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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen