Marked Women

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ON THE RUN: "Shaima" says her brother has attempted to kill her for working as a prostitute

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The deadliest threats often come from their own families. Reliable statistics on honor killings are nonexistent; as in other countries in the Middle East where the tradition is tolerated, such as Egypt and Morocco, honor killings are largely treated as private family matters in Iraq. In conservative tribal communities, women who lose their virginity before marriage or who have an extramarital affair are sometimes murdered by family members seeking to avoid the shame and social isolation that the clan is subject to if one of its female members has sex outside marriage. Under Saddam's laws, which are still in place, men convicted of honor killings can receive up to three years in jail. But because the crime is rarely reported, few are actually prosecuted. And since there is widespread sympathy for the killers among police and judges, those who are convicted rarely serve more than a few months.

The secrecy surrounding honor killings often begins in the virginity-testing room in Baghdad's forensics institute, where a woman's fate can be sealed. Typically brought in by suspicious family members, a woman lies faceup on a bed fitted with stirrups and is examined by three male doctors, according to Iraq's legal requirements for such tests. The findings are then written down and may be critical to proving an honor-killing case later on. Pathologist Hassan Faisal al-Malaki, one of three doctors at the lab, says he currently tests about 10 women a week, up slightly from before March's invasion. Al-Malaki says the increase is due in part to parents' fears that racy television shows and Internet sites outlawed under Saddam but now freely available are influencing teens' sexual behavior. "Boys are much more oriented toward sex today," says al-Malaki, who says girls sometimes arrive at his office in terror, knowing that the results of the test could lead to their death.

Last November, Qadisiyah Misad, 16, ran away from her family's home on the outskirts of Baghdad. Within days, one of her brothers and a cousin tracked her down on a city street and hauled her back home. According to Essam Wafik al-Jadr, the judge who prosecuted the case, one of Misad's brothers cornered his teenage sister in the living room; he then drew a pistol and shot several bullets into her. "The parents requested that the brothers kill her," says al-Jadr, who learned of the killing when Misad's body turned up in Baghdad's city morgue. He decided to prosecute the brother for an honor killing. The punishment hardly fit the crime: Misad's brother received a year in jail, and al-Jadr is not even certain he is still incarcerated, since he was eligible for parole within a few months of his conviction.

Most perpetrators face even milder retribution. Al-Jadr's court in southwest Baghdad has tried at least 10 men since January for killing women in their family. But most of the killers are not called to account. In many cases, the women's parents do not want the men prosecuted, viewing their daughters' death as unavoidable. Even when investigators find evidence of a murder, they often fail to persuade family members to cooperate. Last month a Baghdad coroner reported the death of Mouna Adnan Habib, 32, a mother of two, who had been delivered to the city morgue with five bullets in her chest. Habib's left hand had been cut off — a practice common in honor killings, in which men amputate the woman's left hand or index finger to display as proof to tribal leaders and relatives that the deed has been done. In Habib's case, relatives suspected her of having an affair. "They saw her talking to a man a few times," said al-Jadr, whose staff investigated the case. Local police have told al-Jadr that they believe Habib was killed by her nephew rather than her husband but that they cannot find the man, who they say has not since returned to the family house.

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