Iraq: Sexualized violence: how to understand and fight it

Open Democracy

Sexualised and gender-based violence in Iraq, highlighted in recent weeks in relation to ISIS atrocities, has been at the heart of sectarian and authoritarian politics and developments since 2003. How can we talk about it and mobilise against it?

by Nadje al-Ali - 3 December 2014

In July 2014, whilst catching up with an older Iraqi male friend, he surprised me  by saying: “ISIS, is going to rape even more women than were raped in Yugoslavia, particularly Shi’a women”.  I was stunned because as a secular, previously staunchly non-sectarian Iraqi he had apparently bought into sectarian propaganda about the danger posed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). At the time, the threat of sexual violence from ISIS was played up heavily by Nouri al-Maliki, then prime minister. After ISIS and other Sunni militants took the city of Mosul on 10 June 2014, Al-Maliki and his allies tried to rally Shia Iraqis, using the threat of sexualized violence as a form of sectarian aggression. As we were having this conversation, I was reminded of reports and facebook postings alleging that ISIS had issued an edict that would force all Iraqi women under their control to undergo FGM. It took a couple of days before the media expressed their doubts and finally declared it a hoax.

Initially, even leading women’s rights activists in Iraq stated that the government had seized on the threat of sexualized violence as a tool for political manipulation — part of a cynical sectarian strategy to maintain power. During this period, Hanaa Edwar, a leading women’s rights activist was quoted as saying: “Women are very low for them [ISIS]; women exist only to serve them. But we have to be careful now. The government is using this to scare people and to get people to protect the regime.” She also stressed that similar tactics were used during Saddam Hussein’s rule: “When the regime felt threatened, it spoke about defending Iraq and defending the honor of the women of Iraq. As if the honor was only with the women and not with the country as a whole.” 

Yet, while I was worried about this political manipulation, I was also painfully aware of the dangers that ISIS would certainly pose to Iraqi women and men. Based on the track record of both Sunni and Shia extremist Islamist groups, as well as ISIS’ own track record in Syria, I was anticipating that the strict control of women’s mobility and bodies including dress codes on the one hand, and violence on the other hand, would be central to their rule and their atrocities. At the time of writing, there have, of course, been many reports of forced marriages, forced prostitution, enslavement and rapes, mainly in relation to Yazidi and Christian women being held captive in Mosul. In mid-August, the United Nations declared the highest level of humanitarian emergency in Iraq and accused ISIS of carrying out acts of sexual violence against women and teenage boys and girls belonging to Iraqi minorities. A spokesperson stated: "Atrocious accounts of abduction and detention of Yazidi, Christian, as well as Turkomen and Shabak women, girls and boys, and reports of savage rapes, are reaching us in an alarming manner."

The episode with my Iraqi friend recounted above sums up the conundrums of  talking about sexualized violence in Iraq. There is no question that it is rampant. However, it is also the case that sexualized violence is politically instrumentalized, often sensationalised and overblown in terms of scope and the threat it presents. It is used as a dehumanizing device deployed as part of wider racist and sectarian culturalist discourses counterposing their ‘barbaric” culture as essentially different from “our” civilised culture,  a difference is that is articulated most dramatically through  the bodies of women. 

So how do we speak about sexualized violence? Do we just try to ignore it and focus on broader forms of structural and political violence? This is certainly not what I am suggesting here. Quite the opposite. Politically and theoretically, we need to recognise that sexualized and gender-based violence underwrites much of the broader structural and political violence we are witnessing. It is central to sectarianism and to extreme forms of authoritarianism. Too often thought about as an add-on, sexualized violence is, in fact, central to all forms and processes of delineating, controlling, oppressing, marginalizing and governing communities. For instance, Deniz Kandiyoti challenges us to problematize the different modalities of sexualised violence in relation to diverse social actors in Afghanistan, differentiating between the ‘privatised’ violence within families as opposed to the forms of violence used in conflict as a systematic tool intimidation, and finally the public performances of Islamic retribution we came to associate with the Taliban.

Talking about the ways in which sexual and gender-based violence is embedded within and productive of broader authoritarian, patriarchal and currently fascistic, trends is a challenge. Mobilizing against sexual violence and engaging in advocacy work is even trickier and remains fraught with tensions. How does transnational feminist solidarity manifest itself in this domain?

Calls for solidarity and feminist positions

On 23 August 2014, the Iraqi Women’s Network issued a statement, calling on the international community to take action against ISIS. The network consists of over 90 NGOs throughout Iraq, with largely female activists of all ethnic and religious backgrounds involved in humanitarian assistance and lobbying. While focusing on women’s rights and gender justice, the Iraqi Women’s Network has also been at the forefront of challenging sectarianism and political authoritarianism. The coordinator of the network, simultaneously head of the Al-Amal organization, Hanaa Edwar, had clashed repeatedly with former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, as his authoritarian politics also translated into a cracking down on political opposition and civil society activism:

“We, the Iraqi women, who participated in the struggle for dignity, equality and democracy, launch today our call to the international community and the women of the world to support us to expose and condemn the terror and crimes committed by ISIS (Da'ish).

