Robert Fisk: The number of women sentenced to death across the Middle East has very little to do with justice

These young women should be listed on some roll of martyrdom

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The execution of women holds a special revulsion for Westerners, especially – let us be honest about this – when the women are decapitated, hanged or shot in the Muslim world. Our revulsion at the act of killing a woman is thus neatly dovetailed into our foundational conviction that Islam treats women not only as second-class citizens, as chattel, property, prizes of “honour” to be slaughtered if that “dignity” is even rumoured to be besmirched, or as sacrificial victims of their menfolk’s crimes. Often male sadism is involved.

What do the masterful male executioners of Saudi Arabia think of when they hack off the head of a woman in a public marketplace? What of the Iranian state executioner who heard 23-year-old Delara Darabi screaming to her mother for help down her mobile phone: “Oh mother, I can see the hangman’s noose in front of me. They are going to execute me. Please save me.” And who, as the girl was strung up, sneered down the same phone to the mother that nothing could save her daughter now?

Delara Darabi’s “crime” was to have confessed to killing her father’s cousin, apparently to save the life of her boyfriend, who was said to have committed the crime and who would most certainly have hanged for it. But her family had already obtained a two-month stay of execution. She was an accomplished artist, an angel to her fellow prisoners. When I questioned the then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about her execution, he replied – pitifully – that he was against capital punishment but that the Iranian judiciary was “independent” of the government. “I do not want to kill even an ant,” he told me.

Now the Iraqi authorities, executing male prisoners by the dozen – for “terrorism”, of course – have taken to torturing, raping and occasionally executing some of the thousands of women illegally detained in their jails. Human Rights Watch – may its name be praised – has just revealed how a female prisoner entered her meeting with HRW’s delegate on crutches. She had, she said, endured nine days of beatings and electric shocks that had left her permanently disabled. Her split nose, scars on her back and burns on her breast were consistent, the organisation said, with the abuse she had alleged. Then came – quite literally – the “killer” line in their official report: “She was executed in September 2013, seven months after Human Rights Watch interviewed her, despite lower court rulings that dismissed charges against her…”

 

Most of the 4,200 women held by Iraq’s Shia-dominated government are (need you ask?) Sunni. The authorities are well aware of the terrible hold they have over their families, who may or may not have been involved in armed attacks on the government or its supporters. The women’s seizure is a form of collective punishment for their men. They are told to sign blank sheets of paper upon which their “crimes” will be added later. Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, promised last year to free women prisoners who had judicial release papers. But nothing changed.

I mention only in passing here the grievous, outrageous and evil practice of the “honour” killing of women, which has proved an enduring, untreatable cancer in the Muslim world. I have, over the years, amassed an archive of women-slaughter – almost always by men – which leaves no doubt that governments, officialdom, society and families accept, often with bellows of hypocritical condemnation, these crimes against humanity. My own enquiries in Jordan, by the way – I bring this up as a necessary corrective – suggest that per head of population, Christian women there may be the victims of “honour” killing more often than Muslim women.

But young women who have been beheaded, drowned and stabbed to death in their thousands across the Middle Eastern region – for marrying the wrong men, or loving them, or being raped by them, or of being the victims of false claims of adultery – should be listed, at least in the afterworld, on some roll of martyrdom. The imprisoned women of Iraq, I should add, have been accused of losing their “honour” after being tortured in jail. At Abu Ghraib 10 years ago, Iraqi women prisoners asked that they should be killed after their release because they had been raped by Americans. Al-Qa’ida constantly demands the release of women prisoners. The Iraqi captors of the murdered British hostage Ken Bigley had asked for the release of women prisoners in exchange for his life. We have forgotten that, haven’t we?

In the Gulf states, immigrant women – usually Filipinas – have also been shot and beheaded for the murder of Saudi men and women who, according to testimony, had grossly mistreated them and in some cases tried to rape them. Almost all underwent unfair trials. Saudi Arabia executed 40 women between 1990 and 2010. In the Iranian town of Neka, Atefah Rajabi Sahaaleh, whose birth certificate showed she was only 16, was accused in 2004 of having sex with her married boyfriend. She told a family member that she had been repeatedly raped by the 51-year-old man. The judge was reportedly furious at her eloquent self-defence and is said to have personally put the noose around her neck before watching her death throes as she was hauled into the air by a lorry-mounted hydraulic crane.

There is a disturbing argument, of course. If we are outraged at this despicable treatment of women, does this mean that we are less outraged when men are tortured and executed? For, the moment we express our special disgust at the shameful plight of women facing the torturer and the executioner, we are suggesting, are we not, that the judicial murder of men is less wicked? Not true. If women are more vulnerable – as they certainly are in the Middle East – then their need for protection is all the greater. But this is about the one thing we Westerners never bring to the Middle East when we promise freedom and “democracy” for all: justice and mercy.

The walking wounded

A “viewers are advised” story. Going through my Dad’s papers the other day for a radio interview on his minor role as a First World War soldier on the Somme in 1918, I found a pamphlet for the Preston Hall Colony near Maidstone. Bill Fisk used to raise money for this Kentish cottage settlement for ex-soldiers suffering from severe lung disease, tuberculosis and mustard gas inhaled in the trenches of the Western Front. Long into the 1950s these old soldiers lived, coughing and sleeping and dying in summer on wooden balconies outside their homes.

One day, I recall, I travelled with my dad on one of his visits to Preston Hall where doctors wanted to explain to him the after-effects of gas. On a table in the centre of the room were a series of what appeared to be deflated brown plastic bags. “You’re not squeamish?” one of the doctors asked. My father suddenly raised his hand and said, “We don’t want to see that”, and I was hurried from the room. He didn’t need to be shown the lungs of the latest victims of the Western Front. Today, he would be exactly 122 years old – happy, I dare say, to miss the centenary celebrations.

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