No your honour, I didn't murder anyone, I just tried to defend the family's honour

I've blogged before about “honour killings” in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq – the area seems blighted by them. And, as blog readers will recall, it was a Kurdish family living in London who in 2006 killed Banaz Mahmod, the 20-year-old woman who repeatedly warned the police that her life was in danger from her own father and uncle.

If you've got the stomach for it, there's more on this topic in a new Amnesty report out today. It is depressing stuff. A lot of women and girls appear to be getting killed and then having their bodies burnt by relatives to disguise the killing. And meanwhile women and girls are taking this horrible route out of intolerable situations. A 13-year-old girl called Rojan from the Erbil area died last March after setting herself on fire, apparently because her family intended to marry her off against her will to an older man.

Girls and women in Rojan's position are damned if they do, damned if they don't. They're trapped – by their families and by a miserable lack of life chances. A third of women in Kurdistan have had no education at all, and their families shove them into marriages as early as possible (15 is the lowest legal age, but the law's regularly flouted and the Kurdistan authorities don't keep official figures). Death by burning is now the most common form of suicide for women in Kurdistan.

In a way, the shocking thing about all of this is that things have, actually, been getting better. NGOs and the authorities have set up six shelters for women in Kurdistan and a law (Law 14, introduced in 2002) now exists specifically to stop relatives getting lenient sentences murders if they are able to show they'd acted with “honourable motives”.

But old habits die hard. Judges are still dishing out two-year sentences for families who've killed women to preserve family “honour” and there have been cases where women have been shot at (and seriously wounded) by enraged gun-toting relatives even when they're inside a women's shelter (pictured)

Call me an apology-for-a-man … a sad-sack feminist if you like (go on, I won't mind!) but I sometimes think that the debates within some Western circles about “lipstick feminism” versus “political feminism” (or whatever) miss the bigger point. Namely, that it's places like Kurdistan (and Pakistan, and Afghanistan) where you can find the frontline of women's rights.

Oh, and if you were wondering about Kurdish men's rights. The Amnesty report shows clearly enough that political activism in Kurdistan is risky to say the least. Getting imprisoned for years without trial is common, so is torture. As it happens most of the victims of this political persecution are men. This probably says something about the gendered nature of politics in Kurdistan – but I reckon that's a debate for another time …

(PS: for yet more cases of people in Iraq – this time gay men – being unapologetically killed to “restore … family honour”, see the Independent from yesterday. Grim, but necessary reading).

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