Five American soldiers have been charged in a horrendous rape and
murder case in Iraq (and a sixth for not reporting it). In the United
States, rape is now a public crime. Cases are regularly discussed and
followed in the media; victims are far less often blamed; if you turn
on a TV program like Law & Order: SVU, rape cases are national drama and even entertainment.
In Iraq, rape remains a crime largely kept out of the sight of a
society that finds it almost too heinous to imagine (which doesn't
necessarily make it uncommon). Consider, for instance, the comments of
an Iraqi journalist, Raheem Salman, who works for the Los Angeles Times and who interviewed the first relative to enter the house of the 14 year old victim after she had been raped and murdered, and her body partially burned by American soldiers:
Finally, consider the fine reporter Nir Rosen, who has spent much of
the last three years as an independent journalist in Iraq -- and who
looks Iraqi enough (his father was Iranian) to have been able to
experience both sides of the occupation. He has been embedded with U.S.
troops, but also embedded with ordinary Iraqis. ("My skin color and
language skills allowed me to relate to the American occupier in a
different way, for he looked at me as if I were just another haji, the "gook" of the war in Iraq.") At the Truthdig website,
he writes a summary account of the American occupation ("creating
enemies instead of eliminating them") as he encountered it that has to
be read to be believed. He concludes:
In a similar way, the now highly publicized rape and murder of an Iraqi
girl by American soldiers focuses attention on one horrifying case of
sexual terrorism, but not on the larger issue of what has actually
happened to the majority of Iraqi women in the wake of the American
invasion and occupation of their country. Ruth Rosen, a former
columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, as well as the author of a superb history of the modern women's movement, The World Split Open,
explores this distinctly under-reported but crucial topic: What, in
fact, has the Bush administration's "liberation" of Iraqi women meant
since 2003? Tom
The Hidden War on Women in Iraq
By Ruth Rosen
Abu Ghraib. Haditha. Guantanamo. These are words that shame our
country. Now, add to them Mahmudiya, a town 20 miles south of Baghdad.
There, this March, a group of five American soldiers allegedly were
involved in the rape and murder of Abeer Qassim Hamza, a young Iraqi
girl. Her body was then set on fire to cover up their crimes, her
father, mother, and sister murdered. The rape of this one girl, if
proven true, is probably not simply an isolated incident. But how would
we know? In Iraq, rape is a taboo subject. Shamed by the rape,
relatives of this girl wouldn't even hold a public funeral and were
reluctant to reveal where she is buried.
Like women everywhere, Iraqi women have always been vulnerable to rape.
But since the American invasion of their country, the reported
incidence of sexual terrorism has accelerated markedly. -- and this
despite the fact that few Iraqi women are willing to report rapes
either to Iraqi officials or to occupation forces, fearing to bring
dishonor upon their families. In rural areas, female rape victims may
also be vulnerable to "honor killings" in which male relatives murder
them in order to restore the family's honor. "For women in Iraq," Amnesty International
concluded in a 2005 report, "the stigma frequently attached to the
victims instead of the perpetrators of sexual crimes makes reporting
such abuses especially daunting."
This specific rape of one Iraqi girl, however, is now becoming symbolic
of the way the Bush administration has violated Iraq's honor; Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has already launched an inquest into the crime. In an administration that normally doesn't know the meaning of an apology, the American ambassador,
Zalmay Khalilzad, and the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. George
W. Casey Jr., both publicly apologized. In a fierce condemnation, the Muslim Scholars Association
in Iraq denounced the crime: "This act, committed by the occupying
soldiers, from raping the girl to mutilating her body and killing her
family, should make all humanity feel ashamed."
Shame, yes, but that is hardly sufficient. After all, rape is now considered a war crime by the International Criminal Court.
It wasn't always that way. Soldiers have long viewed women as the
spoils of war, even when civilian or military leaders condemned such
behavior, but in the early 1990s, a new international consensus began
to emerge on the act of rape. Prodded by an energized global women's
movement, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993. Subsequent statutes in the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, as well as the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court in July 2002, all defined rape as a crime against humanity or a war crime.
