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Dark crimes spotlight Iraqi women's mental health epidemic Open in fullscreen

Nazli Tarzi

Dark crimes spotlight Iraqi women's mental health epidemic

Iraqi women took to the streets in large numbers this year to demand reform [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 November, 2020

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A mother's shocking crime has sparked an outpouring of anguish in Iraq, but also shows society's poor understanding of mental health issues and domestic violence.
On 17 October 2020, security camera footage surfaced of an Iraqi woman cloaked in black, her face barely visible, moving ominously along the Tigris River Corniche, hand-in-hand with her two year-old son, Hurr, and cradling her one-year old daughter, Masuma.

The macabre scene captured seconds later showed the woman tossing her babies off the bridge into the river, and sauntering away unflinchingly.

The footage, understandably, sent the nation into cardiac arrest. Social media and news sites have been frothing with rage, anguish and damning judgements of the woman's motherhood, while others rushed to point out her potentially underlying mental illnesses

Upon her arrest, the 21-year-old confessed to the murderous act, and has been charged with premeditated murder under Article 406 of the Penal Code, which means she may face the death penalty.

Early coverage of the incident has ignored questions over her mental health, and relied heavily on the father's insistence that "marital problems" were to blame. In his first television appearance, 21-year-old Kadhim Mohammed explained that he had divorced his wife after three years of marriage, claiming to have discovered messages between her and another man.

Dissatisfied with the obsession over 'bad mothering', some Iraqis have taken to social media to ask the question: What could possibly drive a mother to take the life of her children?

Though Kadhim was granted full custody, both families reached an agreement that the children would stay with their mother fortnightly. The stupefied youngster stressed repeatedly that his ex-partner, "loved and wanted her children", accusing her family of incitement and collusion.

"I never expected she'd do something like this," he rued, "I don't know why [her parents] would drive her to this." 

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The tale spun by local media unfolded as such: "Woman kills babies in act of revenge against ex-husband." Initially, news sites ran with this - as if it were the only reliable record - churning out posts in which the onus was placed on mothers for cases of infanticide and emotional violence against children in the context of failed marriages.

Popular Iraqi social news site Khan J'Ghan drew a line under women's "empathic predisposition", alleging that women display violent tendencies after or in response to divorce.

"In the majority of cases it's mothers, not fathers," it said, ignoring other incidents in which fathers have or attempted to burn their children to death.

Iraq's Spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Major General Khaled Al-Muhanna, recalled five "recent" incidents, similar in nature, but specified no further details or timeline. Speaking on the latest case, Muhanna characterised the mother as both "an offender and a victim", iterating that state authorities are investigating the case from all angles. He noted that the woman had also attempted suicide shortly before her arrest.

Turning the focus on mental health

Dissatisfied with the obsession over "bad mothering" and "vengeance", some Iraqis have taken to social media to advance the debate by asking the important but difficult question: What could possibly drive a mother to take the life of her children?

Responses have zoomed in on the phenomenon of child marriage, which has reached unprecedented heights owing to rising poverty, among other socio-economic factors in post-US invasion Iraq.

Users also highlighted that the couple in question wed aged 17, suggesting that the pair likely lacked the psychological maturity marriage demands.

Iraqi society is overwhelmingly fatigued and perturbed from hearing these kinds of stories again and again

"I don't know the criteria by which people base their marriages on, but I know that children pay the price when marriages falter," an Iraqi, London-based, doctor, Alia al-Kindy wrote.

Iraqi human rights activist Jannat al-Ghezi rebuked social media users for over-sharing the harrowing security footage. "These grizzly scenes have scorched our hearts enough already," she wrote.

An anonymous account underlined the overwhelming responsibility that comes with marriage, which they added "requires emotional maturity on both sides".

"Personally, I view anyone who consents, facilitates or turns a blind eye to [underage marriage], as complicit,” they said.

Read more: Iraq's reign of fear: Inside the violent power struggle killing Basra's activists

One artist reimagined the incident in a sketch, depicting the children as angels in dialogue with their mother, stood hunched-over on the Imam's Bridge, unable to look them in the eye.

Some observers were less forgiving of the woman's actions, weighing in on the debate with depictions of the woman as a murderous maniac, a villainous witch, and the devil incarnate

Others cast urged the authorities to conduct a psychiatric evaluation on the woman, amid speculations of postpartum depression. Another user chastised Iraqi society for ignoring the desperate need for mental health services in a society suffering endemic and woefully under-reported PTSD.

Despite the diversity of views that colour the ensuing debate, it is plain to see that Iraqi society is overwhelmingly fatigued and perturbed from hearing these kinds of stories again and again.

Domestic violence: Little legal protection, little understanding

Days after the incident, local media reported that a woman had attempted suicide along the Jadriya Bridge but was saved by a policeman in the nick of time.

Commenting on the matter, Iraqi journalist Sanar Hasan said Iraq had in recent years witnessed an abrupt increase in female suicide, pointing out the direct correlation with a spike in domestic violence and the absence of legal protections to safeguard women against abusive and predatory men. 

The absence of female input into the debate on domestic violence has allowed speculative ideas to become fact, fuelling discriminatory attitudes towards women

Iraq's Penal Code (Law 111 of 1969) is heavily relied upon by the legislature to prosecute domestic abuse and intimate violence, though cases are not always treated as such.

In the eyes of the state, these crimes are deemed felonies, while intimate violence and emotional abuse are among the many forms of violence that women suffer behind closed doors that remain unaccounted for in the law. If anything, existing legislation condones physical violence by husbands against their wives as "honourable". 

The latest murder casts minds back to a heinous crime perpetrated in July 2020 in the eastern Iraqi province of Wasit, in which a mother-of-two drowned her babies in an outdoor water tank at the home where she and her husband lived. 

Sharqiya television host Ali al-Khalidi describes the rising tide of domestic violence and infanticide as "new and unusual" to Iraqi society, underlining the prevalence of suicides along Baghdad's Imam Bridge where the lives of Hurr and Masuma ended. The bridge has become the site of frequent suicide attempts, Khalidi said, adding that the provincial authorities lack the infrastructural capacity to erect barriers to stop would-be victims.

Attitudes to suicide in Iraq are also lagging dangerously behind, often characterising it as religious deviance, a cognitive defect or simply a character flaw.

The absence of female input into the debate in traditional media and in the digital sphere has allowed speculative ideas to become unsubstantiated "facts", fuelling discriminatory attitudes towards women. Questions about women's emotional needs, their upbringing, past abuse or forced marriage, or simply their sexual agency and free will, are rarely asked.

Although critical voices have been slowly emerging in the debate, legislation efforts are still few and far between. The reality on the ground indicates that domestic violence has reached boiling point in Iraq and decisive action is required to heal its women.

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs. 

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi

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