BAGHDAD—Salma Jassim was beaten, kicked out of her marital home with her newborn daughter on her shoulder and then deserted by her husband. But she says the threat she faces from her own family, who feel shamed because of her divorce, is just as bad as the abuse.
There are few places in Iraq where Jassim can turn for help. Iraqi experts believe that domestic abuse has increased during the years of war and economic hardship since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But attempts to strengthen laws to protect women have gone nowhere in the face of heavy cultural and religious resistance.
The World Health Organization has estimated that one in five Iraqi women has reported being a victim of domestic violence, and experts say the rate is much higher. Government officials say for the time being there's little hope that laws giving men wide rights to "discipline" their wives will be changed.
"There are abusive laws against women ... but we believe that in this era, this project will be rejected," said the Human Rights Ministry's spokesman Kamil Amin. "Politicians have no will to change these abusive laws."
State Minister for Women's Affairs Ibtihal al-Zaidi agreed.
"The new reforms might raise issues against Islamic laws as well as tribal and traditional norms," she said. "It is a very sensitive issue."
Al-Zaidi's ministry is working with other ministries along with civil society organizations in coordination with the United Nations to finalize a national strategic plan for the advancement of women, combating violence against women, and preparing draft legislation to protect against domestic violence.
However, al-Zaidi said she was "very hesitant" to present the draft legislation to parliament because of unsuccessful attempts made by Iraq's Human Rights Ministry to repeal discriminatory provisions.
"The Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council thwarted our attempts under the pretext that the time was not right for such amendments which would be rejected by the Iraqi street because they conflict with religious, tribal and traditional norms," said Amin, the Rights Ministry spokesman. "Not only male lawmakers but even some female lawmakers stood against such reforms because of their extreme religious convictions."
At issue is Iraq's penal code, written in 1969, that excuses crimes "if the act is committed while exercising a legal right." Husbands punishing their wives, and parents and teachers punishing children are considered permissible "within certain limits prescribed by law or by custom."
In Iraq, some tribes and fundamental Muslim sects believe that Islamic laws allow husbands to beat unruly wives, and even for families to kill women relatives who are accused of bringing shame upon the home, such as in cases of adultery. The authority given to husbands can sometimes be exploited by their families to abuse wives as well.
More often than not, women like Jassim routinely are blamed instead of helped.
Jassim said her husband's family, which became wealthy after their son started a thriving car spare parts business, was ashamed of her because of her humble background.
She said her husband's sisters beat her so badly her breast milk dried up and she could not feed her baby. The sisters one day kicked her and her baby out of the house, even ripping her headscarf and some of her hair off, she said. Jassim's husband eventually divorced her after his sisters accused her of stealing money from them.
But when Jassim, 22, returned to her family home with her baby, her brothers blamed her for the entire debacle and said she'd shamed their family by being kicked out and divorced. They refused to let her leave the house, held her at gunpoint and threatened to kill her.
"I accept insult, degradation and abuse rather than the hellish condition I am living in now," Jassim said recently, sitting in the Baghdad office of an Iraqi aid agency that offers legal advice to such women.
In September, Iraq was named among 34 countries that will share a $17.1 million grant from the U.N. for programs to end violence against women. The U.N. says the money can be used to give women legal and medical access, provide counseling for men and women and other programs.
Even small efforts to curb domestic violence short of changing the law have largely failed, officials and experts say.
Last year, the Interior Ministry opened two women's protection centers in Baghdad, where victims can file abuse complaints with police. The centers are sponsored by the State Ministry for Women's Affairs, which opened at least one in each of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Police Col. Mushtaq Talib, who oversees the two centers in Baghdad, said women rarely file complaints because "they would end up homeless, for their families would surely reject them."
At any one time, Talib said, the centers deal with less than a combined 100 cases which were referred to them from court.
The WHO study found that 21 percent of Iraqi women -- out of the country's population of 30,747,000 -- reported being victims of domestic violence in a survey taken in 2006 and 2007, the latest data available.
Talib said the actual number of domestic abuse victims likely is far higher. A 2010 U.N. report concluded that while it's impossible to gauge how often Iraq women are beaten by family members since so few report it, "the problem may be widespread."
In its own study, Iraq's Human Rights Ministry found that domestic violence was a factor in the nationwide increase in divorce cases, Amin said. In 2010, 53,840 marriages ended in divorce, compared to 52,649 in 2009 and 28,800 in 1997, according to the latest available U.N. and Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council data.
In previous generations, women suffering domestic abuse would stay with their husbands regardless of how bad it got. But Amin said now Iraqi women are starting to push back and ask for a divorce when they're abused.
These women who are "better educated, enlightened and aware of their rights," he said. "They are ready to sacrifice their married life for the sake of preserving their dignity."
But even so, many women prefer to stay in abusive relationships because the social stigma of divorce isn't just embarrassing -- it can put them in danger of their own families as Jassim's divorce did.
"When divorced women leave one abusive family, they fall victims to another abusive family," said lawyer Wijdan Khalaf. "In our society, women have no options. There is no social protection."