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Iraqi Women and Torture, Rapes and Rumors of Rape

by : Lila Rajiva
Saturday July 31, 2004 - 03:36

by Lila Rajiva

Part One & II

By now, everyone has heard of the ghost detainees of Abu Ghraib — the prisoners who were never processed into the system and were kept out of sight of the Red Cross so that they could be whisked from prison to prison unaccounted for. But what about the other ghosts detainees — the women? Where are the women of Abu Ghraib and why have they been kept out of sight?

When the Abu Ghraib story first broke at the end of April, no one appears to have found it peculiar that only male prisoners were shown in the abuse pictures. There was no indication in that first week that pictures of females might have been withheld; there simply appeared to be none, although the army’s administrative report prepared by Major General Antonio Taguba offered a hint of something festering under the surface when it talked of a member of the military police "having sex" with a prisoner, which of course leaves the impression of some kind of consensual act. But how credible is that? Do soldiers and enemy prisoners usually have consensual sex? Doesn’t the element of power involved make that on its face an improbability, if not an impossibility? If there was one instance that managed to make it onto tape, how strange that there should be no others at all. Stranger still that few mainstream journalists in the West appear to have asked any hard questions about the inexplicable absence of women from the torture pictures

It’s not that reports haven’t come in about rape, but they have been about American women, soldiers and officers, assaulted by GI’s. A January 24 article by Miles Moffeit described 37 women serving in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq as having gone in for sexual trauma counseling. (1) Extrapolating from that, a thoughtful investigator might arrive at an unknown but certainly higher number of American women who are likely to have been raped or assaulted, for according to the National Victim Center usually only about 16% of all rapes are reported. (2) Someone might reasonably infer from this that the women of the defeated nation might also be in jeopardy. But looking though post-war reporting in major Western newspapers, there are few articles on the subject. One suggesting that American soldiers may have raped Iraqi women was simply intelligent and sensitive speculation. (3) Another that was not speculation was a case of three Army soldiers from a military-intelligence battalion accused of assaulting a female Iraqi inmate at Abu Ghraib. After an administrative review, the three were fined "at least five hundred dollars and demoted in rank." This story was actually buried deep in the Moffeit article about GI rape along with another brief but chilling reference to the rape of a young Iraqi boy by American soldiers, the story that Seymour Hersh has recently been referring to on the lecture circuits.

On and off we catch glimpses of what happens to women when the underpinnings of society are shattered by war. In a report in The Nation we read that millions of women have been forced to stay home in the post-war chaos because of three developments: Saddam’s opening of the prisons in October 2002 as part of an amnesty, the disbanding of the Iraqi police by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and the low priority given to the safety of ordinary citizens by the CPA. (4) Thugs and bandits have had the run of public space since the end of the war. According to a Human Rights Watch report published in mid-July 2003, there were at least 25 rapes and kidnappings of women in Baghdad between the end of May and the end of June 2003, compared to only one a month on average before the war. (5) Since the war, more than 400 women have been raped, kidnapped, and even sold in Baghdad alone according to the Organization for the Freedom of Women in Iraq. (6)

But, of course, all this is Iraqi-on-Iraqi or in the case of the sale of women into prostitution, Arab-on-Iraqi, so while under the Geneva Conventions it may be the responsibility of the occupying force, it’s not likely, sadly, that it is seen as such by many people. The vague feeling of the average American is that Arab men treat their women badly, whether by swaddling them in abayas or keeping them out of schools. A society where female sexual dishonor is punished by death, assumes Joe Q. Public, is one likely to be violent toward women especially in the chaos after war. Anyway, both in the short and long run, Iraqi women are liberated now, aren’t they?

Joe would be quite mistaken to come to this conclusion. In conservative Wahhabi Saudi Arabia where women are covered from head to toe in the traditional black robes, rape is a rare crime and even under Saddam before the American invasion in March 2003, ordinary Iraqi women were relatively safe from physical assault. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Iraq enacted mandatory education for women and equal pay for equal work. And by the 1980s women constituted almost 40 percent of public sector workers.

Before the imposition of sanctions in the 1990s, Iraq actually had one of the most advanced constitutions in the Arab world, even if it wasn’t always applied. Iraqi women were the first Arab women to hold jobs, vote, and occupy high positions in society and government. (7) From most accounts and despite the atrocities committed personally by his son, Uday, crimes against women were relatively rare under Saddam’s rule and rape was a capital offense. But when the occupation began and the Americans disbanded the police force, a crisis of abduction and rape was created. (8)

This was exacerbated by the resurgence of tribal mores. In 1990, after the first Gulf War when Iraq suffered enormous human losses (over a 100,000 lives) and economic and ecological devastation, Saddam — until them a fierce opponent of the mullahs — took a religious turn himself in an attempt to broaden his appeal both within and outside Iraq. He rewrote the constitution which had once enshrined equality for women and revived practices sanctioned by religious and tribal law in an effort to preserve the social fabric from completely falling apart. Women under forty-five were forbidden from traveling alone to protect them from assault, polygamy was revived to take care of the needs of war widows, and there were beheadings of women accused of prostitution in an intense revival of shame culture (9) that has put women into an impossible quandary. The sense of having betrayed family honor and the fear of being killed make it impossible for most women to speak out about rape. Corroborating testimony about the rape or abuse of Iraqi women even by Iraqi men is also hard for journalists to find. Naturally, it’s twice as hard when the rapists may be Americans. Shame has been a powerful reason for the silence about the abuse of Iraqi women.

