Honor killing sparks fears of new Iraqi conflict

The Yezidi minority has so far stayed well out of Iraq’s internecine battles, but violence with their Muslim neighbors has escalated following the murder of a girl who apparently converted to Islam.
By Sahar Al-Haideri
A screen shot from a cellphone video posted on an Internet site allegedly shows Iraqi Doaa Khalil Aswad, a 17-year old girl who was stoned and kicked to death after she offended her minority Yezidi community by eloping with a Muslim man. © AFP

BASHIQA, May 14, 2007 (IWPR) - Bashiqa, a small town sitting in lush green hills east of the city of Mosul, used to be regarded as an island of peace and stability while vast areas of post-Saddam Iraq were plunged into civil war.

Home to a population that is 70 per cent Yezidi - members of an old sect that is neither Muslim nor Christian - Bashiqa was spared the sectarian and ethnic strife between Arabs and Kurds, radical Sunnis and Shia that plagued surrounding areas. People from Mosul would drive the 25 kilometres to Bashiqa to have picnics and to enjoy the tranquility of a little town where Yezidi temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches stand in close proximity, presenting a rare image of tolerant coexistence.

Until April 7, that is. On that day, a furious mob stoned a 17-year-old girl to death while bystanders applauded and filmed the killing on their cell phones.

Her crime? Duaa Khalil Aswad, a Yezidi, had run away from home because she had fallen in love with a Muslim boy. It was not the first love story of its kind, nor was it the first “honor killing” in a region where women are subject to strong social restrictions and face severe punishment for disregarding family, tribal or religious traditions.

Such cases can no longer be covered up as easily these days, because of pressure from local women’s activists - but they rarely cause a stir.

Duaa’s case was different. This killing has had much wider impact - unleashing widespread inter-communal strife in a formerly peaceful area, which has resulted in at least 20 deaths and the threat of more violence.

In addition to fears of a new ongoing conflict between Yezidis and Muslims, the case highlights the absence of rule of law, and the acceptance that family disputes should be dealt with by relatives rather than outsiders from the judiciary, even when the resolution involves murder. At least one eyewitness said members of the security forces stood by and did not intervene as Duaa was stoned to death.

Taboos lead to murder

The story began when Duaa, a second-year student at the Fine Arts Institute in Bashiqa, fell in love with her neighbour, Muhannad, the owner of a nearby cosmetics shop. Muhannad used to wait for Duaa after her college classes, and her parents were aware of the relationship.

The Yezidis are ethnic Kurds who practice a unique religion that incorporates elements of ancient faiths such as Zoroastrianism, as well as drawing on Islam and Christianity. Dismissed by some as “devil-worshippers”, the Yezidis have coped with such misperceptions by keeping themselves to themselves, while seeking not to antagonize other communities.

One hard-and-fast rule of Yezidi tradition is that marriage outside the faith is not permitted. To circumvent this, Duaa reportedly asked Muhannad to elope with her, but he refused, saying that Muslim tradition recommends that both families give their a blessing to a marriage.

Finally, Duaa decided to convert to Islam so that she could marry Muhannad. She informed her parents, who were not pleased, but did not take any action to stop her. They appear to have regarded her decision as a domestic matter, and not one for the wider community.

When her tribe learned of her conversion, the girl took refuge with a Yezidi cleric, a common practice when people fear retribution. She stayed in the cleric’s home, and her parents begged him not to surrender her to anyone, according to Mustafa Muslim, a grocer in the town.

On April 7, Aswad’s uncles came to the cleric and told him that the family had forgiven the girl and wanted her to return with them.

“She thought they had really forgiven her, when she was going to her death,” said Muslim. “She was wearing a black skirt and a red jacket with her hair in a pony hair.”

After just a few yards, Duaa was surrounded by 13 of her cousins, together with a large crowd of other Yezidis.

“They started kicking and punching her, pulling her hair and forcing her to the ground,” said Muslim, who witnessed the event. “She was shouting for help. Her father tried to get to her but the people stopped him.”

In a subsequent interview with a local TV station, the father said he had sent his brother to bring the girl home, but had no idea that a group was waiting to kill her.

A brutal execution lasting two hours followed, most of which was filmed on mobile phones. The footage, which circulated first among Mosul residents and later on the internet, showed the girl on the ground surrounded by a frenzied crowd. Young men beat and kicked her, first throwing small stones and then fetching bigger ones and large concrete bricks.

The girl, bleeding heavily, desperately tried to protect her face with one hand and cover her naked legs with the other after her dress was been torn. After a while, she stopped moving. As she lay still, the cheering crowd continued to throw stones at her.

Later, her killers took her body to the outskirts of town, burned it and buried her remains with those of a dog, to show they regarded her as worthless and dirty.

A post mortem showed that Duaa died of a fractured skull and spine.

According to the police chief in Mosul, most of the killers were members of Duaa’s extended family - mainly cousins and their friends.

Several local people interviewed subsequently by IWPR reporters expressed support for the stoning, and only few said it was wrong.

Eyewitness Samir Juma, a teacher, said policemen as well as some Peshmerga soldiers belonging to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, stood and watched the killing without attempting to intervene.

The KDP seeks to control Bashiqa. Although it lies outside the self-governing Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the Mosul area is among the territories which could be transferred to that region in a referendum due later this year.

Police in Mosul say four people have been arrested in connection with the murder and two more are still on the run. All the suspects are relatives of Duaa.

Muhannad has fled the town.