In the recent months, there have been a number of murders and suspected murders of high-profile Iraqi women. In August 2018, two prominent women in Iraq’s beauty industry died in mysterious circumstances: on August 16 plastic surgeon Dr. Rafif Al-Yasiri was found dead. The owner of a plastic surgery and laser operations center in Baghdad, she was a very well-known figure in Iraq with millions of followers on social media, and in March 2018 had been appointed Goodwill Ambassador of the French Organization for Human Rights. On August 23, 2018, Rasha Al-Hassan, also a well-known beautician and owner of a coffee shop for women in Baghdad, was hospitalized and died shortly afterwards. Various rumors circulated regarding the cause of death, including high blood pressure and poisoning. One month later, on September 25, human rights activist Sou’ad Al-‘Ali was shot dead. She was the founder of the World Friendship Organization for Human Rights, and in recent months she participated in protests in her native governorate of Basra over the government’s neglect of the governorate and failure to provide services to its residents. On September 27, former beauty queen and social media star Tara Fares was shot dead as well. She had frequently stirred public controversy in Iraq by posting pictures on social media that some considered bold.
In addition, several other famous Iraqi women complained that extremists had threatened them that they “would be next.” Shaimaa Qasim, Miss Iraq for 2015, told the American Time Magazine that she had fled to Jordan after receiving death threats. In late September she posted a video on her Instagram page in which she warned that Iraq’s women were being “slaughtered like chickens.” Model and Instagram star Israa Al-‘Obaidi and journalist and human rights activist Yanar Mohammed also fled Iraq recently.
This sequence of events caused alarm in Iraq, with rumors regarding the possible murderers circulating on the media and social media. Some in the country blamed extremist elements, who they said encourage violence against liberated women who are publically active and visible, while others also blamed the authorities for not handling the problem. For example, the Baghdad Governorate Security Committee blamed extremist religious elements who want Baghdad to become “another Kandahar.” Committee member Sa’d Al-Matlabi said that “these elements regard unveiled women as deviating from Islamic tradition, and strive to impose the veil in response to the growing [phenomenon] of Iraqi women who do not wear it, especially in Baghdad.” He also noted the growing problem of illegal arms in the city. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights criticized the authorities for failing to properly investigate these crimes and warned against the spread of hate-filled discourse in Iraqi society. Commission member ‘Ali Al-Bayati demanded that the Iraqi government publish information About crimes against women and girls.
In response, outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-‘Abadi disclosed that members of dangerous crime organizations had been arrested recently, and stated that some of the women’s murders were motivated by tribal rivalries while others were politically motivated. Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim Al-‘Araji announced the arrest of some suspects in the murders, and disclosed that extremists were responsible for the murder of Tara Fares.
The string of murders was also addressed in press articles by Iraqi writers. They too blamed the murders and the growing insecurity in Iraq on the religious establishment, and especially on extremist Shi’ite clerics whose fatwas, they said, encourage murder. These clerics, the articles claimed, distort the religion and kill every beautiful thing in Iraq, and try to exclude women from the public sphere and subject them to their authority. The articles also directed criticism at the authorities, pointing to their ineffective response to the problem and to the spread of illegal arms in the cities.