Another is a cultural difference that distorts the reporting on the subject. Take this gingerly worded article in the Christian Science Monitor, one of the few on the subject in the mainstream press:

Rumors of prison rape have been eddying for months. They started with a letter, allegedly smuggled out of Abu Ghraib by a female prisoner. Passed from one person to another, the letter and the photos are being used by anti-US clerics and militants to stir up outrage against the occupation.

"Please, bomb us with bombs, and even with nuclear weapons, because we are all pregnant by American soldiers," reads one version of the letter. "Every day they walk us naked in front of soldiers and other prisoners. We want you to know that if you have a daughter in here, or a mother, or a sister, that she has been raped and is pregnant by these American soldiers."

The letter might be fabricated - different versions of it crop up, and no one has been able to find the girl who wrote it. But to most Iraqis, it doesn’t really matter: the real photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib gave all rumors, both true and false, instant credibility.

The issue of rape becomes one of perception here. (10) The facts don’t really count because even if no one can find the letter-writer, the photos from Abu Ghraib are going to be used by the Arab rumor-mills to flesh out the most insubstantial hearsay. But what is glossed over is that there is more to the story than the rumor-mills. Earlier in the article, the author has conceded that the prison photos do include photos of women being assaulted:

[A]mong the 1,800 or so pictures taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, there are others, viewed by Congress but not released to the public, of at least one Iraqi woman forced to bare her breasts. And a US military investigator, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, cited at least one case of a military police guard "having sex with" a female prisoner.

Yet, in spite of this concrete photographic evidence, the author, Annia Ciezadlo, and one of the experts she cites, Manal Omar, the Iraqi-American coordinator of Women for Women both give primacy to rumor-mongering in their accounts of rape.

As much as one tenth of an article of only 1344 words is made up of words, phrases or sentences that suggest falsity and credulity in some way [rumors, not real, counterfeit, fakes, blurry, allegedly, fabricated, whether true or false, it scarcely matter if (Azzawi’s mother) was raped or not, the rumor was out, no one has been able to find (the girl who wrote it), even a whisper of rape] or focuses on the risk of honor killing, or the use made of the allegation of rape by "anti-US" forces and the article itself is subtitled: "Photos — even if fake — spark rumors that hit family honor."

This is quite misleading because there is photographic evidence for the rape and it is cited in the article, only it isn’t explored in the least. Instead, what is expanded on at length is the severity with which Iraqi society now treats "dishonored" women. In one case a woman rumored to have been raped in prison appears to have been threatened with death. Ciezadlo focuses on that threat rather than on the rape which is left to the status of a rumor. There is no follow-up.

Our attention is directed instead to the severity of the reprisals against women by their families — the "honor" killings — as though to make us aware that after all a much worse fate awaits these poor women than mere rape. But of course the whole point of honor killing is that there is no worse fate than sexual dishonor. In that cultural fact lies the peculiar tragedy of Abu Ghraib not only for Iraq but also for America.

Even before the scandal at Abu Ghraib, many Iraqis viewed imprisonment of women as tantamount to rape. "In our culture, if a woman has been to prison, it’s as though she has been violated," says Yanar Mohammed, a woman’s rights activist and editor of the newspaper Equality.

That may be what happened to one girl, rumored to have been pregnant when she was released. "Her father and brother wanted to kill her," says Huda al-Nuaimi, a professor at Baghdad University who is interviewing female prisoners as a volunteer for Amnesty International. "The sheikh of the mosque and the neighbors stopped them, because she was raped, and it wasn’t her fault."

Statements by coalition authorities are presented without qualification or irony. Statements by Iraqi women (unless they are Western or Westernized activists) are introduced with qualifications and weighted commentary:

[I]t scarcely matters if Azzawi’s mother was raped or not.... [About Azzawi’s mother in jail at Abu Ghraib]

Now that there are real pictures of US troops sexually humiliating Iraqi women, reality and rumors have tangled inseparably….

The letter might be fabricated - different versions of it crop up, and no one has been able to find the girl who wrote it…..

As the stories rush out, it’s hard to tell what she heard from her uncle and what is prison scuttlebutt. (Annia Ciezadlo, Christian Science Monitor)

We are invited subtly to put aside the claims of rapes not only because they are "rumors" and therefore insubstantial; not only because the photographic evidence is misleading and therefore insubstantial; not only because violations less than rape (imprisonment, nudity) have become proxies for it and diminish the substance of the claims, but also because in comparison with death, the presumed outcome of even virtual violation, real rape also is offered to us as something less than substantial.

If this seems far-fetched, return a moment to the torture at Abu Ghraib and consider the public reaction to the picture of Lynndie England pointing to and deriding the genitals of an Iraqi man and smirking while a group of Iraqi men huddle in a naked pile before her. One of several defenses of the pictures was that no real physical harm was inflicted. The only harm was to the sensibilities of Arab men, who being both sexist and homophobic, quite deserve their fate at the hands of a military dominatrix. The almost spoken suggestion is that Arab (and here Arab and Muslim are conflated) almost do not have a right to take offense since

1. Their patriarchal culture tolerates and encourages the sexual subjugation of women which is real unlike this retaliatory and justifiable "abuse" (many commentators refused to call it torture).

2. The simulation of sexual abuse or physical torture (and the earliest pictures published showed no more) is only apparent not "real" (a position not supported by the Geneva Conventions which includes mock executions and degrading treatment as forms of torture).

