The alleged burning and abuse of a young Iraqi woman at the hands of her husband and his family has caused outrage on social media, with activists and commentators calling for laws to protect women from domestic violence.
Videos circulated of Malak Haider al-Zubaidi, 20, bedridden in a hospital in the holy city of Najaf and screaming in pain, her face swollen from burns and her entire body bandaged.
Al-Zubaidi is the second wife of Mohammed al-Mayahli who, according to her family, had forbidden her from visiting her parents for eight months.
Al-Mayahli, a police officer, wrote on his Facebook page that al-Zubeidi has a mental illness and had set herself on fire.
“She burned herself with petrol and accused me and my family,” he wrote. “There are sponsored accounts that are posting these lies just to slander my family.”
Activists reacted with scorn to his words, and some shared an unverified statement from his family, saying that as sons of an important colonel in the army, the law cannot touch them.
While Iraq’s constitution prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family”, the country’s penal code allows husbands to “discipline” their wives, and there is no law criminalising domestic violence.
There are also no updated national figures for domestic violence in Iraq, where the most recent data available is from 2012, but there are estimates that one in five women are victims.
Within hours, a hashtag reading Malak_Haider_AlZubadi in Arabic trended in Iraq.
#ملاك_حيدر_الزبيدي In Iraq,this girl has been burned,the psychological stress experienced by women are great and many,Domestic violence,killing in the name of customs and traditions,early marriage,absence of a law for holding men accountable,no law to limit childbearing,etc. pic.twitter.com/77Gfw6iNYu
— انصفوا العلوم (@yaaaAllahyarab) April 12, 2020
One Twitter user said: “No law against domestic violence is yet activated in Iraq”.
“Even if it is activated, it may remain ink on paper in a country crippled by Islamists, militias and tribes,” the user, Balsam, continued.
Iraqi law as a result only gives lighter sentences of prison to men accused of killing their wives or daughters. No law against domestic violence is yet activated in Iraq. Even if it is activated, it may remain ink on paper in a country gripped by Islamists, militias & tribes/
— Balsam (@M_Balsam) April 12, 2020
Another user, Tara Shwani, called the incident an “intense violation of human rights”.
“On a daily basis physical and mental abuse is practiced against women in our society,” Shwani said. “Most of the people are claiming that it was self-immolation … When are we going to stop blaming the victims and focus instead on the perpetrators!”
On Sunday, Najaf’s governor, Louay al-Yasiri, ordered an investigation into the incident.
The governor’s media office said in a brief statement that al-Yasiri had called for “a specialised investigation team regarding the burning of a Najaf woman and to present the report within 24 hours”.
The Supreme Judicial Council said in a statement that al-Zubeidi filed a formal complaint with the Najaf Investigation Court against her husband for allegedly beating her, leading her to burn herself as a result of the violence against her.
However, al-Zubaidi’s mother told local Iraqi news channel al-Sharqiyah that it had, in fact, been her daughter’s father-in-law who signed the complaint.
“My daughter’s fingers are all burned and swollen,” she said. “The affidavit is null and void, because it was signed by her father-in-law, who told the lawyers he was her father.”
Mohammed Jumaa, an Iraqi lawyer, said he has seen hundreds of cases where the rights and lives of abused women such as Malak were wasted and those responsible were not brought to justice.
“Hundreds of abused women were killed or committed suicide and the law simply just stood there watching,” Jumaa said on Twitter.
“If it wasn’t for social media in this case, then the governor would not have said anything,” he added. “In our country, you have no rights if social media did not sympathise with you.”