No one accuses American soldiers of running through the streets of
Iraq, raping women as an instrument of war against the insurgents
(though such acts are what caused three Bosnian soldiers, for the first time in history, to be indicted in 2001 for the war crime of rape).
Still, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has had the effect of
humiliating, endangering, and repressing Iraqi women in ways that have
not been widely publicized in the mainstream media: As detainees in
prisons run by Americans, they have been sexually abused and raped; as
civilians, they have been kidnapped, raped, and then sometimes sold for
prostitution; and as women -- and, in particular, as among the more
liberated women in the Arab world -- they have increasingly disappeared
from public life, many becoming shut-ins in their own homes.
Rape and sexual humiliation in prisons
The scandal of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib focused on the torture,
sexual abuse, and humiliation of Iraqi men. A variety of sources
suggest that female prisoners suffered similar treatment, including
Few Americans probably realize that the American-run prison at Abu
Ghraib also held female detainees. Some of them were arrested by
Americans for political reasons -- because they were relatives of
Baathist leaders or because the occupying forces thought they could use
them as bargaining chips to force male relatives to inform on
insurgents or give themselves up.
According to a Human Rights Watch report,
the secrecy surrounding female detentions "resulted from a collusion of
the families and the occupying forces." Families feared social stigma;
the occupying forces feared condemnation by human rights groups and
anger from Iraqis who saw such treatment of women by foreigners as a
special act of violation.
On the condition of anonymity and in great fear, some female detainees
nevertheless did speak with human rights workers after being released
from detention. They have described
beatings, torture, and isolation. Like their male counterparts, they
reserve their greatest bitterness for sexual humiliations suffered in
American custody. Nearly all female detainees reported being threatened
with rape. Some women were interrogated naked and subjected to derision
and humiliating remarks by soldiers.
The British Guardian
reported that one female prisoner managed to smuggle a note out of Abu
Ghraib. She claimed that American guards were raping the few female
detainees held in the prison and that some of them were now pregnant.
In desperation, she urged the Iraqi resistance to bomb the jail in
order to spare the women further shame.
Amal Kadham Swadi, one of seven Iraqi female attorneys attempting to represent imprisoned women, told the Guardian
that only one woman she met with was willing to speak about rape. "She
was crying. She told us she had been raped. Several American soldiers
had raped her. She had tried to fight them off, and they had hurt her
arm. She showed us the stitches. She told us, 'We have daughters and
husbands. For God's sake don't tell anyone about this.'"
Professor Huda Shaker, a political scientist at Baghdad University, also told the Guardian
that women in Abu Ghraib have been sexually abused and raped. She
identified one woman, in particular, who was raped by an American
military policeman, became pregnant, and later disappeared.
Professor Shaker added, "A female colleague of mine was arrested and
taken there. When I asked her after she was released what happened at
Abu Ghraib, she started crying. Ladies here are afraid and shy of
talking about such subjects. They say everything is OK. Even in a very
advanced society in the west it is very difficult to talk about rape."
Shaker, herself, encountered a milder form of sexual abuse at the
hands of one American soldier. At a checkpoint, she said, an American
soldier "pointed the laser sight [of his gun] directly in the middle of
my chestů Then he pointed to his penis. He told me, 'Come here, bitch,
I'm going to fuck you.'"
Writing from Baghdad, Luke Hardin of the Guardian reported
that at Abu Ghraib journalists have been forbidden from talking to
female detainees, who are cloistered in tiny windowless cells. Senior
US military officers who have escorted journalists around Abu Ghraib,
however, have admitted that rapes of women took place in the cellblock
where 19 "high-value" male detainees were also being held. Asked how
such abuse could have happened, Colonel Dave Quantock, now in charge of
the prison's detention facilities, responded, "I don't know. It's all
about leadership. Apparently it wasn't there."