These are of course precisely the 2 sub-textual moves made in the Christian Science Monitor article:

1. The patriarchy of Arab/Muslim culture with its honor killings is the real violator of Arab/Muslim women not rape, which is after all so broadly construed in this culture that even imprisonment or nudity is included in the term.

2. The rapes that are alleged are anyway simply rumors, apparent, but not real. The rapes that are photographed are also not real but most likely faked.

This sort of cultural myopia accounts for the inattention to the real condition of Iraqi women. The author and the activists she interviews are more exercised by the patriarchal notion of "woman’s honor" and the related phenomenon of virtual or proxy rape than with the cases of rape before them. The fact that for Iraqis imprisonment in a public detention center violates and taints women or that the exposure involved in public nudity is tantamount to the violence suffered in physical assault is exoticized and presented as something to be contextualized and understood but only from the vantage point of the only world whose representations really do matter, ours, reinforcing our cultural predisposition to dismiss most Iraqi claims as exaggerated and to position even the claims we believe against the backdrop of honor killings.

Both these propositions — the exotic nature of Muslim representations and the unproblematic nature of ours — are questionable. Far from being exotic, the attitudes displayed by Iraqis to women and sexuality are commonplace even in this culture, even today. Cultural conservatives in this country have long argued that the desensitizing effect of public representations of nudity, sexuality, and violence are linked to levels of real sexual assault and violence whether this link can be statistically established or not. Elsewhere in the world, this is indeed the dominant view in many cultures, Latin, Asian, and African. If we look back even a century or so ago, the parallels to Iraqi beliefs increase vastly. The great moral dilemmas of classics from the Scarlet Letter to Anna Karenina arise from world-views not that far from the shame culture that encourages honor killings. In that culture, nudity or forced proximity with males is regarded as far more offensive than it is in ours, where we see it as intrusive or violative of a woman’s privacy but not tantamount to rape. For us, at least in relation to women, the physical limit of the body is the boundary within which sexual violation must be measured.

A second cultural reason for the silence about Iraqi women is the distance of gender feminism, which dominates our culture, from patriarchy. It predisposes us to color accounts of rape with our hostility to any cultural move that suggests the resurgence of patriarchal attitudes. One can see this in several reports where the reporter consistently dwells on such relatively trivial issues as the fact that Iraqi women no longer wear miniskirts or lipstick and have to cover their heads in public (11) rather than on the calamitous shortages of food, water, and electricity, the lack of medicine, the overall deterioration of health and sanitation, the looting of hospitals and schools, the absence of minimal safety on the streets, all of which have had their greatest impact on the vulnerable segments of the population (children, old people, and the sick) and on women who are their primary care givers in most Iraqi homes.

A third cultural factor that distorts our understanding of what is happening to Iraqi women is the difference between American and Muslim attitudes toward sexual crimes, underlying which is the inflexible distinction we maintain between something that is real and something that is simulated. In modern American legal culture, the assault of the eyes is not the assault of the body. If we grant every woman a right over her body it seems that we must, as a corollary, also curtail that right at the limits of her body.

But this is a distinction that may not be as clear-cut as we assume, which is why constitutional theory that deals with verbal or visual representations — first amendment laws dealing with free speech and religious rights as well as privacy laws — are especially tangled and self-contradictory. Thus a woman can claim that an enforced pregnancy violates her autonomy over her body but she cannot claim that a representation of violent or degrading pornography in a public arena attacks her personhood, dignity, or identity. On the other hand, religious and ethnic groups are allowed to make precisely that sort of a claim. Jews for instance can claim that a public representation of a crucifix is an establishment of the majority religion and is in some contexts offensive to them and even anti-Semitic. Mel Gibson’s luridly violent depiction of the physical torture of Jesus in the movie, "Passion of the Christ," has provoked just such a reaction this year. African-Americans can claim that cross burning or representations associated with cross burning promote feelings that threaten their well-being and identity. While these claims may be contested, they are routinely made and even won in the courts. Yet women or religious groups trying to claim that pornography that is violent or degrading should be restricted in the public domain are immediately resisted with cries of censorship.

This ambiguity in our ideas of representation lies at the heart of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. It prevents us from seeing how the act of photographing naked detainees would in itself have been seen as rape by Iraqis, even aside from the specific use intended for the photographs. Knowing the past use of photography in interrogation techniques passed on by C.I.A trainers to intelligence agencies like the Shah’s notorious Savak in Iran, (12) it would have been only too credible to many that the photos were being used to blackmail and coerce through the threat of public exposure or publication on porn sites. If that indeed was the case, and there is evidence to suggest as much, then it is our distinction between physical rape and "virtual" rape that may be questionable.

Representations of sex or rape are a complex phenomenon to analyze, because unlike the represented acts, they lend themselves to multiple reproductions and transformations. It is no longer simply a question of whether some incident or photo is a hoax or genuine but whether, even if it is a hoax, it is genuinely a hoax, that is, one designed simply to mislead, such as the Jessica Lynch story, or to cast a doubt on what is real, such as perhaps the fake rape pictures, or is instead intended to bolster what is real. Conversely, even if something is genuine, one now needs to ask whether it has in some way been set up or staged. One needs to know if it is being used to promote something false, in the way in which the dismantling of the Saddam statue was manipulated to give the impression that a reprise of the fall of communism in Soviet Russia was under way.

