Uproar in Iraq over woman allegedly set on fire by husband

Politicians have resisted pressure to introduce laws against domestic violence

Iraqi women demonstrators wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, as they carry Iraqi flag during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili
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The haunting screams of a young Iraqi woman suffering from first-degree burns has created a public uproar over the government's inability to protect women from domestic violence.

Malak Al Zubaidi, 20, was allegedly set on fire and abused by her husband, a police officer in the city of Najaf.

Although details of the incident are yet to be verified, footage online shows Ms Al Zubaidi lying in a hospital bed screaming of “unbearable pain” and shouting, “They never loved me and treated me like a slave”, in an apparent reference to her husband’s family.

Her husband, Mohammed Al Mayahli, said his wife set herself on fire and suffered from mental health problems.

"She burned herself with petrol and accused me and my family," he wrote on Facebook.

Ms Al Zubaidi’s family said her husband had forbidden her from seeing them for eight months.

Najaf's governor has ordered an investigation into the incident.

Iraq does not have any laws specifically to protect women from domestic abuse.

The constitution forbids "all forms of violence and abuse in the family", although the country's laws allow husbands to "discipline" their wives.

Conservative parties have dominated Baghdad’s government  since 2003, meaning women’s groups have had little success in securing legal rights.

Campaigners have been pressuring the government since 2011 to pass a draft law to prevent violence against women and to change the penal code, Iraqi women's rights activist Suhaila Al Assam told The National.

“A parliamentary session was held on it a few years ago but parliamentarians have blocked its passing as they say it goes against Islamic beliefs,” Ms Al Assam said.

She said what had happened to Ms Al Zubaidi was a crime against women and the perpetrators must be held accountable.

“This is due to negligence from the government,” Ms Al Assam said.

She said politicians should show responsibility by passing laws to protect women from domestic abuse.

Measures to control the spread of the coronavirus also have a devastating impact on Iraqi families, Ms Al Assam said.

“Iraq’s deteriorating economic situation along with the current lockdown has meant that many people are out of jobs, without money and are sitting at home,” she said.

But this “should not lead to men conducting criminal acts such as killing or raping their wives”.

Ms Al Assam said the Iraqi Women's Association, of which she is a member, would persist in its battle to ensure that victims received justice.

Ali Al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi Human Rights Commission, said what happened to Ms Al Zubaidi was the result of increasing domestic, social and psychological tensions caused by economic woes from the outbreak of coronavirus.

"We are getting an increase in the level of domestic violence cases, especially against women and kids, and as a result we are seeing more suicidal attempts," Mr Al Bayati told The National.

He said the police must be more active, and called for support helplines to be set up for victims of domestic abuse.

“We still do not have any law criminalising domestic violence of course,” Mr Al Bayati said.

In Iraq, human rights, including women's rights, are in regression, said a female official in government.

"The case of the abuse on a young female in Najaf should shed light on the common but largely ignored cases of domestic violence," she told The National.

“It should prompt authorities to take domestic violence seriously because it has devastating impacts.”