LGBTQ+ Kurds fear for their lives after trans woman murdered in honour killing
Content warning: This story contains details of anti-trans violence.
An Iraqi trans woman was reportedly murdered by her estranged brother last month in an “honour killing,” prompting human rights advocates to raise the alarm.
“To say that the LGBT+ community was appalled by this heinous crime is an understatement,” Zhiar Ali, a Netherlands-based activist and founder of Yeksani, an LGBT+ rights group, told the Iraqi media network Rudaw. “We are now demanding the government to take action, and creating more pressure than ever before. We have as much right as everybody else to live here in peace.”
Doski Azad, a 23-year-old makeup artist, worked in a salon in the Masike neighbourhood of Duhok, a city of 340,000 located in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Despite having left her childhood home over five years ago, she received numerous threats from her immediate family and other distant relatives over the years. At one point, her father even took her ID and passport, a friend told Rudaw.
Azad had reportedly attempted to notify the police and take legal action to stop the harassment but was repeatedly advised to leave the city for her safety. On Jan. 28, Azad was reportedly murdered by her brother.
After her brother fled the country, another sibling reportedly telephoned local authorities to notify them of the crime. Azad was found in a hollow ditch in the village of Mangesh, around 20 kilometres north of Duhok. Her hands were reportedly tied together, and she sustained two gunshot wounds to the head and chest, which proved ultimately fatal.
The U.S. Consulate General Erbil, located in Kurdistan’s capital, condemned the attack in a Feb. 3 tweet, calling it a hate crime. Consulates in France and Germany also spoke out against the killing, with the latter writing that human dignity is “inviolable.”
Gender-based violence is common in the Kurdistan region: 120 women were murdered in 2019 alone, according to data from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Directorate of Combating Violence Against Women. Azad appears to be one of many victims of so-called “honour killings,” in which women are punished for “dishonouring” their family name by allegedly violating religious and conservative social norms.
Activists believe that living openly as a trans woman in a country where LGBTQ+ people commonly face persecution made Azad additionally vulnerable to harm.
“In Kurdistan-Iraq it is still very risky for anyone to identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community,” Delman Kareem, a spokesperson for the Germany-based Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights, tells Xtra in an emailed statement. “The lack of information, cultural and religious misconceptions, as well as a legal system that does very little to recognize these issues contribute to this culture of hate and the continuation of so-called ‘honor’ killings.”
The Jiyan Foundation, which endeavours to support survivors of human rights abuses, led a joint statement with more than 20 advocacy groups condemning Azad’s murder and calling for justice.
“So-called ‘honor killings’ are barbaric hate crimes that have no place in a civilized society,” wrote the organization’s chairman and founder, Salah Ahmad, in the Feb. 9 statement. “Jiyan Foundation, together with like-minded organizations across the region urge the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi authorities to end the ‘honor killing’ tradition by prioritizing investigations of hate crimes committed against LGBTQ+ individuals.”
Aside from social stigma, members of the LGBTQ+ community often face persecution by security forces in Iraq and the Kurdistan region and are frequently subjected to violence and arrests. In April 2021, a scandal involving Kurdish security forces in Sulaymaniyah, a city of nearly 900,000 near the Iran-Iraq border, saw the sudden arrest of at least eight gay men who security forces attempted to subject to physical examinations.
Although the government claimed the objective of the mission was intended to crack down on sex work, Kurdish local media quoted law enforcement officials saying the raid was against “immorality,” an oft-used code word to refer to same-sex relationships.
Persecution of LGBTQ+ Iraqis doesn’t stop at the government level. During its draconian rule in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State terror group published videos of members throwing gay men off building rooftops, as reported by U.S. radio broadcaster Voice of America.
According to the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report for 2020, the Iraqi government routinely failed to identify, arrest and prosecute attackers, or protect targeted individuals, even though the country’s penal code does not explicitly criminalize same-sex activity among adults. Its laws criminalize consensual homosexual activity for individuals under the age of 18.
But even if Iraq does not target LGBTQ+ people with arrest or capital punishment like neighbouring Iran, many worry their lives may end the same way as Azad’s.
“I don’t feel like I’m part of the Kurdish society,” Zhyar Ali, an LGBTQ+ activist, told Voice Of America after last year’s arrests in Kurdistan. “Every day when I step outside my home, I fear that this might be the last day of my life.”
Since Azad’s death, human rights organizations are calling on Iraqi and Kurdish leaders to make sweeping changes to improve the lives of their LGBTQ+ population.
“From our global work, OutRight knows that the biggest perpetrators of violence against LGBTQ people are too often their own family members,” Maria Sjödin, executive director of OutRight Action International, tells Xtra in a written statement. “The tragic killing of Doski Azad is shameful and yet another example of the violence that those who break gender norms can face.”