No one should be surprised that women detainees, like male ones, were
subjected to sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib. Think of the photographs we've
already seen from that prison. If acts of ritual humiliation could be
used to "soften up" men, then the rape of female detainees is hardly
But how can we be sure? In January, 2004, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the
senior U.S. military official in Iraq, ordered Maj. Gen. Antonio M.
Taguba to investigate persistent allegations of human rights abuses at
Abu Ghraib. The Taguba Report
confirmed that in at least one instance a U.S. military policeman had
raped at least one female prisoner and that guards had videotaped and
photographed naked female detainees. Seymour Hersh also reported in a 2004 issue of the New Yorker
magazine that these secret photos and videos, most of which still
remain under wraps by the Pentagon, show American soldiers "having sex
with a female Iraqi prisoner." Additional photos have made their way to
the web sites of Afterdowningstreet.org and Salon.com. In one photograph, a woman is raising her shirt, baring her breasts, presumably as she was ordered to do.
The full range of pictures and videotapes are likely to show a great
deal more. Members of Congress who viewed all the pictures and
videotapes from Abu Ghraib seemed genuinely shaken
and sickened by what they saw. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist,
R-Tenn called them "appalling;" then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle
described them as "horrific." Ever since the scandal broke in April
2004, human rights and civil liberties groups have been engaged in a
legal battle with the Department of Defense, demanding that it release
the rest of the visual documents. Only when all those documents are
available to the general public will we have a clearer -- and
undoubtedly more ghastly -- record of the sexual acts forced upon both
female and male detainees.
Sexual Terrorism on the Streets
Meanwhile, the chaos of the war has also led to a rash of kidnappings
and rapes of women outside of prison walls. After interviewing rape and
abduction victims, as well as eyewitnesses, Iraqi police and health
professionals, and U.S. military police and civil affairs officers,
Human Rights Watch released a report in July, 2003, titled Climate of Fear: Sexual Violence and Abduction of Women and Girls in Baghdad.
Only months after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, they had already learned
of twenty-five credible allegations of the rape and/or abduction of
Iraqi women. Not surprisingly, the report found that "police officers
gave low priority to allegations of sexual violence and abduction, that
the police were under-resourced, and that victims of sexual violence
confronted indifference and sexism from Iraqi law enforcement
personnel." Since then, as chaos, violence, and bloodletting have
descended on Iraq, matters have only gotten worse.
After the American invasion, local gangs began roaming Baghdad,
snatching girls and women from the street. Interviews with human rights
investigators have produced some horrifying stories. Typical was
nine-year-old "Saba A." who was abducted from the stairs of the
building where she lives, taken to an abandoned building nearby, and
raped. A family friend who saw Saba A. immediately following the rape
told Human Rights Watch:
"She was sitting on the stairs, here, at 4:00 p.m. It
seems to me that probably he hit her on the back of the head with a gun
and then took her to [a neighboring] building. She came back fifteen
minutes later, bleeding [from the vaginal area]. [She was still
bleeding two days later, so] we took her to the hospital."
The medical report by the U.S. military doctor who treated Saba A.
"documented bruising in the vaginal area, a posterior vaginal tear, and
a broken hymen."
In 2005, Amnesty International also interviewed abducted women. The
story of "Asma," a young engineer, was representative. She was shopping
with her mother, sister, and a male relative when six armed men forced
her into a car and drove her to a farmhouse outside the city. They
repeatedly raped her. A day later, the men drove her to her
neighborhood and pushed her out of the car.
As recently as June 2006, Mayada Zhaair,
spokeswoman for the Women's Rights Association, a local NGO, reported,
"We've observed an increase in the number of women being sexually
abused and raped in the past four months, especially in the capital."