Things are no longer what they seem but what they can be made to seem. And to make something other than what it is to manipulate it, to coerce it. Ultimately then what we are talking about is the operation of power through images. Abu Ghraib is the locus where several dynamics of power come together like spokes in a wheel: the dynamic between a conquering and a conquered people; that between an expansionist religion or world-view and a defensive one; that between the active gaze of the male role and the passive objectification of the female; and finally, that between the producer of information, pornography, or violence and its consumer. To sustain these dynamics, one needs images; for the images to have effect, the dynamics need to be in play.

(To Be Continued)

Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer in Baltimore currently working on a book about the press. She has taught music at the Peabody Preparatory, and English and Politics at the University of Maryland and Towson University.


1. Miles Moffeit and Amy Herdy, "Female GI’s reporting rapes by U.S. soldiers," Denver Post, January 24, 2004.

2. "Rape in America: A Report to the Nation, 1992," National Victim Center and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, University of South Carolina, Charleston.

3. "How Many Iraqi Women Are Getting Raped?", James Glaser, Reader Weekly, Duluth, Minnesota, January 26, 2004.

4. Lauren Sandler, "Women Under Siege," The Nation. December 11, 2003 What is law? Something you write with a pencil," the dictator once said flippantly, explaining why he could change laws at will and ignore the Iraqi Constitution, which guaranteed equal rights for men and women. His laws remain what the police as well as judges, even women judges I met, enthusiastically continue to enforce since the war. Laws permit a man to take up to four wives, and they deny women rights in issues of inheritance and divorce. Then there are laws like Article 427, which states that a rapist is not guilty of rape if he marries his victim. Or Article 409, which prescribes leniency for any man who murders his female relative if she has had sexual intercourse—including rape—that could dishonor the family.

5. Marie-Laura Colson, "Iraqi Women Have Lost the Post War," La Liberation, September 2, 2003.

6. "Iraqi Women Kidnapped, Raped," AFP, August 24, 2003.

7. Andrea Buffa, "Iraqi Women Under Siege," Occupation Watch Center, December 1, 2003.

8. Lauren Sandler, "Veiled and Worried in Baghdad," New York Times, September, 2003.

9. Marie-Laura Colson, "Iraqi Women Have Lost the Post War," La Liberation, September 2, 2003.

10. See also, Susan Milligan, "Iraqi Women Recoiling in Fear of Crime," Boston Globe, August 3, 2003.

Many families are afraid to send their daughters to school because people will kidnap them," said Saad Hashem, a 38-year-old father of four daughters. "Under Saddam, it was 100 percent safe. We could come home at 1 or 2 a.m.; police were everywhere."....

Colonel Guy Shields, spokesman for the coalition forces, said he had no information about reports of rapes and kidnappings. "The military is not keeping track of Iraqi criminal statistics," he said. L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the civilian Coalition Provisional authority, said Iraqi police had broken up two kidnapping rings. A local women’s group says occur 20 times a day across the country now that the harsh punishments meted out by Hussein’s regime are no longer a threat to criminals. A Save the Children report in May showed that attendance at girls’ schools had dropped by more than half, largely because parents didn’t want to send their daughters out of the home.

11. Kim Ghattas, "Iraqi Women Struggle to be Heard," BBC, August 18, 2003. Also see: "Iraqi Women Have Lost the Post War," and Ilene R. Prusher, "In freer Iraq, new curbs on women’s wear," The Christian Science Monitor, June 13th, 2003.

12. Peter Dale Scott, "Torture Photos, Videos, a Time-Honored CIA Tradition," Pacific News Service, May 14, 2004.

Iraqi Women and Torture, Part II Theater That Educates, News That Propagandizes

It is the ambiguity in our ideas of representation that lies at the heart of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and prevents us from seeing how the act of photographing naked detainees would in itself have been seen as rape by Iraqis, even aside from the specific use intended for the photographs.

Knowing the past use of photography in interrogation techniques passed on by CIA trainers to intelligence agencies like the Shah’s notorious Savak, [1] it would have been only too credible to many that the photos were being used to blackmail and coerce through the threat of public exposure or publication on porn sites. If that indeed was the case, and there is evidence to suggest as much, then it is our distinction between physical rape and "virtual" rape that may be questionable.

Representations of sex or rape are a far more complex phenomenon than the acts themselves for they lend themselves to reproduction and transformation. It is no longer simply a question of whether some incident or photo is a hoax or genuine but whether, even if it is a hoax, it is genuinely a hoax, that is, one designed simply to mislead, such as the Jessica Lynch story, or to cast a doubt on what is real, such as perhaps the fake rape pictures, or is instead intended to bolster what really is factual. Conversely, even if something is genuine, one now needs to ask whether it has in some way been set up or staged. One needs to know if it is being used to promote something false, in the way in which the dismantling of the Saddam statue was manipulated to give the impression that a reprise of the fall of communism in Soviet Russia was under way.

Things are no longer what they seem but what they can be made to seem. And to make something other than what it is to manipulate it, to coerce it. Ultimately then what we are talking about is the operation of power through images. Abu Ghraib is the locus where several dynamics of power come together like spokes in a wheel: the dynamic between a conquering and a conquered people; that between an expansionist religion or world-view and a defensive one; that between the active gaze of the male role and the passive objectification of the female; and finally, that between the producer of information, pornography, or violence and its consumer. To sustain these dynamics, one needs images; for the images to have effect, the dynamics need to be in play.

