it can also be a woman’s worst nightmare, and often with grave consequences.

A young girl lies on the floor, her face battered beyond recognition. Her skirt has been pulled up to show her shame. Her skull has been crushed into the ground. Her crime? For falling in love.

Du’a Khalil Aswad is one of many young girls to fall down to the hands of merciless and bloodthirsty men for merely having her own will in Kurdistan and Iraq. She had been dating a Sunni boy. Her family practised the Yezidi religion. The Sunnis and Yezidis are bitter enemies. The men who killed her thought this was justice. Asides all the bloodshed and the barbaric violations of human rights the government did not intervene.

On 27 October 2008, under much pressure from women across the country, the Kurdistan government passed a new Personal Status Law. It was aimed to give women more freedom and protect them from the barbaric violations of women’s rights they endure daily. A main breakthrough was getting the government to tighten the laws on polygamy, also known as plural marriage. Yet this has still not stopped the extreme cases of violence against women in the country.

One of the sections of the new law states that a man must ask permission of his wife before re-marrying. This causes great concern for Sawsan Salim, an active member for Kurdistan Refugee Women’s Organisation (KRWO).

“After 18 years of violence against Kurdish women all we get is yet again another law that discriminates women,” she said. “When men don’t gain the permission of their wives to re-marry they just beat it out of them.”

Salim has been campaigning for over 15 years to end the violence in Kurdistan. She believes the problem lies at the top of the system, under the government’s rule, and that the new laws passed are still not enough.

“We want to abolish patriarchy all together. Women are totally isolated from political and social life,” she said. “The right to life has been taken away from us. It is a systematic attack, a political attack on women. It is done by the authorities. They want to set an example to women that you cannot breach the rules.”

Salim’s comments may be seen as radical but serious crimes are constantly being committed on British Muslim women as a result of polygamy. The British government states its will to respect other cultures and give equal opportunities to all men and women. It therefore allows Muslim men to bring their wives into Britain, providing the men married their wives in their home country. This is causing serious concern among British Muslim women as these men are not only bringing their wives into the country – but also their patriarchal and potentially dangerous cultural beliefs. One man having multiple wives creates tension between the families within the marriage. Jealousy occurs between the wives. If the wives wish to leave their husbands, this can often plummet into honour-based violence with grave consequences.

“We’re talking about murder, rape and kidnapping including the abuse of children.

“Honour-based violence is committed predominantly but not exclusively by men to control female autonomy and sexuality,” said Detective Superintendent, Gerry Campbell.

Leading the London Metropolitan’s Violent Crime and Public Protection Command, Campbell understands the delicate cultural issues behind polygamy. Polygamy is not recognised by British law which can leave women potentially subjected to abuse and exploitation. It can leave women without access to financial and other forms of inheritance rights. It can potentially lead to them being without the support of family members and the social structure they are used to living in.  With no such governmental protection, polygamy can lead to forced marriages if a wife does not consent to an arranged marriage.

“Cultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness,” adds Campbell. “25% of all victims of forced marriage last year we’re young girls under the age of 18. Young girls being taken to different parts of the world, isolated and alone are physically and sexually abused day after day after day.”

 His comments provide a stark insight into the brutal reality of patriarchal control and how many women are suffering as a consequence.  Unfortunately, the torture spreads further than the borders of Kurdistan and Iraq. Patriarchy is permeated throughout many countries of Muslim faith.

Just two months ago, two young girls were buried alive in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, simply for attempting to choose their own husbands. They were shot to injure them, and then dragged screaming and bleeding to a pit where they were crushed with rocks. The government response caused outrage among women in Muslim communities. Israr Ullah Zehri, who represents the Baluchistan province in the Pakistani parliament, insisted that murdering uppity girls is a “tribal custom” which should be respected, while one minister even threatened to resign if the men were punished. Being buried alive, burned alive and burnt with acid are just some of the methods men use to attack their wives in so called “honour”.

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, Head of The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, has been researching such atrocities for several years. He is one of the first Muslim leaders to champion womens’ causes against forced marriage, domestic violence and murder in the name of honour.

“I have been studying this issue for years and it’s still near enough impossible to find a women who will speak out against their husbands if they are suffering domestic abuse,” he said. “They don’t want to upset the social structure.”

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui speaks at a press conference in London after two girls are buried alive in Pakistan in "honour"

Dr Siqqui is now leading a campaign against child abuse within faith-based environments, co-authoring a report on the subject.

“It is also the children that suffer within polygamous marriages. They often feel great jealousy towards their brothers under their father’s wives,” he said. “Also the father is not around all the time as he may be with his other families so this can develop into great emotional detachment from the child.”

The Kurdistan regional government are reluctant to comment to the press regarding the subject. Perhaps because they are fully aware of the injustices surrounding them but do not wish for it to change. Recently, with the support of British citizens, the KWWO sent a resolution to them demanding to abolish the polygamy law and provide more protection to Kurdish women. When, if ever, they decide to act upon it is unknown. But for girls like Du’a, sadly, it may be too little too late.


Detective Gerry Campbell speaking at a conference on polygamy at London South Bank University, 28/03/2009 

Sawsam Salim, International campaigner for KRWO, speaking at a conference on polygamy at London South Bank University, 28/03/2009 

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, Head of The Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. Interviewed by email, 03/04/09. Also interviewed by telephone 05/04/09. drsiddiqui@talk21.com 

Saunders Singer, political activist for women’s liberation in Kurdistan. Interviewed by email 01/04/09. maxsaunderssinger@yahoo.com


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