First-time filmmaker, 70-year-old Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, has made it her mission to bring visibility to honor killing in Iraqi Kurdistan. Within that context, her documentary highlights the advocacy of women who are catalyzing change in the region.
Bruni, a journalist and photographer, established herself in Turkey in 1985. During April of 1991, she “walked up a mountain above Turkey” and into Iraq, where she joined two million Kurds who were fleeing the reprisals of Saddam Hussein—the result of their failed uprising. For the following three years, Bruni recorded her experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan. Her goal was to make a series of films about the women in the north and their success stories in rebuilding their country. She and her team shot over 500 hours of footage capturing daily life in the locality. They conducted interviews with a wide range of women including judges, physicians, politicians, and poets.
However, something unexpected happened when Bruni and her crew were on the ground. They became aware of the wave of honor killings that were taking place, and the activist women who were fighting back. Bruni redirected her focus to reflect that story.
The narrative follows the efforts of the Women’s Media Center of Sulaymaniyah, which was founded in 1997. Runak Rauf, an indomitable woman in her sixties, established the center and is currently the director. Rauf is known for the march of women she led in 1994, traveling 150 miles to demonstrate for an end to the acrimonious civil war. Rauf publishes the newspaper Rewan, which reports on vital women’s concerns. She has led the Center in cooperating with the local Kurdish Regional Government to investigate violence against women.
At the nucleus of the Center’s operations are Runak Faraj and Kalthum Murad Ibrahim. Faraj, the editor of Rewan, explains that when one of her students died as the result of an honor killing, her life was changed. Ibrahim left school after the sixth grade to help her mother in the house—like many Kurdish girls. The daughter of a mullah, her father treated her as an equal to her brothers. Ibrahim was brought up in an environment devoted to aiding others, and often observed people coming to her father for assistance. Respected in the town of Rania due to her lineage, she is recognized as being knowledgeable about the local people. She started as a volunteer for the Women’s Media Center, and later joined as a staff member. The film follows the two women in their daily and often dangerous work of rooting out the perpetrators of violence against women. They joke, with a subtext of ominous anxiety, that perhaps one day it will be their dead bodies that will be recovered.
The account begins with a phone call to the Center from Police Chief Abudallah. A woman’s body has been found in a field near Rania—a border town where Iraq, Iran, and Turkey abut. Faraj and Ibrahim join him on-site, to observe the place where the murder occurred. They view photographs of the body on Abudallah’s cell phone. The corpse is identified as a woman named Nesrim, a young widow whose husband has been dead for eight months. We learn that her children were taken from her by her in-laws. At the time of her execution, she was dressed in blue jeans and high heels. The clothing subtly suggests that after becoming homeless, she may have been forced to resort to prostitution to survive. The coroner explains that she was forced to the ground and shot at close range, reflecting “extreme hatred” on the part of her killers.
The second story thread follows the travails of Jasmin (pseudonym), who is shot while living at a safe house for women. Moved to a shelter provided by the Kurdish Regional Government’s recently established Agency to Prevent Violence Against Women, she relates how she was previously shot three times while getting ready for evening prayer. Despite the fact that a trio of alleged assailants has been taken into custody, Jasmin remains in danger.
Two articles in the Iraqi law, 130 and 131, had legitimized the killing of women in the name of honor. However, the newer statute, 59, states that “killing a woman is killing a human being.” This does not deter honor killings from occurring; it only serves to make those committing the crimes “afraid of the law.” Therefore, the assailants frequently hide the dead women’s bodies, pouring acid on them or throwing them off of mountaintops.
Bruni steps back and lets the assertions of various individuals represent the disparate points of view. Runak Rauf notes that “people associate the word ‘honor’ with only one part of the body.” Runak Faraj laments, “How cheap women’s blood is.” The family members and in-laws of Jasmin weigh in with several thoughts. One states: “She must be killed. If she reaches the women’s center we will lose our honor.” Another gives an off-handed comment on the best form of interaction with a spouse: “Sometimes you slap or kick her, so she won’t repeat mistakes.” It is opined that women are not killed “for no reason.”
Rania’s Police Chief Abdullah is clearly frustrated by the crimes and disturbed by the repetitive lack of resolution. The Major of Rania is more circumspect. He maintains that the number of honor killings is decreasing, a premise which Faraj emphatically rejects. He suggests that “men are not responsible for women killing themselves” (a reference to the mounting numbers of girls and women who resort to suicide to escape untenable situations ranging from forced marriages to domestic abuse). He calmly asserts, “We must do things step by step. Everything will be achieved in it’s own time.”
Honor killings can emanate from motives as disparate as suspicion of adultery, speaking with a man who is not part of the family, or having an unknown number on a cell phone. Bruni additionally touches on related issues. These include the selling of young girls; “Zhin ba zhin”—the trading of one woman for another; “Trades for Blood”—when women are exchanged between families as a peace settlement after a feud.
On a superficial level, it is easy to disassociate these practices from western culture. However, Bruni makes a point of tying the “uncivilized” custom of honor killing to violence against women worldwide and to domestic violence in the United States.
The equation is worthy of contemplation.
This article originally appeared on the website cultureID.