BAGHDAD (AP) — Salma Jassim was beaten, kicked out of her marital home with her newborn daughter on her shoulder and then deserted by her husband. But she says the threat she faces from her own family, who feel shamed because of her divorce, is just as bad as the abuse.
There are few places in Iraq where Jassim can turn for help. Iraqi experts believe that domestic abuse has increased during the years of war and economic hardship since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But attempts to strengthen laws to protect women have gone nowhere in the face of heavy cultural and religious resistance.
The World Health Organization has estimated that one in five Iraqi women has reported being a victim of domestic violence, and experts say the rate is much higher. Government officials say for the time being there's little hope that laws giving men wide rights to "discipline" their wives will be changed.
"There are abusive laws against women ... but we believe that in this era, this project will be rejected," said the Human Rights Ministry's spokesman Kamil Amin. "Politicians have no will to change these abusive laws."
State Minister for Women's Affairs Ibtihal al-Zaidi agreed.
"The new reforms might raise issues against Islamic laws as well as tribal and traditional norms," she said. "It is a very sensitive issue."
Al-Zaidi's ministry is working with other ministries along with civil society organizations in coordination with the United Nations to finalize a national strategic plan for the advancement of women, combating violence against women, and preparing draft legislation to protect against domestic violence.
However, al-Zaidi said she was "very hesitant" to present the draft legislation to parliament because of unsuccessful attempts made by Iraq's Human Rights Ministry to repeal discriminatory provisions.
"The Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council thwarted our attempts under the pretext that the time was not right for such amendments which would be rejected by the Iraqi street because they conflict with religious, tribal and traditional norms," said Amin, the Rights Ministry spokesman. "Not only male lawmakers but even some female lawmakers stood against such reforms because of their extreme religious convictions."
At issue is Iraq's penal code, written in 1969, that excuses crimes "if the act is committed while exercising a legal right." Husbands punishing their wives, and parents and teachers punishing children are considered permissible "within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom."
In Iraq, some tribes and fundamental Muslim sects believe that Islamic laws allow husbands to beat unruly wives, and even for families to kill women relatives who are accused of bringing shame upon the home, such as in cases of adultery. The authority given to husbands can sometimes be exploited by their families to abuse wives as well.
More often than not, women like Jassim routinely are blamed instead of helped.
Jassim said her husband's family, which became wealthy after their son started a thriving car spare parts business, was ashamed of her because of her humble background.
She said her husband's sisters beat her so badly her breast milk dried up and she could not feed her baby. The sisters one day kicked her and her baby out of the house, even ripping her headscarf and some of her hair off, she said. Jassim's husband eventually divorced her after his sisters accused her of stealing money from them.
But when Jassim, 22, returned to her family home with her baby, her brothers blamed her for the entire debacle and said she'd shamed their family by being kicked out and divorced. They refused to let her leave the house, held her at gunpoint and threatened to kill her.