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Iraqis press for anti-domestic violence law

'Killed today, forgotten tomorrow': Iraqis press for anti-domestic violence law
8 min read
07 March, 2023
The murder of a young Iraqi YouTuber by her father has sparked renewed calls for a law to fight domestic violence in the conservative Arab country where so-called 'honour killings' remain rife.

Dozens of Iraqi protesters rallied nearby the Supreme Judicial Council in the capital Baghdad last month, days after 22-year-old blogger Tiba al-Ali was strangled to death by her father in the southern province of Diwaniyah.

She had been living in Turkey since 2017 and had a YouTube channel with over 20,000 subscribers posting videos of her everyday life with her Syrian-born fiancé.

Her father, who turned himself in to the police after the murder, was presumably unhappy about her move and her plans to marry her partner.

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“When the news broke, we said ‘oh no, not again,” said Yanar Mohammed, the co-founder and director of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), adding that her first reaction to the dramatic event was echoed by some colleagues of hers who are used to seeing news of killed women circulating on social media.

“Nearly every day, we hear about a woman who’s been murdered somewhere in Iraq,” OWFI’s head continued. Only last year, the women’s rights group was conducting a campaign focusing on the right to life.

Rights advocates in Baghdad condemned the killing, demanding legislative reforms to impose harsher punishments on perpetrators and to protect women from gender violence.

Further small demonstrations, rather under-reported, took place across different provinces, including in Diwaniyah.

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Yanar, a prominent Iraqi feminist, said that a few days after the tragedy, a court in Diwaniyah ruled that Tiba’s father had committed premeditated murder. She emphasised that such a ruling was possible thanks to the “pressure” exerted by rights groups and “media coverage” of the protest in the capital, taking into account that the victim was a well-known figure among Iraqis.

The United Nations in Iraq condemned the murder of the young woman, calling on the country’s government to support laws and policies to prevent violence against women and girls and take all measures to address impunity.  

Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Aya Majzoub said in a statement that until Iraqi authorities adopt robust legislation to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, violence against women and girls in Iraq will continue.

The interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan wrote on Twitter that Tiba had been on a visit to Iraq and that the day before her death, the local community police had tried to mediate a “dispute” between her and her family. Saad added that the police were “surprised” the next day by the news that she had been murdered by her father.

The YouTuber posted on Instagram about family threats against her on her arrival in Iraq, feeling her life was in danger. Her family reportedly took her by force from a friend’s house in Baghdad to Diwaniyah governorate. The local police were aware of the threats days before her death.

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“It’s horrendous and shameless. The crime was definitely avoidable,” Balsam Mustafa, a researcher focusing on cyberfeminism in Iraq and the MENA region, told The New Arab. “They were well aware of what was happening, but they did nothing to stop it."

The Iraqi researcher stressed that not a day goes by without seeing a hashtag starting with haq (right in Arabic) followed by a female name indicating the alarming occurrence of crimes of domestic violence in Iraq.

She also criticised a common practice adopted by community police in handling cases of domestic violence that solely involves going to the victim’s house and getting the abuser to sign a pledge of good conduct, thus focusing on reconciliation rather than law enforcement.

“The community police just said they had been to Tiba’s family home on the eve of her killing and got her father to sign that he wouldn’t harm her girl,” Tamara Amer, the founder of Support Her Organization for Women’s Rights, told The New Arab, clearly expressing her shock. “For the police, it was enough, their job was done,” she added in dismay. 

The Iraqi NGO shared unverified voiced recordings that the blogger reportedly sent to friends the night before the infamous incident in which she confronted her mother and father about not returning to Iraq after her brother sexually assaulted her.

The killing of Tiba has drawn outrage in a country where violations and abuses against women and girls pervade society in various forms.

Commenting on the reactions she came across on social media, Tamara encountered sympathy for Tiba, but also criticism over her personal life, attempts to smear her reputation, and victim blaming.

She also mentioned the fear that cruel crime triggered among violence survivors. “Many girls saw their fate in what happened to Tiba,” the Iraqi-Danish activist remarked, “they’re afraid they may get killed today, forgotten tomorrow and there will be no justice."

There has been increased reporting of incidents of domestic and gender-based violence in Iraq. Though official figures about the scale of the problem are hard to obtain, it is believed that thousands of women suffer from domestic violence and dozens are victims of honour killings every year.

In 2020, the High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq documented around 15,000 domestic violence cases. One out of every five Iraqi women is subjected to violence by relatives, according to some official statistics.

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Victims of domestic or gender violence have nowhere to report the crime or they are reluctant to do so because of these laws. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) found that 75 percent of Iraqi women would not report such crimes for fear of more violence, and 85 percent of Iraqi men would stop female family members from filing a complaint.

Moreover, women complainants are often temporarily housed in female prisons due to a lack of shelters or reception facilities.

The extreme action against yet another Iraqi woman has revived calls for the enactment of legislation against gender-based violence as no law in the country criminalises domestic violence.

A draft domestic violence law, which was introduced to the Iraqi parliament in 2014, has been stalled for years due to the strong conservative beliefs held by a majority of the MPs.

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Worse, the country’s penal code enables violence against women by allowing men to “discipline” their wives or female relatives, including beatings, and reducing sentences to a maximum of three years for violent acts such as assault and murder when committed out of “honour” (Articles 41 and 409).

OWFI, alongside other local women’s rights groups, has been advocating for the repeal of Articles 41 and 409. Talking over her organisation’s persistent efforts, the feminist director referred to two lawsuits they filed last year against those legislators who refuse to lift what she described as “criminal articles.”

At their first attempt, in March, the Iraqi federal court rejected the legal action with an unsubstantiated response while the second time, in the summer, the court did not even respond.

“We will keep putting MPs and the federal court under pressure to see those provisions revoked," Yanar vowed.

Tamara slammed the patriarchal, misogynist views among members of the Iraqi parliament highlighting how the well-being of women is not a priority for them.

Some civil society activists push for the enactment of the anti-domestic violence bill in the face of opposition from Islamist parties and clerics who believe it would split families. Others seek to amend it by defining the different forms of domestic violence and binding the government to open domestic violence shelters.

Balsam noted that at least two or three versions of the draft law have been put forward since 2010, and all of them have several gaps and shortcomings. “The latest draft also has various flaws, especially in that it doesn’t clearly define what domestic violence is or specify the types of violence,” she said critically, “Iraq needs a robust law to start with.”

Iraqi activists point out that legislation alone is not enough to combat the phenomenon. Strengthening state institutions, and shifting cultural attitudes at an institutional and societal level are needed to address the issue.

More needs to be done to protect women and girls at risk of domestic abuse. OWFI is the only group running women’s shelters in Iraq, helping more than 1,300 escape domestic violence, death threats and exploitation for the past 20 years.

Until today, it continues to provide crucial safety and support to domestic violence survivors, despite serious legal and security risks.

The feminist organisation has faced intimidation and attacks, with staff recently chased by police at night time and arrest warrants issued against them containing fabricated accusations.

Three years ago, the Iraqi government launched a lawsuit to dissolve the association, which appeared to be politically motivated, though the judge dismissed all claims against OWFI.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec