Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kurdish Women Tortured by Mobile Phone Abuse

Some have even become victims of so-called honour killings after being unwittingly filmed in compromising situations.
By Amanj Khalil
Salma trusted her boyfriend enough to speak freely with him about romance, love and even sex.

But she has paid a high price for her candour. Salma, who asked that her real name be concealed because of the sensitivity of her story, is hiding in a women’s shelter in the northeastern city of Sulaimaniyah, her body battered and bruised.

Her boyfriend recorded their intimate conversations on his phone and passed them onto her family through a friend when she refused to marry him. Salma’s body still bears the scars of her family’s response. The 28-year-old’s hand was fractured during one of the beatings from her brothers, father and uncles.

“They started to beat me without even letting me speak,” she said. “They beat me so severely that I fainted several times."

She fled her home in Grmyan, a mostly rural area in Sulaimaniyah province, with the help of a women’s organisation and her young sister. Salma fears that she will be the victim of an “honour killing”, if she ever returns.

Mobile phones have become a new threat to young women’s safety in Iraq’s northern region, members of parliament and women’s rights campaigners warn.

Men are using them to take photos and record audio and video clips of women and girls who are breaking social codes by having sexually explicit conversations or intimate relations with their boyfriends. In many cases, the conversations and videos have been widely distributed, damaging women’s reputations and, in doing so, putting their lives at risk.

In 2007, nearly 350 women the victims of violence in mobile-phone related cases, according to statistics compiled by women’s organisations and the Sulaimaniyah police directorate. In 2006, 170 cases were recorded.

However, experts believe that the actual number of incidents is much higher.

The first case was believed to be in 2004, when footage of a 17-year-old girl having sex with a boy circulated in Erbil. Two days after the video was made public, the girl’s family killed her. A week after the incident, the boy was also killed by his family.

Despite its reputation as the most progressive region of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan continues to struggle with women’s rights issues. The abuse of women who have been recorded on mobile phones is part of a larger pattern of violence and so-called honour crimes committed against women in the north, maintain rights activists.

“Women and girls in Kurdistan live in a dangerous situation because they are attacked on a daily basis in the name of honour. No one is defending them,” said Najiba Mahmood, a women’s activist and head of Civilisation Development Organisation, a Sulaimaniyah-based non-governmental organisation.

She said the audio, video and photos of women being distributed via mobile phones “is the worst problem for women and girls. If it is not solved, many more crimes will be carried out under the name of protecting honour”.

Several reasons have been posited for why young men are secretly taping and photographing their girlfriends.

Many are thought to be using the materials to boast about relationships with their friends. And, as in the case of Salma, some are seeking to take revenge on women who’ve spurned them.

Suzanne Shahab, an MP in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament, who is campaigning against the abuse, said it stems from a lack of education and sexual repression.

Samira Mohammed, a researcher with the government-sponsored Centre to Counter Violence Against Women in Sulaimaniyah, agreed the trend is more widespread in poorly educated communities – but insisted “the educated classes are not immune”.

MPs are proposing legislation that they hope will protect women from what has become known as “mobile phone abuse”. The draft, which parliament is to debate in May, would fine or imprison individuals who distribute video, audio or photos that are deemed to damage the honour of women.

MPs have proposed fines of 75,000 to 1 million Iraqi dinars (60 to 850 US dollars) or between six months and 15 years in prison. Victims would also be able to sue for financial compensation.

“If we have a good law it might help to reduce the trend,” said Arez Abdullah, an MP who helped draft the legislation.

“If people know that they will face punishment for misusing mobile phones, then they will think twice before using it inappropriately.”

Banaz Hussein, deputy director of Asuda, a women’s rights NGO, is currently helping several victims of mobile phone abuse. She said she is alarmed at the trend, yet does not think that a law will end the abuse.

"Kurdistan is developing, but people still adhere to the old customs and traditions,” she said. “And women are still the primary victims.”

Twana Ali, spokesman for the Centre to Counter Violence Against Women, said the law would make it easier to track the number of mobile phone-related abuse cases and act as a deterrent.

“There must be laws to solve these issues,” said Ali. “Just telling people not to misuse mobile phones doesn’t work.”

Amanj Khalil is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

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