In this interplay, the rumors of rape, fed by the widespread stripping and photographing of detainees cannot be dismissed. They point to the way in which power is employed by the victor not simply in the traditional methods of war — from bombing to torture — but also in the creation and imposition of imagery that effaces and replaces the subjectivity of the defeated people with a new reality, one that defines them as abject and dispossessed of their selves.

Consider the real incidents that we know have taken place in one year of occupation in Iraq. Although it is not clear exactly how many women have been detained since the invasion in March 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that there were 30 Iraqi women housed in Abu Ghraib in October 2003. That number was reduced to five by May 2004 and finally to zero asof May 29, according to the military. [2] A detainee at Abu Ghraib, Umm Taha, reports that when she was held there, there seemed to be around 20 women in the prison.

The main center for the detention of women has been the women’s prison at Al-Rusafah in Umm Qasr, one of the three at the complex. Gali Hassan, an Australian professor and activist, cites an Iraq Occupation Watch estimate that at one time there were as many as 625 women prisoners in Al-Rusafah and 750 in Al-Kazimah alone, [3] including girls of twelve and women in their sixties, nearly all held as security detainees, i.e., or their value in providing information. In most cases, they were arrested simply because of their relationship to a male who was of interest to the coalition (that is, accused of being part of the resistance, funding it, or being knowledgeable about it). Holding the relatives of suspects of course is an outright violation of the Geneva Conventions. In addition, Iman Khammas of the Occupation Watch Center affirms that there are five unknown prisons in Iraq apart from the well-known ten, which include Abu-Ghurayb, Al-Kazimiyah, and Al-Rasafah prisons in Baghdad and Um Qasar and Al-Nasiriyah prisons. [4]

And what does the American military have to say about the women detainees? Major- General Kimmitt stated in 2004 that the "total present female criminal population" in Iraq stood at 78, but denied that there were any women detainees at Abu Ghraib. He said the Coalition prison department was "unaware" of reports of rape at Abu Ghraib, but admitted that, "there have been reports of abuses by Iraqi police in their jails." I leave it to readers to judge why he chooses to use the word "unaware" instead of simply issuing a clear-cut denial.

The situation is complicated a little by the fact that some reports seem to be dealing with the abuse of prostitutes.

In an interview with Al-Wasat, a weekly supplement of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, a detainee with the name "Nadia" alleges that she was beaten, stripped, raped repeatedly, and also photographed during six months at Abu Ghraib. She was finally dumped along the highway with 10,000 dinars to "start a new life." Too ashamed to go back home, she began work as a housemaid for an Iraqi family. [5]

The treatment described in this account is more explicitly sexual than in others by women prisoners but not necessarily false for that reason, given the reluctance of most Iraqi women to be forthcoming about such assaults. The reference to money is a telling detail and suggests a plausible explanation: "Nadia" might have been prostituting herself to the army either voluntarily or under coercion.

A story about prostitution also finds its way into the Washington Post, which otherwise has not shown much interest in the condition of Iraqi women. [6] However, "The Cost of Liberty," unlike the story in Al-Wasat, paints a rather glowing picture of the treatment of Iraqi prostitutes by the military. Here, the young American soldiers slip an extra hundred dollars to the girl and do not hurt her physically:

"Nada says one day she and her sister were driven to an office building near the Baghdad airport and were introduced to two American soldiers. She was afraid, she says, but they were gentle and nice and made jokes and slipped them an extra $100 each."

The article ends on the same note:

"After reviewing all the reports, a U.S. Army captain signed Halla’s release papers, Halla says, and smiled as he wished her well. That gave Halla an idea. Images of money flashed through her mind. She scribbled down her phone number and slipped it to the interpreter to give to the soldier. She was disappointed when he didn’t call."

In the Post story, the young widow Halla plies her trade with the resigned approval of her destitute family and to support her brothers who are in school and unable to get remunerative work. They even end up being her bodyguards. Her Iraqi clients resemble boy friends. One favorite buys presents for her children and bickers with her like a husband.

The similarity of the names may be a coincidence. But, maybe not. If "Nada" in the Post story of June 2004 is the same as "Nadia" in the Al-Wasat story of July, what are we to make of the enormous differences in the two accounts? Is "Nadia’s" case concocted to fit into "anti-U.S. sentiment"? Or is the earlier story of "Nada" itself suspect? While there is no reason to doubt the substance of the Post story, there is every reason to question why when rape, abduction, beheadings, trafficking, and beating are terrifying the women of the country, a case so unrepresentative of the harsh experiences of most Iraqi prostitutes is highlighted. We may be confronted here with an illustration of the perverse ways in which truth-telling can operate so that the evocative can be the literal while the coldly factual may be simply an evocation of sentiment. In the media war, the theatrical can educate, news can propagandize. The Al-Wasat article is written as a graphic first-person account in incorrect, emotional, unidiomatic English and with few corroborating details, but the substance of what it describes is in keeping with scores of reports. The Post article is on the surface written more dispassionately with names and corroborating detail, filled with nuances of thought and analysis. Yet being anomalous, it manages to give us a quite misleading picture of what the aggregate of reports on Iraqi women conveys.

