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Conflict Zones: Pakistan and Afghanistan


Iraq: The Hidden Crime of Rape

By Anna Badkhen

The three policemen put a burlap sack over Khalida’s head and took her to the Iraqi Interior Ministry in Baghdad. There, they interrogated her and beat her, knocking out her front teeth. Then they tore off her clothes and took turns raping her.

“After they finished, the fourth man came into the room,” Khalida told me, stubbing out one cigarette to light another. “He was an officer. I could see the rank on his shoulders. He looked at me and said: ‘Oh, it’s my bad luck that you’re bleeding, because it was supposed to be my turn.’” The officer ordered his men to get rid of Khalida. They wrapped her in a blanket, put her in a car, and dumped her, hemorrhaging, on a Baghdad sidewalk.

“No one knows exactly how many Iraqi women have been raped since the U.S-led invasion in 2003, but activists in Iraq and abroad put the numbers in the thousands.”

Soon after the rape, Khalida escaped to Jordan, and then to the United States. Her mother and sister still live in Iraq.

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It took weeks of careful negotiations before the reporters gained the trust of women in the shelter.

No one knows exactly how many Iraqi women have been raped since the U.S-led invasion in 2003, but activists in Iraq and abroad put the numbers in the thousands.  Human rights groups began to see an increase in rapes in Iraq immediately after the fall of Hussein’s regime, and evidence that different factions were targeting women. In 2008, Amnesty International reported that “crimes specifically aimed at women and girls, including rape, have been committed by members of Islamist armed groups, militias, Iraqi government forces, foreign soldiers within the U.S.-led Multinational Force, and staff of foreign private military security contractors.”

The report went on to say that such crimes are rarely prosecuted or even recorded by Iraqi officials.

Under Saddam’s Baath Party rule, security forces used torture and rape against political prisoners; and the dictator’s eldest son, Uday, reportedly ordered any woman who caught his eye to be delivered to his palace. But rape was otherwise not widespread.

“There was law,” said Yanar Mohammed, an Iraqi women’s rights advocate and feminist. “Nobody would go around raping.”

“Mohammed became our guide into Iraq’s largely hidden world of sexual abuse against women. Her organization is the only non-governmental group south of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region that operates shelters for rape victims.”

According to Mohammed, who heads the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, a nonprofit group that works directly with rape victims, “By the end of 2003, everyone had a story of five or ten women being kidnapped; some were raped and thrown by the side of the street, others were disappeared.”

Iraqi doctors told me that they also began to see a rise in rape cases one month after the war started. Lawlessness and sectarian violence quickly engulfed Iraq after the fall of Saddam, leaving women particularly vulnerable.  In 2005 alone, Mohammed’s organization estimates that 2,000 girls were raped.

In March 2009, Oxfam reported that the conflict had left an estimated 740,000 Iraqi widows -- most of them losing their husbands since the 2003 invasion. This means hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women have lost the traditional protection of male family members, including husbands, brothers and fathers, leaving them far more defenseless against rape.

In many areas across the country where tribal justice has filled a void left by the war, rape victims become casualties of a double jeopardy. They are often shunned and sometimes killed by family members to remove the perceived shame the abuse has brought on the family’s honor.

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With no other place to go, women often bring their children with them to the shelter.

Hanna Edwar, head of the Iraqi Women’s Network in Baghdad, told me that the practice, known as “honor killings,” has the tacit support of the Iraqi government. While premeditated murder in Iraq carries a prison sentence of at least 15 years, a typical sentence for honor killings is about six months, she said.

“Even our own visit to the safe house in Baghdad carried risk for the women there: as foreigners, we could draw unwanted attention to the shelter. To help protect the shelter’s whereabouts, we were not allowed to take along our translator.”

To find out more about Iraq’s rape crisis, I traveled to Baghdad in March with photojournalist Mimi Chakarova (see her accompanying slideshow). I had already interviewed rape victims from Iraq who were living as refugees in neighboring Jordan. There, I learned of the work Mohammed was doing through her organization in Iraq. It’s also where I met Khalida and heard her story.

