A decade on from the US-led invasion of Iraq, the destruction caused by foreign
occupation and the subsequent regime has had a massive impact on Iraqis’ daily
life – the most disturbing example of which is violence against women. At the
same time, the sectarian regime’s policy on religious garb is forcing women to
retire their hard-earned rights across the spectrum: employment, freedom of
movement, civil marriage, welfare benefits, and the right to education and
Instead, they are seeking survival and protection for themselves and their
families. But for many, the violence they face comes from the very institution
that should guarantee their safety: the government. Iraqi regime officials
often echo the same denials of the US-UK occupation authorities, saying that
there are few or no women detainees. An increasing number of international
and Iraqi human rights organizations reports otherwise.
The plight of women detainees was the starting point for the mass protests
that have spread through many Iraqi provinces since 25 December 2012.
Their treatment by the security forces has been a bleeding wound – and
one shrouded in secrecy, especially since 2003. Women have been
routinely detained as hostages – a tactic to force their male loved ones to
surrender to security forces, or confess to crimes ascribed to them.
Banners and placards carried by hundreds of thousands of protesters
portray images of women behind bars pleading for justice.
According to Mohamed al-Dainy, an Iraqi MP, there was
1,053 cases of documented rape (pdf) cases by the occupying troops
and Iraqi forces between 2003 and 2007. Lawyers acting on behalf
of former detainees say that UK detention practices between 2003
and 2008 included unlawful killings, beatings, hooding, sleep
deprivation, forced nudity and sexual humiliation, sometimes
involving women and children. The abuses were endemic, allege
the detainees’ lawyers, arising from the
“systems, management culture and training” of the British military.
These same occupation forces trained Iraqi forces. Abuses often
occurred under the supervision of US commanders, who were
unwilling to intervene, as the Washington Post reported:
“Of all the bloodshed in Iraq, none may be more disturbing than
the campaign of torture and murder being conducted by
US-trained government police forces.”
In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, detainees were handed over to Iraqi
forces. This enabled them to be tortured, while occupation troops
could disclaim responsibility.
Today, Iraq can boast one of the highest execution rates in the world.
In a single day, 19 January 2012, 34 individuals, including two women,
were executed – an act described by
UN High Commissioner for Human RightsNavi Pillay as shocking:
“Given the lack of transparency in court proceedings, major
concerns about due process and fairness of trials, and the
very wide range of offences for which the death penalty can
be imposed in Iraq.”
No wonder, ten years after the invasion, the Iraqi authorities are
accused by US-based Human Rights Watch of
HRW’s account is echoed by a
report by the Iraqi parliament’s own human rights and women, family and children’s committees, which found that there are 1,030 women detainees
suffering from widespread abuse, including threats of rape.
Responding to these findings, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
threatened to “arrest those members of parliament who had discussed
the violence against women detainees“. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime
Minister Hussain al-Shahristani has acknowledged that there
but he only mentioned women detainees in passing:
“We transferred all women prisoners to prisons in their
Al-Shahristani’s statement is one in a long list of contradictory
and misleading statements by the regime’s most senior officials –
from al-Maliki speaking of “not more than a handful of women
terrorists”, to his contradictory promise that he will pardon all
“women detainees who have been arrested without a judicial
order or in lieu of a crime committed by some of their male
relatives”. That assurance was followed by parading nine women,
cloaked in black from head to toe, on the official state TV channel,
al-Iraqiya, as a gesture of the regime’s “good will”.
Protesters and Iraqi human rights organizations estimate that there
are as many as 5,000 female detainees. The truth is leaking out, drip
by drip. A few weeks ago, 168 women detainees were released and
there were promises of another 32 waiting to be released. No one
accused of torture, rape or abuse has yet been brought to justice.
And it was all supposed to be so different. That was what Iraqi
women were promised.
A political quota system, established in post-invasion Iraq, was
designed to ensure that at least 25% of the members of the parliament
were women. That was applauded as a great achievement of the
“New Iraq” – compared with 8% female representation under Ba’athist
regime. But this token statistic has repeatedly been trotted out to
cover up the regime’s crimes against women.
In reality, the al-Maliki government has since dispensed with the
quota for government posts: there is only one woman minister among
44 positions. But even this appointment contains a grim irony:
the minister for women’s affairs, Ibtihal al-Zaidi, didn’t hesitate to
“I am against the equality between men and woman.
If women are equal to men, they are going to lose a lot.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many women’s organisations have
demanded the abolition of the ministry of women’s affairs after
the minister adopted a position against, rather than for,
Human rights, including women’s rights, are a litmus test for
democracy. Statements by senior officials, including the prime
minister himself, show that – contrary to what some Iraqis had
hoped for – the “liberators” have actually set the conditions for
the continuity of injustice. And that, in turn, gives rise to extremism.