Here, arranged in a rough time-line that establishes a clear pattern of abuse from the beginning of the occupation, are some of those reports:

September 2003:

Nagem Salam interviews a former Abu Ghraib detainee, Umm Taha, arrested on September 14, 2003 and held at Ba’qouba, Tokrit, Abu Ghraib, and Tesfirat transfer station although she had two small children at home. She alleges that she was frisked by a female soldier in front of several men, yelled at, pushed around, and put into an old, very hot bathroom, infested with insects and with four clogged toilets. She was kept there for 22 days, sleeping on the floor and allowed out only to relieve herself in front of the male detainees, receive fluid infusions, or to clean toilets in front of the men. Since she was vomiting most of the time and was drinking out of an overheated barrel outside, she had to be given several bags of fluids with a dirty IV. In Tikrit, she was kept in a tent surrounded by razor wire with another woman and 10 children between the ages of 10 and 14 years, forced to use a sieve to separate feces from urine in a waste-bucket, and then made to stir the mess after it was burned. She recalls another woman, Afaf Said, who had a black eye and bloody lips who told her she was put into a wooden cage and beaten. [7]

Khammas also reports that a middle-aged woman was sexually assaulted after she was detained at Baghdad airport in September 2003. [8]

October- November 2003 (especially November 8):

A US military policeman "had sex" with an Iraqi woman; Iraqi women were forced at gunpoint to bare their breasts (according to some reports also their genitals), and naked female detainees were videotaped. [9] The photographic evidence, part of the Taguba report, has been shown to Congress, but has not been deemed suitable to show to the public.

November 2003:

According to the CSM article, another woman at the US military base at al-Kharkh in Baghdad tells Amal Kadham Swadi, an Iraqi woman lawyer investigating the abuse, that she has been raped by several American soldiers and shows her the stitches where her arm has been hurt trying to fight them off.

December 2003:

The anonymous letter writer the CSM article refers to, "Noor," claims that she and others were stripped, raped, and impregnated by American soldiers. Her case is investigated by Amal Kadham Swadi, who finds her credible and part of a picture of systematic abuse and torture perpetrated by US guards "all across Iraq."

December 2003:

David Enders writes that there were nearly 1,000 prisoners in Al-Rusuphah in December 2003, 54 of whom were women (note the huge divergence in this number from that given by Iman Khammas), held in cells as they were at Abu Ghraib. The cells were certainly safer than the tents in which the men were held. Prison officials insisted that none of the women were pregnant, but according to Enders at least one was seven months pregnant. Another had recently given birth while incarcerated. His report indicates that there were other women held all across Iraq. Some of the women held include economist Heifa Abdul Rahman, 50, Victoria Abdulla Dirbash, the former director of one of the Rashid Banks in Al-Dora, south of Baghdad who had only one leg and had been held since August 11 for being a member of the Baath party, a lawyer Wajiha Mohsin Shalash, over 50 years old, who said she had been arrested at her house in Diala on July 24 during a wake for her brother and had been made to stir a barrel of human feces in front of other prisoners, including men. Also imprisoned were psychologically disturbed women and three juveniles, one 14 years old. [10]

Daham al-Mohammed, head of the Iraqi group, the Union of Detainees and Prisoners, also reports a case of a mother of four, arrested in December, who killed herself after being raped by U.S. guards in front of her husband at Abu Ghraib. The story was related to him by the woman’s sister who had assisted with the suicide. Iman Khammas of Occupation Watch Center describes the abuse of several women including Um Tai, the wife of an ex official in the presidency. She was arrested as a hostage to force her husband to give himself up. Over sixty, she had liver and kidney ailments but was kept in solitary confinement in a tent the size of one mattress, not allowed to go to the bathroom for two days, left without water or food for two days, and had to use one corner of the room-mattress as a bathroom. Iman Khammas also describes eyewitness accounts that state that in Abu Ghraib there were women who had given birth to children inside the prisons or had been arrested while they were pregnant. Khammas, Mohammed, and Hoda Nuaimi, a politics professor at Baghdad University, all separately said that three young rural women from the Sunni Muslim region of Al-Anbar, west of Baghdad, had been killed by their families after coming out of Abu Ghraib pregnant. [11]

One prisoner in Baghdad described three separate rooms for three different kinds of women prisoners and estimated that there were 56 women altogether. The rooms had cold drafts from open windows and there was little or no hot water. The women had stomach, colon, respiratory, and ear infections as well as diarrhea. There were only two meals a day consisting of a handful of rice, soup, beans, lentils, or eggplants. The food was so bad and greasy that diarrhea was prevalent. One prisoner was raped 17 times by Iraqi policemen with the knowledge of American guards. An older woman was humiliated and beaten publicly in the genitals in full view of male detainees by a female soldier frisking her. A male prisoner gave the names of 3 Iraqi women who were forced to lie on their backs with their legs up and were beaten on their feet. [12] Khammas also cites a second report of an older Iraqi woman forced to stir feces in front of male prisoners. [13]

February 2004:

Professor Huda Shaker is sexually assaulted at a checkpoint. She reports that a colleague is also sexually assaulted. She describes having heard numerous accounts of rapes and impregnation of Iraqi women by American soldiers. [14]

March 2004:

When Swadi complains about not having access, US guards threatens to arrest her.

April 2004:

Three soldiers are fined and demoted for sexually assaulting a female detainee.

