Iraq: Event - ‘Breaking the silence’: women & violence in Iraq today


Marking International Women’s Month and 8 years since the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq (March 2003), the UK based group of Iraqi and non-Iraqi women Act Together - Women’s Action for Iraq held a talk on 22 March at SOAS on women and violence in Iraq today. Professor Nadje Al-Ali and Dr Nicola Pratt presented some of the latest research findings on gender-based violence and the issues women are facing in Iraq at present. With the numbers of civilians who have lost their lives since the war begun still being contested, they both feel the need to draw attention to the human side of the story behind these numbers, especially when it comes to women’s experiences and ordeals, nowadays seldom reported and studied.

The situation varies according to region and city, but, in general, women living in central and southern Iraq often face harassment on the streets, restrictions to their movement and are constantly in fear of falling victim to sexual assault and abductions. Domestic violence is scarcely reported, as the Iraqi penal code allows husbands to discipline their wives "within the limits dictated by Islamic law", and there are also few women denouncing the torture and abuse experienced in prison and at the hands of security and police forces (documented by Human Rights Watch and others), fearing the stigma attached to rape. The socio-economic conditions on ground - the huge rates of female and male unemployment - also expose women to poverty. The plight of 3 million Iraqi widows unable to claim the government’s pension due to state institutions' lack of capacity should not be forgotten. Poverty is also exposing the poorest of women and girls to human trafficking, most of whom are shipped to the Gulf countries to work in the sex industry.

In the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, an area that has seen major outside investments and the strengthening of security, honour-based violence is also widespread, from the control of what women wear and how they behave to the denial of education. The rise in suicides among women and honour killings is particularly worrying. Though the latter crime is considered illegal by the Kurdish Constitution, the perpetrators are rarely prosecuted and the steps taken by Kurdish Regional Government to address the problem, for example their sponsored report on honour-based violence in Iraq, are insufficient and unable to implement changes on ground, partly as a result of the different positions held within the government. 

Despite this situation and the lack of safety, Iraqi women are still trying their best to support their families and obtain an education that will enable them to contribute in the reconstruction of their country. The silence surrounding the violence they are daily subjected to needs to be broken. 

By Alaya Beatrice Whittingham Forte

24 March 2011


Professor Nadje Al-Ali and Dr Nicola Pratt are co-authors of the 2009 book What kind of liberation? Women and the Occupation in Iraq(University of California Press) and a series of articles on war in Iraq and the Middle East. The article they presented is to be shortly published in a political affairs US-based magazine.

The talk was followed by a clip from Maysoon Pachachi’s 2009 documentary ‘Her Our Feelings took the Pictures: Open Shutters Iraq’. Maysoon Pachachi is a film maker of Iraqi origin and amongst the co-founders, together with Nadje Al-Ali, of Act Together - Women’s Action for Iraq.