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Iraqi Women, Fighting for a Voice; Activists Confront Dual Powers of Religion, Tribalism

Oval-faced with curly, brown hair, Rashid grew up in a secular Kurdish family in Sulaymaniyah, the main city of eastern Kurdistan. In high school, she read socialist writers and joined the student union. When Hussein's Baath Party tried to expel the school's female dean for not joining the party, Rashid led a demonstration to protest the expulsion. The dean was reinstated.

After college she became a journalist, covering women's issues. Today she lives alone, unconventional for most single Iraqi women. A Jennifer Lopez poster hangs on her living room wall.

Rashid, 36, writes a column for a magazine run by Shawushka, a women's group named after a Kurdish goddess. The bimonthly publication has 2,000 readers, but its Web site provides a wider reach. Rashid also appears frequently on Kurdish television networks, where she routinely criticizes the government.

Such pressure helped push the regional Interior Ministry to launch a task force to combat violence against women, but it is also seen as a threat to traditional values. "Women are trapped in a moral and cultural tug of war," said Pakshan Zangana, a Kurdish lawmaker. "There are forces trying to pull women into the 21st century. Then, there are other forces pulling women backwards, to keep them as second-class citizens."

In her columns, Rashid has railed against forcing women to wear head scarves and battled for the rights of imprisoned women. Mostly, Rashid writes about "honor crimes" -- tribal killings and burnings of women accused of engaging in premarital sex or adultery.

Iraqi laws allow for leniency for such killings, but Kurdish authorities have made the crimes equivalent to any other murder. Yet the violence has mounted since the invasion. Activists say that police rarely enforce the law, fearing tribal disputes; and when they do, perpetrators are still handed light punishments.

In the first six months of this year, 206 women were killed in Kurdistan, 150 of them burned to death. The killings were up 30 percent from the previous six months, according to the Kurdish regional government's Human Rights Ministry. Activists say many honor crimes go unreported or are portrayed as accidents. They also say that some women have immolated themselves out of despair.

Rashid has received numerous death threats. In an e-mail, someone threatened to rape her for being un-Islamic. When Rashid complained, a police officer told her to stop fighting for women's rights.

The ex-husband of her friend Hussein, Rashid said, also vowed to kill her after she published her article. "The police didn't pursue him because they considered it an honor killing," Rashid said. "He is still free today." Repeated efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Ari Rafiq, an Interior Ministry official who heads its task force on women, said his men were searching for the ex-husband. "There are eyewitnesses who saw him murder her," Rafiq said.

Iraq's constitution states that men and women are equal under the law. But it also states that no laws can be passed that are inconsistent with Islam, allowing for ultraconservative interpretations, female activists say.

Kurdish lawmakers are trying to enact regional legislation that would outlaw forced and early marriages, female genital mutilation and honor killings. They would also give women greater rights and status in marriage, divorce and inheritance. But the lawmakers acknowledge that such measures will be difficult to pass and even harder to enforce.

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