Fazel Hawramy| Reuters
IRBIL, Iraq: One wintry night, a brown pickup truck drove through the Kurdish highlands in northern Iraq with four men and a woman inside. The oldest man in charge held a pistol to the woman’s right thigh, ordering her to be quiet as they approached a checkpoint. After an hour of driving, the men arrived at a spring in the mountains where they beat the woman with sticks and forced her to walk for about a mile before stopping in an orchard. “Please brother, don’t kill me, for the sake of Allah,” the woman – who asked to be identified as Lava to protect her identity – said she pleaded with her older brother Jamal on that night about two years ago.
But her pleas were ignored and she was forced to the ground, with her hands tied behind her back and her legs bound, while two of her other brothers dug a grave.
Lava knew well of the countless stories in the Kurdish press of women whose charred bodies are found in remote areas, suspected victims of so-called honor killings when women are strangled, stabbed or set on fire by their relatives and the authorities then notified of a suicide.
Once only common in rural areas, women’s rights campaigners are concerned the practice of murdering women for what some see as “immoral acts” has also become commonplace, and accepted, in Iraq’s cities and towns, but the exact numbers are unknown.
Anecdotally it seems the numbers are rising despite increased awareness of the crime, educational policies and an expanded school system with campaigners calling for more action by the authorities to stop these murders.
“According to the official data from the government this year there were 24 cases of honor killing cases until the end of May,” said Khanim Rahim, director of the women’s rights group Asuda for Combating Violence against Women in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“But you need to bear in mind that there are cases that are not registered or reported to the authorities.”
In February 2015, figures reported from the Kurdistan Health Ministry showed in the last five years over 3,000 women had been killed as a result of domestic violence in the Kurdistan region. Campaigners say the real number is likely to be higher.
Lava, whose “crime” was to be seen in the car of a young man after leaving her job at a hotel in Dahuk in February 2015, said two of her three brothers and a cousin threw her into the newly dug grave and covered her with soil so only her head stuck out. “You dishonored us. This is your punishment in this world and you should expect worse in the other world,” she said her brother yelled before the men disappeared into the darkness.
The Iraq National Youth Survey in 2009 found 68 percent of young men accept the killing of a women for shaming a family.
Lava tried unsuccessfully to remove some soil off her chest to relieve the pressure on her lungs but believes she then must have fallen unconscious. She was lucky, however, a rare case of a woman surviving such a murder bid.
Her brother-in-law, a respected lawyer, had heard her brothers plotting to kill her and managed to convince her father to reveal the location of her grave.
“It was evening of the following day when I saw my older sister coming toward the grave accompanied by her husband and my three brothers,” Lava told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a cafe in an undisclosed location in the Kurdish region.
“I never thought I would come out of that grave alive.”
Campaigners say Iraqi law is letting women down by not cracking down on those responsible for killing female relatives.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has taken some measures to protect women who fear for their lives by opening several protection centers and in 2009 launched the High Council of Women’s Affairs to promote and protect women’s rights.
In 2012, the KRG launched a five-year plan to combat violence against women which it described as an “urgent priority” to remove “violence against women and providing a quiet and a happy life for them in Kurdistan and preserving the stability of the community.”
But in Iraq and Jordan, “honor” killings fall in a separate legal category with murderers, getting lighter sentencing, although both countries are in the process of reforming the penal code that deals with violence against women.
The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner called on the Iraqi government in December 2015 to swiftly amend its criminal code that permits “honor” as a lawful defense in crimes against women and family members.
For while the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has repealed sections of the criminal code that permit reasons of honor as mitigation for crimes of violence committed against family members, these provisions remain in force in the Iraqi criminal code.
The U.S. State Department said in a 2016 report on human rights practices that “honor” killings remain a serious problem throughout Iraq and this provision limited a sentence for murder to a maximum of three years in prison for such crimes.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq documented several cases of honor killings.
These included the murder in Basra of a 15-year-old girl who was decapitated, her head wrapped in a hijab, and thrown into a garbage can, and the case of a man never jailed after stabbing his 20-year-old daughter to death for dating a fellow university student.
Parwa Ali, a woman parliamentarian in Kurdistan who has dealt with a number of “honor” related cases, said the government has not done enough to stop these crimes.
“Unfortunately violence against women is deteriorating and most honor-related cases are resolved through tribal agreement ... and not at courts,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Sulaimaniyah. Ali said the problem was complex due to the tribal nature of political parties and their interference in the judicial process to satisfy the tribal electorate as well as a patriarchal and tribal code of behavior for women.
She also criticized the special amnesties issued by the KRG presidency, which often allow such killers to go free.
“We have not seen a killer of a woman serve his full sentence because they often get out under various pretexts,” said Ali, who was voted into Parliament in 2013.
Rezan Sheikh Dler, a member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Women and Children Affairs Committee, said Article 409 still applies in Iraqi penal code and men who kill their wives for “honor” are often sentenced to one year in prison.
“As women parliamentarians in the Iraqi Parliament we are trying to amend this article, but it is not easy and it’ll take time,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “In Jordan they have similar provisions.”
Pakistan’s Parliament last year passed legislation against “honor killings,” removing a loophole in existing law that allowed killers to walk free after being pardoned by family members, after the murder of an outspoken social media star. Her brother was arrested after her death.
Although Lava was one of the lucky ones to survive her attempted murder, she does not feel safe.
She was not allowed to leave the family house for 18 months after the night she was rescued, but in September 2016, one of her brothers asked her to go and work in a hotel.
She saw her chance and planned an escape, fleeing earlier this year.
Her future is uncertain but she is convinced that she will be killed by her brothers if she does not escape Kurdistan. “I know they will kill me one day but let me breathe freely while I am still alive,” she said.