FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from







Iraqi Women and Torture, Part IV
Gendered Propaganda, the Propaganda of Gender

by Lila Rajiva
August 9, 2004

Send this page to a friend! (click here)


* Read Part Three
* Read Part One

* Read Part Two

Can it be that despite our distance from patriarchy, we still minimize the act of rape, diminish or blame the victim, and excuse the perpetrator? Consider that despite the publicity around the revelation in 1996 that Army drill sergeants were regularly raping trainees at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, (1) things have not gotten better but actually worse, reaching epidemic proportions today in wartime. (2) Since fraternization and adultery are crimes in the military, victims fear that they may eventually be penalized if investigators decide, as they often do, that what happened was consensual. (3) Yet even with an epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the army, most cases are not punished.

The armed services are not the only place where sexual abuse is pervasive in the U.S. In jails through out the country, the rape as well as physical torture of men, women, and teens is well documented. (4) At the state prison in Pennsylvania, where one of the guards in the Abu Ghraib photos, Charles Graner, worked as a correctional officer for several years, guards regularly beat prisoners, spat in their food, and heaped racial insults on them. In 1998, two dozen guards there were fired, suspended, demoted or reprimanded. Graner reportedly put razors in a prisoner’s food. (5) Rape among prisoners is rampant. Up to 20% of America’s approximately 2 million prisoners (that is, anywhere between 250,000-600,000) prisoners have been raped or subjected to sexual assault of some kind. Male staff members are the primary abusers of female prisoners at rates that vary from 7%-27% well above those in other industrial nations. The abuse includes rape, voyeurism and the photographing of naked prisoners as well as assaults and verbal abuse, it takes place during prisoners' confinement as well as during routine frisking, and it is strikingly similar to some of the complaints that have been made by Iraqi women about their treatment at the hands of American soldiers and guards at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. (6)

Though frequently unpunished or underreported, rape is also far from invisible in war not only in reality but also in imagination. Jessica Lynch, for instance, may have contradicted the media story about her rape, but the story itself circulated through the net and in the army and caused the beating to death of at least one Iraqi. Despite being thoroughly debunked, the tale of Iraqi soldiers tossing babies out of incubators, a creation of a D.C. public relations firm, found its way into a largely fictitious account of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait called “The Rape of Kuwait” (7) by Alabaman Jean Sasson who has made a lucrative career out of negative stories about women’s lives in the Middle East siphoned out of her years working in Saudi Arabia. The feminization of the invaded nation in the metaphor of rape is paralleled in the feminization of the men of the defeated nation in the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

Intentionally or not, the photos that were finally presented to us were homoerotic images that could simultaneously evoke our homophobia and brand our enemies emasculated and that could evoke egalitarian feminism but only through an inversion of the pornography of hierarchical masculinity. In these rapid sleights of hand, the face of Jessica as captive femininity that evokes patriarchal protection is quickly shuffled under the face of Lynndie, the femininity that humiliates and avenges itself on the alien male who is constructed as both the extreme of heterosexuality -- oppressor of his own women - and the extreme of homosexuality -- enslaved to ours. Meanwhile, allegations and falsifications of rape circulate deftly among real instances of it and throw all but the most persistent observer off-guard. Besides medical reports, there is little to betray the existence of the crime unless it is photographed and if photographed, the veil of silence envelopes the victim again.

Still while cultural short-circuits and informational blocks contribute to it, they don’t explain the media’s evidently purposeful refusal to follow-up on the story, a refusal that in May prompted the activist group IWC (International Women Count) to send an open letter to U.S. Congresswomen to ask why, though IWC was “reliably informed by religious supporters of President Bush that photos of rape and other sexual torture of women in Iraqi prisons are commonly used as pornography among US troops,” allegations about the torture of women at Abu Ghraib were not  being covered or investigated. (8)

Of course, there have been many more Iraqi men who have been detained and tortured than there have been women, but if it was permissible to show so many examples of the victimization of male detainees, it surely ought to have been permissible to show at least one of the victimization of female detainees. It couldn’t have been a fear of inflaming passions, for in Islamic as in many societies, the sexual molestation of men is widely regarded as more of an aberration than the rape of women.

Things become clearer if we recall the interminable justifications for war made before the invasion, from the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction to the imminent use of nuclear weapons and Saddam’s cozy ties with Al Qaeda. Not one has remained on its legs after six months of combing through Iraq for evidence. Instead, the Bush administration has spent most of the post-war period dancing away from its own claims and grabbing the most useful rationale at hand. Although the humanitarian claim was made before the war, it wasn’t the immediate pretext, but simply part of the orchestral swell in the background. With nothing else remaining of pre-war rationales, however, human rights have now taken center stage in revisionist histories. The cry in some pro-war circles is -  “The weapon of mass destruction was found. His name is Saddam Hussein,” (9) which makes a nice sound-byte and puts any critic on the defensive immediately as a potential Saddam apologist. Saddamite buffoon was in fact a term applied to Robert Fisk, the brave journalist of the Independent, who in the West was almost alone in reporting on Saddam’s cruelties when the Reagan administration was actively supporting them. But if we are all now humanitarians, neo-conservative hawks especially, the reaction of the government and the corporate media to Abu Ghraib becomes much easier to understand.  If invading Iraq is a mission to rectify humanitarian abuses, then to be guilty of such abuses blows away the last fig leaf for the invasion.

