Doski Azad dared to live openly as a transgender woman in Iraqi Kurdistan, but her murder two years ago shattered the enclave’s reputation as a relatively liberal haven in a hostile region.
Today, her killer remains at large and LGBTQIA+ people in the mountainous, semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq say the case highlights widespread impunity as attacks go unpunished and rights defenders are censured.
“Every time something like this happens, it’s a slap in the face. It brings you back to reality and it grounds you in this reality that is very hostile,” one LGBTQIA+ Iraqi Kurdish man told Openly, asking to be identified only as Mohammed.
While the semi-autonomous enclave has enjoyed relative peace and its Western-backed government is perceived as more liberal than elsewhere in the Middle East, Kurdish society, especially in rural areas, is still deeply conservative.
The Iraqi Kurdish government presents the region as an island of peaceful coexistence between religious and ethnic groups, but LGBTQIA+ rights advocates say authorities’ handling of Azad’s murder shines a spotlight on the harsh reality for gay, bisexual and trans people in the region of 5 million people.
“The lack of progress sends a clear signal that justice is not a priority,” said Razaw Salihy, Amnesty International Iraq researcher.
“This is not shocking as LGBTI victims or survivors of violent attacks are not likely to find an empathetic ear in law enforcement in the Kurdistan Region, or Iraq,” Salihy said.
Azad’s badly beaten and mutilated body was found dumped near the small village of Babokhky, in the northwest of Iraqi Kurdistan, three days after she disappeared on Jan. 28, 2022.
Friends said Azad had been working in a beauty salon in the nearby city of Duhok and out of fear had avoided contact with her family. One friend said he had warned Azad about living as a woman in public, one of only a handful to do so in Kurdistan.
“Don’t you know how dangerous this is?” the friend said he asked. “‘I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s my life,'” she replied.
Kurdish authorities said Azad’s brother, Chakdar Azad, had recently returned to Kurdistan from Europe and was the prime suspect in the case. Media said it was a so-called “honour killing”, carried out to protect the family name.
But Kurdish officials said Chakdar Azad had already fled the country by the time the body was discovered. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said it had appealed to Interpol, but he had not been found.
The KRG’s Coordinator for International Advocacy Dindar Zebari, who handles the government’s human rights portfolio, said an investigation into the case was ongoing. A KRG Interior Ministry official declined to comment.
Gay sex is not illegal in Iraq, though statutes that ban “immodest acts” are used to target LGBTQIA+ people.
And in the past two years, religious conservatives have pushed to explicitly outlaw same-sex relations in a bill that is slowly making its way through the Baghdad parliament.
The Kurdistan region often ignores laws passed by the central government, but are signs of a conservative pushback targeting the LGBTQIA+ community.
Last year, a regional court shut down the Rasan human rights group after a lawmaker filed a lawsuit accusing the organisation of promoting homosexuality.
In 2022, a small Islamist party also introduced a bill to the Kurdish parliament to criminalise gay sex. Despite significant cross-party support, the bill was eventually dropped.
Hiding from view
Members of the LGBTQIA+ community in Iraqi Kurdistan said such incidents had added to growing concerns for their personal safety in the two years since Azad’s murder.
All of the LGBTQIA+ people who spoke to Openly said they had experienced or feared violent attacks, and said they were afraid to report them to the police.
Others said they struggled with feelings of isolation.
“I don’t have any connections here that I talk about this with,” said one non-binary person, someone who identifies as neither male or female, gesturing towards the village surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
“Most of the time I just stay at home. (My family) knows nothing,” said the person, who declined to be named.
Too scared to come out to their families and neighbours, many LGBTQIA+ people from the region instead seek online communities, Mohammed said.
“The community had to be hidden. It had to be behind closed doors, or online, but we have managed to foster some sense of community in the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and across the region too,” he said. “They are now my chosen family.”
Reporting by Winthrop Rodgers.
GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQIA+ news to a global audience.