Mohammed became our guide into Iraq’s largely hidden world of sexual abuse against women. Her organization is the only non-governmental group south of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region that operates shelters for rape victims.

It took weeks of careful negotiations before we were able to gain the confidence of the women who run the clandestine network of shelters and the women who have sought refuge there. Mohammed and other volunteers live in constant fear of reprisals from sectarian militias.

We stayed at a heavily fortified hotel in downtown Baghdad, outside the relative security of the Green Zone. Whenever we left the hotel, we put on black abaya robes and headscarves to blend in. Interviewing people on the street was out of the question: it would attract too much attention. And when our female Iraqi interpreter did speak to women about their experiences, she often refused to translate their stories because she was embarrassed.

Often, Iraqi women are too ashamed or afraid to report rape to the police; and when they do report abuse, officials typically dismiss their claims. Confirming the Amnesty report, a government spokesman told me that the Iraqi government does not keep records of rape cases. When I asked why not, he refused to elaborate.

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Women put on traditional dress before they go out in public.

Salma Jabou, the advisor to President Jalal Talabani on women’s affairs, told me that Iraq has no laws to protect rape victims. American forces, which are preparing for a gradual withdrawal, also have no authority to interfere. The Ministry for Women’s Affairs, set up in 2003, has made so little difference in protecting women’s rights that Nasal Al-Samaraie, the appointed minister, resigned in March, saying that her mission was “very hard, if not impossible, to achieve.”

The job is mostly left to non-governmental agencies backed by international aid. Mohammed’s shelter network is partially funded by the international women’s rights organization MADRE, based in New York. MADRE’s spokesperson Yifat Susskind told me that Mohammed’s network has given refuge and counseling to thousands of Iraqi women since the first shelter opened in 2004. Despite the need for more support, Mohammed says the Iraqi government has continually denied her group permission to officially operate the shelters or offered to provide any government assistance. Instead, she houses the women in several rundown, rat-infested apartments, hiding the women not only from potential assailants but also from Iraqi authorities.

According to a recent report by Amnesty International, gunmen attacked a women’s shelter in the Kurdish- controlled north. The men were believed to be relatives of a woman seeking refuge inside. Mohammed’s shelters are among only a handful of safe houses for rape victims in the entire country.

Even our own visit to the safe house in Baghdad carried risk for the women there: as foreigners, we could draw unwanted attention to the shelter. To help protect the shelter’s whereabouts, we were not allowed to take along our translator, a postgraduate student at Baghdad University. To reach the safe house, we first had to meet with a volunteer at the organization’s headquarters. There, we put on veils and abayas. For added security, we waited until darkness. Then another volunteer drove us through a dusty maze of Baghdad’s bullet-scarred streets.

When we arrived, we shuffled through the shelter’s unmarked plywood door the way most Iraqi women move about in a place where they have become targets: eyes cast, heads bowed, and in silence -- like shadows.

For a glimpse of life inside the shelter, watch the accompanying slideshow: Iraq: Living in Hiding, by Mimi Chakarova.

Anna Badkhen’s reporting trip to Baghdad was made possible by a grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

 

 

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Los Angeles, CA
Rape is all too often a political weapon. It's meant to break families (in most Arab communities, being a rape victim is considered to dishonor the family), to intimidate, and more darkly, to build cohesion among violent gangs before they trust their own members to do "worse" crimes. Police can't even solve most murders, so they devote few resources to rapes.

Women's rights also divides political factions at the highest level of countries like Iraq. For politicians, whether or not to push for women's rights may be a question of whether they're willing to spark more fighting on the streets between factions.

Like mass murders, and individual murders, and arsons and most crime in Iraq, it's all about politics. Target enough Shiites in an area, and they might move away. The other factions can win gang turf and electoral victories. Commit enough crimes, and you can convince the population that the current elected officials aren't giving any security, and thus boot them out of office. Crime is an extension of politics, but by other means.

Pallavi Shrivastava
Phoenix, AZ

I am forever humbled by gallant women who face these sordid tragedies. Complicated social structure and low expectations enable men to get away with shameful deeds as these.

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