In making the humanitarian justification for war, moreover, the abuse of women was flagged as not just one among many abuses in Iraq but the quintessential failure of Islam. The cover that Iraqi women afforded the hawks was the most culturally specific, the one that most conclusively defined the regressive nature of Islamic society. Saddam’s brutal proclivities after all can tell you nothing about Islam. He was a member of the Socialist anti-religious Baath party and a former C.I.A. asset. That he apparently “got” religion a little before the war and tried to play to the religious sentiments of the Muslim world audience to garner sympathy before the invasion of Iraq doesn’t materially change the fact that he wasn’t an Islamist of any stripe.

However, the treatment of women is an issue that does go to the heart of Islamic culture in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, all places of extreme interest to U.S. foreign policy. Although President Bush has frequently tried to distinguish between moderate Muslims and Muslim extremists in his speeches, the truth is that for many prominent members of his administration as well as for its most strident polemicists, the invasion of Iraq was a clash of civilizations and a war on Islamic culture. The case has been explicitly made in virulent sophistries about Muslim culture both by the Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer and sometime leftist Christopher Hitchens, recently born again as a neo-conservative, but conservative women have been especially vocal in support of feminist interventionism:

“Under the Saddam Hussein regime Iraqi women were not allowed to work outside the home, ” said Lisa DePasquale, recycling outright propaganda. (10)

The National Review’s Janice Crouse introduced  “the founding mothers” of Iraq to D.C.’s female movers and shakers (11) and Kay Hymowitz issued this call-to-arms in the name of conservatives:

“Where are the demonstrations, the articles, the petitions, the resolutions, the vindications of the rights of Islamic women by American feminists?” (12)

And then answers herself:

“Too busy celebrating their own virtue and contemplating their own victim-hood, gender feminists cannot address the suffering of their Muslim sisters realistically, as light years worse than their own petulant grievances.”

Her contention is that a cabal of multicultural and postcolonial relativists refuse to indict Islamic society for its misogyny and instead focus on the relatively trivial problems of women in Western society. She takes third-world feminists like Leila Ahmed and Gayatri Spivak to task for “condemning Western men for wanting to improve the lives of Eastern women.”

To make this argument she has to misread post-colonial feminism which in no way supports the patriarchal misogyny of non-western cultures but does delineate the historical context in which practices like polygamy or veiling arise and the purposes they may serve. Leila Ahmed (13), for instance, shows how Islamic dress can allow some Muslim women the space they need to carve out identities for themselves in public.  A woman who chooses to cover herself  (as opposed to one who is forced to) in order to be free from being judged solely on appearance is not less empowered than someone who chooses more revealing clothes, secure that an overtly feminine appearance does not detract from her professional abilities.  Ahmed can recognize misogyny just as well as any other feminist but she’s also astute enough to recognize when the language of women’s rights is being hijacked by an imperial agenda. “White men saving brown women from brown men” -- to use Spivak’s phrase -- is a rhetorical tactic that allows conquerors to pose as liberators abroad while cutting off feminist opposition at home in two ways - by both appealing to a universalist ethical imperative -- Don’t Muslim women deserve the rights and freedoms of Western women? -- and disparaging particular socio-economic needs -- Don’t Western women understand how good they have it compared to other women?

And sure enough, when we scratch the surface of Hymowitz’s concern for Muslim women, we find something a little less benevolent, captured in this piece of doggerel by Kipling that she quotes approvingly in order to prove how wrong gender feminists are in subscribing to a universal feminine nature that is “peaceful.”

“When you’re wounded and left on the Afghan plains/And the women come out to cut up your remains/Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.”

Of course. The savage native with his savage women. To a certain way of thinking, a knife in defense of your homeland is always savagery, but fighting on the other side of the globe on behalf of an empire would naturally not be savagery. It’s finally all a question of the level of technology involved.  But if “Afghan women” at war are not “American women” at war (and since Abu Ghraib, can we be certain?) then surely Afghan social practices may also differ. We ought to encourage certain adverbial rules of conduct in all cultures, that is, rules that make society function more fairly, kindly, gently, and justly. We ought also to provide refuge or asylum when fundamental human rights are violated. We ought in some extreme cases to use force defensively and with the strictest adherence to both moral and legal criteria. But should we use cultural or ethical norms as a pretext for ad hoc and aggressive bombing and killing? If we do, are we any different from the Taliban?

What Hymowitz and another hegemonic feminist, Susan Okin, really have in mind becomes clear in an attack by Okin on not just female circumcision and polygamy (where it might be more understandable) but arranged marriage, which in some form or other has certainly been part of most cultures for most of history: You see, Okin, from the vantage point of the modern American female, feels confident that  [some women} “might be better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct ….or preferably, to be encouraged to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality of women.” (14)

Should we call this veiled bigotry? One could with as much sense argue that some women would be better off if a culture which tolerated violent pornography, permitted males to guard women in prisons unattended, and encouraged serial matrimony were to become extinct since these are all practices in which women generally come off distinctly the worse.

