When Shireen hears her brothers say “a cousin belongs to a cousin; she must marry him,” she raises her voice and says: “I will not marry a cousin!” But her mother and her brothers tell her: “It is either the grave, or your cousin!”
That’s how it went 14 yours ago, when then 14-year-old Shireen (now 28) was forced to marry her cousin according to an archaic custom called “wife-for-wife,” (a sort of arranged marriage by which a male and a female, usually siblings, get married off to a female and a male from another family).
But that’s not the entire story of Shireen. After bearing two children, she was divorced. And as she turned 28, she was forced to marry once again. This time to a man of 70.
Shireen now lives at a remote village in the Garmyan region south-east of Kirkuk, but her thoughts and heart remain with her two kids in Tuz Khurmatu.
“When I was child, my father passed away. I was in school and wanted to go to university so that I can have my own income, but when I was 14 everything changed: I was taken out of school and told that it was time for me to get married,” Shireen told KirkukNow.
My mother and my brothers told me that I had to marry my cousin because my brother was to get married to that cousin’s sister
She added: “My mother and my brothers told me that I had to marry my cousin because my brother was to get married to that cousin’s sister. I didn’t want to get married, but they told me ‘cousins belong to each other’.”
Shireen protests at the time and sobbingly tells her mother and brothers: “Let me get an education. I will not marry a cousin.” But one of her brothers tells her: “It is either the grave, or the cousin [for you].”
Thus, Shireen was forced into a marriage to which she was the only one objecting.
A few years after she was married off, in 2014, her brother gets killed during the ISIS war. This event would be the start of another ordeal for Shireen.
“Right after my brother’s funeral, his widow took her children and went back to her parents’ home, and told me: ‘I will never return to your mother’s house’. My uncle’s family asked my other brothers to marry her, but they refused and said ‘we can’t marry our sister-in-law’.”
This creates a new conflict between the two families. Shireen said: “There came a conflict between us. My now-widowed sister-in-law and I were both living in one house. She told me that just as her marriage ended up in misery, mine should as well. I don’t know why she started hating me.”
Shireen says that her relation with her husband was “very good” up until her brother was killed. But after that, she would be subjected to humiliation and beatings.
In order not to be separated from my children, I would accept anything
“In order not to be separated from my children, I would accept anything. We lived at the house of my in-laws. My husband would kick me out frequently, and would even prevent me from seeing my children. It didn’t work. In 2017 he divorced me and threw me out.”
Shireen added: “My life was reduced to beatings and fights. When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband would kick me until he would get tired.”
Shireen has a son and a daughter who live with her husband and can get to see them with great difficulty.
When Iraqi forces retook the Tuz Khurmatu district and other disputed areas from KRG on 16 October 2017, Shireen and her mother fled to a village in Kifri district and later to Rizgari in Kalar district, south-east of Kirkuk.
“One day a relative came to our house and said ‘your daughter is a divorcee; things are not going well and you are displaced. It is better that she gets married.’ I said ‘I will never remarry again, because I have suffered a lot.’ But again, my mother and my brothers threatened and forced me to do it.”
Against her will, Shireen once again is married off to a man from a remote village. The man is 70 years old and has married twice before. His first wife is dead, and the other is bedridden and can’t walk.
I am raising three children who belong to the wife who is dead. And I take care of the other who is bedridden. The farming and raising livestock are also left to me
“I am raising three children who belong to the wife who is dead. And I take care of the other who is bedridden. The farming and raising livestock are also left to me.”
Shireen’s ex-husband has remarried and her children is with them now.
“I cry every day; I miss my children. I keep wondering how they are and what they are doing, wishing to be able to have a glimpse of them.”
Early this year, Shireen traveled to Tuz Khurmatu in secret in order to see her son and daughter.
“I went to the home of a relative who brought my children there in secret. They looked meagre. I hugged them, gave them some food and clothing and left them.”
Forced marriages and ‘wife-for-wife’ are old traditions, but despite all the complications and problems they create, they are still practiced in Iraqi societies, especially in rural areas.
Shireen is among the hundreds of women and girls who pay the double price of a combination of forced marriage and ‘wife-for-wife’ practices. And on top of that, her children were taken away from her as well.
* Shireen is a fictitious name. Her real name is withheld to protect her identity.