Fears for Iraqi Kurdistan's LGBTQ+ community grow as transgender woman murdered by own brother

Young People take part in a Trans freedom march for victims of transphobic hatred with a banner saying Trans lives matter, on November 20, 2021 in Rome, Italy. Transgender Day of Remembrance (Tdor) is the global day of remembrance for victims of hate and violence against transgender people.
6 min read
16 February, 2022

A transgender woman has been killed by her brother in the Iraqi Kurdistan region amid the indifference and impunity of the Kurdish authorities. 

The murder of the 23-year-old transgender woman in Iraqi Kurdistan has nonetheless provoked an outcry among activists and civil society organisations.

Doski Azad, 23, was reportedly killed by her brother, Chakdar Azad, on 28 January. Her body was found three days later in the village of Mangesh, around 12 miles north of the city centre of Duhok, after another brother of the victim called the police.

"In a society rooted in heteronormativity, LGBTQ+ people are harmed by their own families and face regular abuse. As sad as it is, ‘honour’ killings are alarmingly common in Kurdish society"

Azad, a make-up artist working in a beauty salon in Duhok city, had been living away from her family for over five years before she was killed. She had reportedly received multiple threats from family members over the years and was documenting her transition online at the time of her death.

In conservative Kurdish society, being transgender is extremely challenging, with so-called ‘honour killing’ cases on the rise. 

“Our investigation so far suggests that Doski Azad was killed by her brother at a location just outside the city before he managed to flee the crime scene,” Hemin Suleiman, a spokesman for the Duhok police, told VOA

Her brother had returned from Germany two weeks before the murder and reportedly escaped Iraqi Kurdistan two days later by driving north to Turkey, Rudaw reported.

Suleiman also said that an arrest warrant had been issued for the suspect, but so far, no arrests have been made.

The New Arab has repeatedly contacted Suleiman, Romio Hakari, the head of the Kurdistan Parliament’s human rights committee, Gulstan Saeed, deputy head of the committee, Kwestan Mohamad, the minister of Labour and Social Affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and the spokesperson of the KRG’s human rights board, but none were available or willing to comment.

Diplomatic condemnation versus KRG silence   

The US Consulate General in Erbil denounced the killing and called on the Kurdish authorities to investigate.

“We categorically condemn this violence and the discrimination that is undoubtedly at the root of this crime. We ask the authorities to thoroughly investigate this murder and prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law,” the US consulate wrote on Twitter.

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The German Consulate in Erbil on 1 February posted a photo of Doski on Twitter with a caption reading “Human dignity shall be inviolable”.

The KRG and Kurdistan Parliament have remained silent on the issue. Moreover, in an online memorandum to the KRG and the Kurdish assembly, hundreds of people - including Muslim clerics, NGOs, university lecturers, and writers - condemned the statements by foreign diplomatic missions on Doski’s case as interference in the KRG’s internal affairs.

“The KRI has a majority Muslim population […], but unfortunately, the diplomatic missions of superpower countries…are supporting a phenomenon which is foreign to our religion and our nation’s high values and culture,” reads part of the memo.

Legal vacuum

In Iraq and the Kurdistan region, there are no specific laws regarding the issue of those who change their gender identity. But legal experts told The New Arab that since the Iraqi constitution stipulates that the principles of Islamic law are a primary source of legislation, the Iraqi council of representatives, as well as the Kurdistan’s parliament, are unlikely to enact laws to protect LGBTQ+ people in the country.

Islamic scholars have allowed sex reassignment surgery “for a biological need” but not “at the mere wish to change one’s sex from woman to man, or vice versa”.

"In most cases [of transphobic and homophobic violence], the courts are lenient as reactionary tribal and social norms continue to overpower the judiciary"

Emad Hameed, Director of the National Centre for Human Rights, a local non-governmental organization, said that Iraqi lawmakers should settle the current legal vacuum regarding transgender people.

“The first reason behind such gender-based killings is related to the lack of sovereignty of the law in Iraq and the IKR,” Hameed told The New Arab. “Secondly, there is impunity by the courts towards perpetrators of so-called honour killings. In most cases, the courts are lenient as reactionary tribal and social norms continue to overpower the judiciary.”  

In 2021, human rights groups documented that Iraqi security forces had arbitrarily arrested LGBTQ+ people based solely on their appearance, subjecting them to “ill-treatment including torture, forced anal exams, and sexual violence, in police custody”, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Security forces also physically, verbally and sexually harass LGBTQ+ people at checkpoints,” a memorandum submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in January 2022 stated.

Tanya Kamal Darwesh, director of the Rasan Organisation, a Sulaymaniyah-based human rights group, said that gender-based violence and killings have a history in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, but have recently increased. She also said such killings are normally justified under the guise of defending norms and culture. 

"Unfortunately almost all crimes are committed against women and girls, Doski has been killed because she has changed her sex into a girl, if she had transformed her sex into a boy she might have been granted a major award,” Darwesh told The New Arab. “The Kurdish executive and legislative authorities should shoulder a big responsibility to consider the danger of repeating such crimes; otherwise, their credibility would be questionable.”

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Zhiar Ali, a Netherlands-based Kurdish LGBT+ activist and founder of Yeksani, an LGBTQ+ rights network, told The New Arab that threats against the community largely emanate from the tribal values of Kurdish society, which are hard to overcome.

“In a society rooted in heteronormativity, LGBTQ+ people are a lot of the time harmed by their own families, facing regular abuse. As sad as it is, ‘honour’ killings are alarmingly common in Kurdish society,” Ali said.

“Civil society organisations in Kurdistan do not have a positive impact; there barely create any advocacy campaigns to help educate the wider population,” Ali added. “We are grateful for the alliance of the embassies and consulates, which were all in support of our campaign. However, we need to do more. We need to prevent the murders from happening in the first place, not launch a campaign later.”

Dana Taib Menmy is an investigative freelance journalist from the Iraqi Kurdistan region writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities. His work has appeared in Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The National, among many other outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy