Posted by: Lister | May 20, 2007

Honor Killings in the New Iraq

Yifat Susskind writes in Counterpunch. She begins with a reference to Du’a Khalil Aswad and then becomes more general, saying that honour killings are becoming more common in Iraq. She later makes a comparison to crimes of passion on the grounds that “sentencing is not based on the crime, but on the feelings of the perpetrator.”

Throughout Iraq, and elsewhere, attacks like Du’a’s brutal murder are used to punish women who make autonomous decisions about issues such as marriage, divorce, and whether and with whom to have sex.

[…] As Iraqi women’s rights advocate Yanar Mohammed explained, “Once the religious parties came to power, Iraqi men began hearing in the mosques that it was their duty to protect the honor of their families by any means. It is understood that this entails killing women who break the rules.” Women who are raped by men outside of their family are considered to have shamed their families. Consequently, the overall rise in rape and kidnapping under US occupation has elicited a rash of “honor killings.” In October 2004, Iraq’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs revealed that more than half of the 400 rapes reported since the US invasion resulted in the murder of rape survivors by their families.

The US also destroyed the Iraqi state, including much of the judicial system, leaving people more reliant on conservative tribal authorities to settle disputes and on unofficial “religious courts” to mete out sentencing, including “honor killings.” At the same time, however, while the US saw fit to violate international law by eradicating most of Iraq’s legal system, it maintained Article 130 of the penal code, which provides vastly reduced sentences for “honor killings” (as little as six months, as opposed to life imprisonment, which is the minimum sentence for murder).

“Honor killings” are usually murders committed by men acting to restore “family honor” tarnished by a woman’s “immoral” behavior. “Honor killings” resemble so-called “crimes of passion” in US, European, and Latin American jurisprudence, in that sentencing is not based on the crime, but on the feelings of the perpetrator. For example, in 1999, a Texas judge sentenced a man to four months in prison for murdering his wife and wounding her lover in front of their 10-year-old child.

I can’t find all the details of that case, but it is referred to at in an article on Clara Harris — accused of running-over her husband.

Her defense relies on the concept of “sudden passion” — the idea that Harris was a wronged wife who killed her husband on a moment’s impulse, rather than intentionally.

[…] Partly, this odd twist in the sordid saga is due to the fact that Texas is a unique place. “The rule of law in Texas is kind of cowboy law,” a spectator at the trial was quoted as saying in a news report.

Historically, this “cowboy law” often benefited men who killed their unfaithful wives. As recently as 1999, a Texas jury gave probation to one Jimmy Dean Watkins, convicted of murder for gunning down his estranged wife (though this bizarre outcome was apparently due to one juror’s fanatical stubbornness and the fatigue of the rest).

[…] When Watkins received probation for killing his wife, the light sentence was met with public outrage, in Texas and nationwide. Women’s advocates spoke passionately, and rightly, about the terrible message that domestic violence—even deadly violence—is justified if one has been “provoked.”

Clara Harris was convicted, there is a Friends of Clara Harris website campaigning for her appeal.

I take Watkins to be the man referenced by Susskind because of this post: “Man Gets 4 Months For Killing Wife, 15 Years For Wounding Man”. (Though her CNN source is no longer available).

The jury at his 1999 trial found Watkins guilty of murdering his wife but decided he acted with “sudden passion” when he discovered her with Fontenot.

In a decision that provoked an outcry, the jury recommended 10 years’ probation. Because of the jury’s recommendation, the most the judge could have given Watkins was six months behind bars. He sentenced Watkins to four months.

[…] The Watkinses’ son, Eric, now 16, glared at his father in court Wednesday and testified that he wished his last memory of his mother was not seeing her dying on the kitchen floor.

Susskind’s comparison to honour killings was that “sentencing is not based on the crime, but on the feelings of the perpetrator.” Honour killings are not spur of the moment, and may be sanctioned (even carried out) by extra-judicial groups rather than merely the act of an individual.

Susskind again:

As in an “honor killing,” adultery was viewed as a mitigating factor in the case. But while individualistic societies, such as the US, tend to locate honor in the individual, communities that suffer “honor killings” vest honor in the family, tribe, or clan. “Honor killings” are therefore often reluctantly condoned as necessary for the greater good of the community-sometimes even by those who are grief-stricken by the woman’s death. In the ethical and legal framework that condones “honor killings,” there is an inversion of the relationship between perpetrator and victim as understood in most formal legal systems. The woman who is killed (along with anyone who tries to defend her) is considered the guilty party because she has tarnished the honor of her family. In contrast, her killer, who is the dishonored party, is seen as the victim.



  1. Some details of the Watkins case

    The evidence at the first trial showed that Nancy Watkins, appellant’s estranged wife, made her husband move out of their home on December 21, 1998. She remained in the house with their two children. Her lover, Keith Fontenot, moved in that same evening. Through various telephone calls, appellant discovered that Keith and Nancy had made love that night on the living room floor with the children upstairs.

    The next afternoon, December 22nd, appellant called his wife on his cellular telephone, telling her that he would kill her, kill Fontenot, and then kill himself. A few minutes later, he stormed into the house, still holding his telephone to his ear and carrying a gun. He went past Fontenot, who was in the living room, and found Nancy in the kitchen. He shot her twice, but neither wound was fatal. When Fontenot ran into the kitchen and saw Nancy on the floor, appellant began shooting at him. Fontenot was hit in the back and leg, but not seriously injured. As appellant continued to shoot at him, Fontenot ran out the front door and around the side of the house; he leapt over a chain link fence, ran through the back-yard, jumped over another fence into a neighbor’s yard, where he collapsed and called for help. He then saw appellant come out of the house, get in his truck and drive off.

    Appellant had stopped shooting because he thought the gun was out of bullets. Within five minutes, he returned, having discovered that the gun was not out of bullets. Appellant re-entered the house, shot Nancy several more times–this time fatally–and then he drove off again.

    At the guilt stage of appellant’s trial for his wife’s murder, defense counsel argued that appellant did not form any intent during this incident, arguing instead that appellant was temporarily insane and was mentally “gone.” The jury rejected this argument and convicted Jimmy Dean Watkins of murder. However, during the punishment phase, it was asked to decide whether appellant had murdered his wife “in sudden passion” under Tex. Penal Code § 19.02(d).2 After lengthy deliberation, the jury concluded that Jimmy Dean Watkins had acted under the immediate influence of sudden passion in causing his wife’s death and it sentenced him to ten years community supervision.

  2. The murder of Maha in Jordan.

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