According to a Reuters cameraman held at Abu Ghraib, a 12-13 yr old girl is stripped and paraded before male inmates. [15]

May 2004:

British Labour MP Ann Clwyde investigates and finds accurate a story that an Iraqi woman in her 70s, held for six months without charges, was derided and then harnessed and ridden like a donkey. [16]

May 2004:

At Abu Ghraib, until May, a handful of middle-aged women were held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day with windows boarded up in cellblock 1A, where the notorious photographs were taken. US military officials only said that they were suspected of "anti-coalition activities." None had seen their families since their arrest earlier in the year. Swadi found the charges against them "absurd." The women were apparently arrested not because of anything they have done, but to coerce their spouses and for potential intelligence value. [17]

One former detainee, Mithal Il-Hassani, a 55-year-old divorced mother of five, who was accused of supporting insurgents, was dragged, beaten, and stripped of her clothes by American soldiers. Two former prison-mates, the sisters Hoda and Nahla al-Azzawi, the last two women now at Abu Ghraib have been behind bars for more than seven months, also accused of supporting insurgents. [18]

Two detainees admit to having been beaten before their arrival. The officer in charge admits that rape has taken place in the cell block. Hamid Abdul Hussein, whose brother was held at Abu Ghraib says former detainees who have returned to their home town reports that several women have been raped and have committed suicide.

Some of these real instances of sexual assault of Iraqi women by Americans are allegations, most are corroborated, but all are credible and supported by other available testimony and evidence. If anything, given the reluctance of Iraqi women to openly speak about sexual violation, the odds are overwhelming that there are many more cases than those we have heard of.

Yet none of these incidents have been investigated seriously or reported widely in the mainstream American press. Except for a piece in the Nation and the ambiguous one in the Christian Science Monitor, the accounts of prison abuse in this article are taken mostly from the alternative press, activist sites and from foreign newspapers, such as the Guardian and the Scotsman.

The silence, I have suggested earlier, can be attributed partly to the reluctance of the women involved to talk about their experiences and partly to a cultural gap between western and Muslim attitudes toward sexuality and sexual crimes. But other factors have exacerbated the situation. One is the simply overwhelming nature of the violence in Iraq — sometimes as many as 400 deaths in a month, according to veteran journalist Robert Fisk. [19] In this chaotic picture, violence on the street against women cannot get enough attention, let alone hidden violence in the prisons.

Perhaps that explains why even an otherwise well-written article in the Boston Globe about the dramatic increase in street crime manages to insert a comment on "exaggeration":

"Whether the stories are real or exaggerated, however, Iraqi women say they no longer shop alone or go out at night…"

Yet the same article goes on to report that both activists and officials concur in believing that the rates of rape are much higher than what is reported because numbers are not being tracked and because women are simply too ashamed to come forward:

"Coalition authorities and local police do not keep statistics on kidnappings and rapes of girls" and "both activists and police officers, however, agree that the crime is likely to be dramatically underreported, since Muslim Iraqi women may fear rejection or violence from their families." [20]

The fact is that over 400 women were raped or kidnapped in the summer of 2003 alone and this figure in all probability is both a gross underreporting and one that does not take into account either attempted rapes and kidnappings or any lesser offenses, attempted or accomplished. Moreover, abductions that are sexual have simply not received much attention, as they are a fraction of the kidnappings, mostly for ransom, that have been keeping the police busy. A further source of tension have been the house-raids and check-point searches where women are frequently frisked by males soldiers because of a shortage of female soldiers to do the job. In Muslim culture for a strange man to touch a woman is violative of her honor and experts have from the start warned against the practice:

William Beeman, the head of Middle East studies at Brown University, has condemned any searches of women by men as "extraordinarily ignorant and offensive" to Muslims and added, "The matter is so serious that for some very conservative people it is the equivalent of being raped, and may render the women, if they are not married, unmarriageable." Juan Cole, a history professor and Middle Eastern specialist at the University of Michigan has compared the searches to previous colonial intrusions into private life and warned that "rather than preventing violence, the practice could spark more clashes." [21]

Add to the assaults, rapes, and abductions on the street. The body searches by the military, the increase in prostitution and honor killings in society, the practice of stripping and photographing in detention, the abuse and torture, physical and mental, that detainees have been subjected to, and you have a picture of extraordinary and random sexual violence ravaging city and countryside. No lucid observer would be concerned about exaggeration. If anything, outsiders have not adequately grasped the depth and extent of the suffering of Iraqi women, a suffering equal to that of their men although less reported. In fact, it’s likely that the overwhelming number of reports and cases may simply have been too difficult to sort through for the average journalist looking for a story to cobble together in the relative safety of a few well-protected enclaves in Baghdad. Unfamiliar with the language, unable to safely travel around a country the size of California, talking mostly to American military officials and Coalition spokesman, to one or two western human-rights groups, and to English- speaking or westernized Iraqis in the more affluent areas, reporters become trapped by their own cultural and political preconceptions. Looking through an archive of articles specifically on Iraqi women at an activist site (PeaceWomen.org) one notices that there are fewer than 30 from the major American news outlets and magazines, mostly from the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. [22] One notices only seven pieces that focus on the endangerment of women’s lives, of which one is about the death of an American activist. A March 7 article in the New York Times raises the first hint of concern about the women whose fathers, brothers, and sons have been snatched from them and who crowd the prisons frantically waiting for any word about them - one mother searching for son charges that she was shoved and chased with dogs. There are two other articles about the possible abuse of women in Iraqi jails, both of them after the story went public on CBS at the end of April. By contrast, as many as four articles focus on the restrictive clothes of Iraqi women and make much of their increasing inability to wear make-up or westernized clothes. Most of the women described are well to do and westernized and one wonders how representative their experiences and opinions are of what is going on in most of Iraq. But the question doesn’t seem to come up.

Now wonder then that reporters dwell at length on the rumor mongering, exaggeration, and unreliability of Iraqi reports of prison rape. It’s all most of them have to work with. Having cultivated few reliable sources of information, possessing no body of knowledge about the country against which they can measure hearsay, indoctrinated by Pentagon news briefings and bureaucratic sloganeering, they retreat defensively into agnosticism about what can be known.