Since the 9th of June the Iraqi people have been subjected to the most heinous crimes of genocide, and ethnic and religious cleansing at the hands of ISIS terrorists, through the displacement of about one and a half million civilians from the provinces of Nineveh, Salahadeen, Kirkuk, Diyala and Anbar. Most of the victims are Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen and Shabak. Armed groups took many women and girls from those groups to unknown location. The news are coming from the displaced people, from Sinjar, Tal Afar districts, Bashir sub-district, Mosul city, parts of Nineveh Plain and Amerli sub-district about incidents of kidnapping and harassment against women and girls, as well as assaults and practices reminiscent of prehistoric times, such as the sale of women into sexual slavery, murder, threats, robbery and forcing them to abandon their religions and convert to Islam. This is in addition to the seizure of their houses, looting and destroying their possessions”. 

The statement mentions 160 women who are being held against their will in Badush prison in Mosul, subjected to beatings, torture and sexual assaults. Only the marriage to an ISIS fighter appears to be a way out of prison. On the 21st of August, a woman was publicly beheaded, accused of prostitution. The statement also refers to women being prevented from leaving their houses unless accompanied by male relatives and fully covered including gloves. It also mentions public whipping of women, particularly in the city of Mosul.

At the end of their statement, the Iraqi Women’s Network asks the UN, particularly the Security Council and the international community to act and to take prompt measures to protect women and girls who are victims of ISIS oppression. Given this plea for help, what kind of action by governments and the UN would facilitate the liberation of women and children still held by ISIS?

After consistently opposing military intervention in Iraq before and after 2003, I now find myself in doubt. I have not been able to get myself to go out on the street to protest against US-led targeted military strikes on ISIS. Yet, I fully know that Obama’s bomb dropping is not going to save Iraqi women and men, or make ISIS go away. I am fully aware of the dangers and long-term consequences of western military intervention. But I am currently equally sceptical about other short-term alternatives. I am not convinced that the  Kurdish Regional Government and its affiliated fighters are fully committed to protect religious and ethnic minorities, particularly women. And I am worried about the use of weapons delivered to any militia once ISIS has been defeated.  However, I have to admit that I found myself quietly cheering the female peshmerga of the PKK who have been fighting ISIS jihadis.

The international US-based women’s rights organization Madre appears to be clear and unequivocal in its demands: in addition to the uncontroversial demands for humanitarian aid targeted specifically to the needs of women, and the support of progressive non-sectarian individuals and groups, it also demands the cessation of US airstrikes  and of weapons transfer to the Free Syrian army. But what are the implications of  this policy for the struggle against the horrendous Assad regime?

Without wishing to belittle the heinous atrocities committed by ISIS, particularly against religious minority women, I still feel that a transnational feminist position of solidarity needs to recognize  links to the broader continuum of gender-based and sexualised violence that has been part of the post-invasion scenario of Iraq and recognize that the issue does not start or end with ISIS.

The threat that ISIS poses to Iraqis, particularly women of religious minority background notwithstanding, my frustration about recent discourses and reports, both within western media and Iraqi government circles, is based on widespread hypocrisy. Iraqi politicians and western governments have done nothing over the past decade to stop the rising sexualized and generalized  gender-based violence, despite repeated pleas from Iraqi women’s right activists. To be more precise, Iraqi politicians and western governments have been complicit and, occasionally, even actively involved in various forms of gender-based violence since the invasion of 2003. Verbal and physical intimidation, sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape, forced marriage  - as well as increases in mu’tah or so-called pleasure marriages - trafficking, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation, and honour-based crimes, including killings, have been very much part of the post-invasion scene. According to a comprehensive report published in 2011 by the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, gender–based violence is institutionalized: violence against women is not sufficiently criminalized and victims face harsh laws and practices that treat  them  as criminals. 

Sexualised violence, moreover, does not only affect women and girls: men and boys are also targeted. Most visible to everyone have been the instances of sexualised violence of male Iraqi prisoners at the hands of the US army in Abu Ghraib prison. The shocking images of naked hooded Iraqi men have become emblematic of larger human rights abuses and atrocities in the name of democracy and human rights at the hands of an occupying power. Crucially, it is not only the American and the British army, which have engaged in the torture and frequent sexual assaults of its prisoners. Perpetrators of sexualised violence cut across ethnic, religious and class boundaries and have ranged from the occupation forces, to government officials and militants, resistance and insurgent groups, criminal gangs as well as families.

Men who do not fit in with the ideal of a militarised and heterosexual masculinity have been particularly vulnerable since 2003. Gay men, for example, have been increasingly persecuted, attacked, killed and many were forced to flee Iraq. But even wearing ‘the wrong kind of clothes” or haircuts can be lethal in contemporary Iraq: in 2012, Human Rights Watch and other sources reported frequent attacks on youth, mainly young men, identified as “emos” through their hair and clothes.  These various forms of violence have been working to reconfigure masculinities and femininities in the post-invasion context. But they are also actively employed as tools for new forms of militarised and authoritarian politics.  

The ritualistic, performative sexualised violence of ISIS is particularly outrageous because of the extreme vulnerability of religious minorities, and because the violence is supposedly doctrinally justified. Yet I would argue that ISIS violence is part of complex interlinking configurations of power in which sexualised and gender-based violence are normalised and intrinsic to hyper militarised authoritarianism. Meanwhile my Iraqi friend just called me a couple of days ago, and said: "See, I was right about ISIS raping women in Iraq."