No one knows how many abducted women have never returned. As one Iraqi
police inspector testified, "Some gangs specialize in kidnapping girls,
they sell them to Gulf countries. This happened before the war too, but
now it is worse, they can get in and out without passports." Others
interviewed by Human Rights Watch argued that such trafficking in women
had not occurred before the invasion.
The U.S. State Department's June 2005 report
on the trafficking of women suggested that the extent of the problem in
Iraq is "difficult to appropriately gauge" under current chaotic
circumstances, but cited an unknown number of Iraqi women and girls
being sent to Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and Persian Gulf countries for
In May 2006, Brian Bennett wrote in Time Magazine
that a visit to "the Khadamiyah Women's Prison in the northern part of
Baghdad immediately produces several tales of abduction and
abandonment. A stunning 18-year-old nicknamed Amna, her black hair
pulled back in a ponytail, says she was taken from an orphanage by an
armed gang just after the US invasion and sent to brothels in Samarra,
al-Qaim on the border with Syria, and Mosul in the north before she was
taken back to Baghdad, drugged with pills, dressed in a suicide belt
and sent to bomb a cleric's office in Khadamiyah, where she turned
herself in to the police. A judge gave her a seven-year jail sentence
'for her sake' to protect her from the gang, according to the prison
"Families and courts," Bennett reported, "are usually so shamed by
the disappearance [and presumed rape] of a daughter that they do not
report these kidnappings. And the resulting stigma of compromised
chastity is such that even if the girl should resurface, she may never
be taken back by her relations."
To avoid such dangers, countless Iraqi women have become shut-ins in
their own homes. Historian Marjorie Lasky has described this situation
in "Iraqi Women Under Siege," a 2006 report for Codepink, an anti-war
women's organization. Before the war, she points out, many educated
Iraqi women participated fully in the work force and in public life.
Now, many of them rarely go out. They fear kidnap and rape; they are
terrified of getting caught in the cross-fire between Americans and
insurgents; they are frightened by sectarian reprisals; and they are
scared of Islamic militants who intimidate or beat them if they are not
"In the British-occupied south," Terri Judd reported in the British Independent,"where Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi's Army retains a stranglehold, women insist
the situation is at its worst. Here they are forced to live behind
closed doors only to emerge, concealed behind scarves, hidden behind
husbands and fathers. Even wearing a pair of trousers is considered an
act of defiance, punishable by death."
Invisible women -- for some Iraqi fundamentalist Islamic leaders, this
is a dream come true. The Ministry of the Interior, for example,
recently issued notices warning women not to go out on their own. "This
is a Muslim country and any attack on a woman's modesty is also an
attack on our religious beliefs," said Salah Ali, a senior ministry
official. Religious leaders in both Sunni and Shiite mosques have used
their sermons to persuade their largely male congregations to keep
working women at home. "These incidents of abuse just prove what we
have been saying for so long," said Sheikh Salah Muzidin, an imam at a
mosque in Baghdad. "That it is the Islamic duty of women to stay in
their homes, looking after their children and husbands rather than
searching for work---especially with the current lack of security in
In the early 1970s, American feminists redefined rape and argued that
it was an act driven not by sexual lust, but by a desire to exercise
power over another person. Rape, they argued, was an act of terrorism
that kept all women from claiming their right to public space. That is
precisely what has happened to Iraqi women since the American invasion
of Iraq. Sexual terrorism coupled with religious zealotry has stolen
their right to claim their place in public life.
This, then, is a hidden part of the unnecessary suffering loosed by
the reckless invasion of Iraq. Amid the daily explosions and gunfire
that make the papers is a wave of sexual terrorism, whose exact
dimensions we have no way of knowing, and that no one here notices,
unleashed by the Bush administration in the name of exporting
"democracy" and fighting "the war on terror."
Historian and journalist Ruth Rosen teaches history and public
policy at U.C. Berkeley and is a senior fellow at the Longview
Institute. A new edition of her most recent book, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (Penguin, 2001), will be published with an updated epilogue in 2007.
Copyright 2006 Ruth Rosen