The following are excerpts from some of these articles:
Former Kurdistan Regional Government Minister: The Clerics, With Their Petrified Minds, Think The Murder Of Liberated Women Is A Triumph
In an article he wrote about the murders, George Mansour, an Iraqi journalist and broadcaster and a former minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government, lamented the state of Iraqi society and the spread of extremism, hate speech, and calls for violence and for the murder of women. This, he said, was the result of the backward mentality of extremist clerics who oppose women’s liberation. He also criticized the authorities’ ineffective handling of the problem and the lack of adequate legislation. He wrote: “The Nobel prize awarded to Yazidi Iraqi activist Nadia Murad on October 5, 2018 was an expression of respect for the Yazidi women who were kidnapped by ISIS and experienced horrific physical and spiritual rape and torture, and also for the women who are being murdered in the cities of Iraq in broad daylight and in cold blood. The murder of social activists, and especially of prominent women in the art and society scene in the capital Baghdad and in other cities, has become a phenomenon that keeps women, and citizens at large, awake at night. The human and women’s rights organizations in Iraq, as well as the UN and the international community, must condemn this phenomenon, for these are crimes against humanity and an organized phenomenon that is growing, while the culprits remain unknown… The Interior Ministry and relevant security apparatuses have not [even] made public the real reasons behind these [murders]… The phenomenon of [these] murders keeps the Iraqi public awake at night and is making headlines in the press and the media, while the government and security apparatuses mishandle it…
“The social [situation], the deteriorating economy, ISIS’s invasion of Iraqi cities, the armed conflicts that prevailed in some areas, and the death of many family heads and providers have [all] forced women to rely on their own resources in providing for the household and meeting their [family’s] housing, education and healthcare needs. [They are compelled] to try and find their place in the professional world and in society so as to meet the challenges they face… According to international statistics, Iraq is estimated to have between one and two million households headed by women…
“[Various] conservatives and issuers of fatwas and religious opinions see this as a deviation from the norm and from the backward social traditions [they favor]. We have reached a situation where personal freedom to live a normal life is in danger, [a situation] that threatens the women of Iraq, and where the rigid customs of traditional Iraqi society is at odds with the [existence of] liberated, well-known women in the spheres of art and society. The more the violence against them, including sexual violence, grows, the more [these] petrified minds blame them and hold them responsible for the violence against them.
“The proponents of tribal laws and of traditions originating in the Bedouin [culture] of centuries past think that the murder of liberated women is a triumph for the norms of social deterrence, whether [the murders take place] in Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriyah or Kirkuk. This, especially when there are no laws to put an end to domestic violence and protect families and children, and no laws to eliminate the phenomenon of [the spread of] weapons… Despite all this, the Iraqi government has not yet revealed the truth about crimes against women and girls in Iraq. The unchecked spread of arms among the public is partly responsible for these crimes, as is the absence of strict and deterring laws and penalties that would put an end to the security chaos, protect the lives of the citizens and ensure the safety of the public and of society – for Iraqi society suffers from the spread of hate-filled discourse and calls to violence and extremism.
“This scary situation alarms women and increases their fear, depriving them of the freedom to leave their homes and behave in a natural manner. I wonder when the murder of Iraqi women will stop. Will the new government take steps to end this phenomenon, which has considerable impact on the stability of the state and on its status in regional and international forums? Or will Iraqi women continue to be murdered with impunity?”
Iraqi Writer: Shi’ite Clerics Who Distorted The Religion And Have Taken Over The Country Are Responsible For The Murder Of The Homeland And Its Women
In a scathing article on the Aliraqnet.net website, Iraqi writer Zaki Reza placed the full responsibility for the murder of the women on Shi’ite clerics who, he said, distort the religion and use it to murder the country and its citizens, as well as the values of beauty, art and freedom. He called on the democratic parties and civil society organizations in the country to protect women, stressing that the phenomenon will only disappear when Iraq becomes a true state of institutions that restrains the clerics. He wrote: “This is a crime of murdering beauty, murdering women… a crime of murdering mothers, sisters, wives and companions. It is a crime of murdering the homeland currently called Iraq… If we take an objective look at what is killing this country, we are forced to come back to [the factor of] religion, not just sectarianism – for religion has become the root of our current tragedy… When I say religion I refer to that rotten goods, [namely] the establishment corruption that the clerics have turned into a sword hanging over people’s necks, not to the religion we knew before the victory of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. That was a religion of moderateness, [but] today nothing is left of it. [Instead we have] rulings of ignorance and murder.