This is not to defend the Arab media or suggest that it does not propagandize. Nor am I suggesting that every allegation made has been credible.

However, given the murderous and chaotic conditions into which Iraq has been plunged, and the breakdown of its communications networks, the indisputable fact is that many assertions made by Iraqis have proved to be rather credible, from the non-existence of WMD’s to the nature of the resistance against the occupation. An objective observer might come to the conclusion that Iraqis have been more truthful on many more issues than the American government. If so, it is a matter of more than curiosity why, even after the irrefutable evidence from Abu Ghraib, charges made by Iraqi women about rape and torture by the military tend to be categorized as exaggerated.

Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer in Baltimore currently working on a book about the press. She has taught music at the Peabody Preparatory, and English and Politics at the University of Maryland and Towson University.


(1) "Torture Photos, Videos, a Time-Honored CIA Tradition," Peter Dale Scott, Pacific News Service, May 14, 2004.

(2) "Pattern Emerges of Sexual Assault Against Women Held by U.S. Forces," Chris Shumway, The NewStandard, June 6, 2004.

(3) "Colonial Violence Against Women in Iraq," Ghali Hassan, February 6, 2004. Cites Iman Khamas, head of the International Occupation Watch Centre, a non- governmental organisation which gathers information on human rights abuses under coalition rule, said, "one former detainee had recounted the alleged rape of her cellmate in Abu Ghraib. According to Khamas, the prisoner said; "her cellmate had been rendered unconscious for 48 hours." "She had been raped 17 times in one day by Iraqi police in the presence of American soldiers."

(4) "New Iraq’s Prisoners, Unknown Numbers, Charges," Al Zawra, March 29, 2004.

(5) "Iraqi Woman Recalls Abu Ghraib Rape Ordeal," Islam Online, July 21, 2004.

(6) "The Cost of Liberty: In a Chaotic New Iraq, A Young Widow Turns to Prostitution," by Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post, June 24, 2004.

(7) "Crimes in Iraq: A Crime with No Roots," Nagem Salam, Islam Online, June14, 2004.

(8) "Human rights groups: Iraqi women raped at Abu Ghraib jail," Rouba Kabbara, Middle East Online, May 29, 2004.

(9) "Torture at Abu Ghraib," Seymour Hersh, New Yorker, May 10, 2004.

(10) "Women Prisoners in Iraq," David Enders, Occupation Watch Center, Dec 12, 2003.

(11)"Human rights groups: Iraqi women raped at Abu Ghraib jail," Rouba Kabbara, Middle EastOnline, May 29, 2004.

(12) "Iraqi Women in the Occupation Prisons As Material and Means of Violations," Eman Ahmed Khammas, Occupation Watch Center, May 26, 2004.

(13) "New Iraq’s Prisoners, Unknown Numbers, Charges," Al Zawra, March 29, 2004. Also see Chris Shumway, New Standard, June 4, 2004.

(14) "Focus shifts to jail abuse of women," Luke Harding, The Guardian, May 12, 2004.

(15) "Iraqi Children among Abused Prisoners at Abu Ghraib," AP, May 7, 2004.

(16) "Guards treated woman like donkey," Andrew Miga, Boston Herald, May 6, 2004.

(17) "The Other Prisoners," Luke Harding, The Guardian, May 20, 2004.

(18) "Iraqi women stigmatized by prison: Once freed, they often disappear," Orly Halpern, Special to the Globe and Mail, July 21, 2004.

(19) "The Occupation at 114 Degrees," Robert Fisk, Counterpunch, July 28, 2004.

(20) "Iraqi Women Recoiling in Fear of Crime," Susan Milligan, Boston Globe, August 3, 2003.

(21) "Iraqis Concerned With Male Soldiers Frisking Women," AP, June 18, 2003.

(22) Peace Women website: www.peacewomen.org.

Other Articles by Lila Rajiva

 Iraqi Women and Torture, Part I: Rapes and Rumors of Rape
 Nicholas Kristof’s Fox Pas(s)
 Putting Conservatives on the Couch: Transactional Analysis and the Torture Apologists
 The New Post-Colonial Racism
 Eyeless in Iraq: The L.A. Times and the Fog of War


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> Iraqi Women and Torture, Rapes and Rumors of Rape
Saturday July 31 - 23:42 - Posted by 9769270fb0aee8cd...

As a woman I have become increasingly sensitive to the lack of at first reports, and later images, of the torture of women and children at Abu Ghraib. Now we hear these images exist and that some news organizations have some of them. What are they waiting for?

Who or what irrational decision makers think that withholding these images is appropriate? Shame on such biased, patriarchal editorial policy. As a woman I condsider it not only insulting but unjust. Who do you guys think you are?

> Iraqi Women and Torture, Rapes and Rumors of Rape
Tuesday August 3 - 08:38 - Posted by f0bc168351765f82...

I am an Australian anti-war activist and I believe that I am well informed about the situation in Iraq but I feel deeply shaken by this story.

The Americans have refrained from the use of gas chambers in Iraq but what other differences are there between this occupation and the Nazi occupation and installation of puppet governments in parts of Europe during WWII?

When I hear people saying that they disagreed with the invasion but "we have to stay in Iraq to clean up the damage" I reply: "Did anyone say the Germans had to stay in France and clean up the damage during WWII?"


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