“Dozens of religious satellite channels, thousands of Shi’ite mosque pulpits and religious centers, and thousands of clerics in turbans of various shapes and colors are systematically murdering our people and our homeland in broad daylight. They murder every beautiful thing in this life and turn it into a funeral… so that death has become one of the hallmarks of life in our Iraq, which lives on the brink of death and has become a cemetery for the living… The clerics, the politicians and the Islamist gangs [i.e., the Iran-backed PMU militias] have turned Iraq into a crime scene…
“The clerics and their armed gangs – who were given a constitutional and legal guise in order [to enable them] to enter parliament, which is a precedent the likes of which today’s civilized world has never seen – hate beauty and art, and hate women who demonstrate and modern women [in general]. More than that, they hate anyone who yearns for liberty and to be free of their superstitions. They and their gang-members among the politicians and militiamen have turned Iraq into a desert. They have turned morality and reason into a desert… They are to blame for the downfall of the homeland… What Islam are you talking about, and what lost values are you seeking? Your Islam is now a thieving Islam that knows nothing but robbery, treason, and the sowing of destruction, death and hostility. It is an Islam that has disgraced us instead of strengthening us, and has brought us [nothing but] hell on earth…
“Why do you hate beauty?… Why do you hate a woman who wants to live in honor, and kill her for demonstrating against your backward regime… in order to protect her people? Tell people about the women who have sought beauty throughout Muslim history, so that the bullets of your cowardly gangs will not reach the women of Iraq. Tell [them], if you dare, about Sakinah daughter of Imam Hussein [the son of Imam ‘Ali, founder of the Shi’a], who, by virtue of her rights as a woman sought beauty and was the first Arab woman who combed her long hair in the most beautiful manner possible… Tell people about the first plastic surgery performed on a Muslim woman, the one performed on Sakinah daughter of Imam Hussein in the first century after the Hijra… Tell people about [the ‘Abbasid princess] ‘Ulayya bint Al-Mahdi Al-‘Abbasi, who invented a ribbon so wide it covered her forehead. Give us back the history you usurped as though there was no history before Islam. Thousands of years before [the advent of] Islam, our country was the leading civilization of the ancient world. It was a civilization that honored women and granted them legal rights…
“When the democratic and secular parties and the civil society organizations, or what is left of them, keep silent as Iraqi women are being murdered, or acquiesce out of embarrassment, [this is an act that] opens the gates of hell for the women of Iraq. We must speak out in defense of the Iraqi woman and her right to live, and knock on all doors inside and outside [Iraq] in order to protect her from the violence of the Islamist forces that are armed with fatwas issued by the bats of darkness. Religion will continue to be [synonymous with] an appetite for murder and destruction until it becomes rational and humane, [and] that will not happen until we have a true state of institutions… that restrains the clerics and their institutions and keeps them from interfering in politics. [We need] a secular, democratic state that believes in mankind, regardless of religion or [ethnic] origin…”
Former MP: Safety For The Citizens Will Not Be Achieved By Handing Out Government Portfolios
In an article she wrote, former Iraqi MP Dr. Nada Al-Jabouri said that the murders were an attempt to intimidate human rights activists in Iraq, and called on the politicians to stop being preoccupied with government jobs and address the problem immediately, including by imposing maximum penalties on the perpetrators of crimes against women. She wrote: “The role of civil society in supervising [the authorities] and taking part in decision-making is one of the most important hallmarks of the present era. Reports and meeting-protocols of the Iraqi Women and Future Organization have warned about various acts of extreme violence against women, up to and including murder in the street in broad daylight.
“The [practice of] burying women alive has a political purpose, [namely] to intimidate [people]… The murder of the civil activist in Basra is nothing but a threatening message directed at all women defending human rights, [a message] whose gist is that there will be no free speech and no security. Over the years this [message] has led to repeated murders of human rights advocates, civil society activists, numerous women in the fields of art and fashion, doctors and university lecturers…
“Murders [like those] of Tara Fares and activist Su’ad Al-‘Ali, and before them Dr. Rafif Rasha Al-Hassan [sic., the reference is to Rafif Al-Yasiri and Rasha Al-Hassan], will recur and result in greater damage to social peace and security, for security will not be achieved by distributing government portfolios and chasing after power, but through rapid and immediate action to seize illegal weapons, punish negligent [functionaries] and impose maximum penalties on all those who hurt women, from [the perpetrators of] sexual assault to murderers. The media, the religious establishment, civil society organizations, the police and culture institutions [all] have a role in raising awareness of [the need] to respect women and protect the women of Iraq…”