Although Okin softens her tone mid-steam, the quick reach for force betrays the essential illiberalism and insularity of her position, dutifully following one step behind all those male neo-conservative hawks who want to bomb Afghan women out of their veils. One can be pretty sure that once the “liberated women” have served their temporary use as the pretext for the destruction of their nation, their welfare will be of little interest to their benefactors. One can be as sure that once the war is over, the liberators will show equally little interest in the conditions of women in their own countries.

Despite Saddam’s brutality and the savage torture, rape, and killing of political opponents, women in Baathist Iraq were educated, had the vote, and occupied important positions in government. The Iraqi constitution once enshrined equality for women. Can we say the same now?

Under the sanctions, over a half-million war-widows supplied the only boom industry in Iraq -- prostitution (15) and now, according to Iraqi police, the going price for an abducted woman is reported to be around $90.3. (16) The Iraqi constitutional commission is made up entirely of men, the constitutional experts provided to Iraq by the Bush administration are all men, and 22 out of 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council were men. It is still unclear whether democratic institutions will take hold in Iraq and if they do, whether they will include and protect women. (17) Symbolically, the date of 8 March, International Women’s Day, was changed to 20th of August, the birthday of Fatima Al- Zahra, the daughter of Mohammed. (18) Temporary marriages, the Islamic version of prostitution, a rare custom before the war have become widely practiced among impoverished widows after it. (19) In a secret vote on December 29, 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council narrowly passed Resolution 137, bringing women back under Islamic law. Although repealed under pressure from women’s groups, it’s resurfacing bodes ill for the new Iraq. Neither Paul Bremer nor his Governing Council (including the women) suggested any amendments to the articles supporting honor killings and abuse by male relatives. (20) “We don’t do women,” was the reply of a representative of the Ministry of the Interior when asked to explain the indifference of both imperial and native overlords about the growing fears of Iraqi women in the post-war. (21)

So much for the empowerment of Iraq women. Their welfare is even more besieged.

The very conservative Iraq Body Count figures on civilian casualties from the beginning of the war until today are between 11,000-13,000 (based only on reports received by the media) while a recent tally by an Iraqi human rights group based on thorough investigation of hospital figures and reports runs as high as 37,000 for the period between March-October, 2003. (22) That number could end up even higher when the full impact of the war on health and the environment is accounted for.  If we consider that more than half of this number is likely to be female, given that the male population in Iraq has been used for cannon fodder for several decades, we end up with a reasonable estimate of at least 6,000 female deaths from the war and occupation alone (never mind the earlier sanctions and wars which consumed many hundreds of thousands of female lives, mostly underage). Add to those thousands dead the human suffering of families destroyed, homes blown to bits, hundreds of rapes, sex-crimes, and abductions by criminals, malnutrition, injuries, lost wages and possessions, the rise of reactionary religious laws curtailing women’s freedoms, and can we still say that we have improved the lives of Iraqi women? Will we, like Madeleine Albright, claim that their deaths and suffering were “worth it”?  And what should we call ourselves for dealing so generously in other people’s pain and death in the name of liberating them? Civilized?

While mouthing the rhetoric of feminism, American policy toward Iraq, like its policy in Afghanistan, has been as inimical to the interests of women as it is to the rest of the population and it is this, finally, which is the over-arching explanation for the silence on the abuse and torture of Iraqi women. Were we to have the same sort of photos of women on the front pages as we did of the men, what would become of the pose of the liberator?

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. Copyright (c) 2004 by Lila Rajiva.


(1) “Bring me women,” E.J. Graf, American Prospect, May 14, 2003.

(2) “Sexual Assault Pervasive in Military, Experts Say,” Marie Tessler, Women’s News, March 30, 2003. 

(3) “Services Move to Lower Instances of Rape in the Ranks,” Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, American Forces Information Service, April 5, 2001.

(4) “Rape Nation,” Karie Lyderson, Alternet, July 2, 2004. 

(5) “Records Paint Dark Portrait of Guard,” David Finkel and Christian Davenport, Washington Post, June 5, 2004.” 

(6) “The Basics on Rape Behind Bars,” Stop Prisoner Rape web site. 

“Charles was just filled with the glee of opportunity to go over there, because he said as we're walking down the corridor, I can't wait to go kill some sand niggers. That smile he showed, he showed best when he was getting some prisoner to lose it, to snap, to lose his mind and scream at Charles. He loved it.” ­- former death-row inmate Nicholas Yarris on CNN recounting his memories of Charles Graner, later charged with abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
See, “Mass incarceration and Rape: The Savaging of Black America,” The Black Commentator, June 17, 2004.

A study conducted by Human Rights Watch between 1994-96 concluded that male guards in US state prisons abused women with virtual impunity. It found that “male officers vaginally, anally, and orally rape and sexually assault and abuse female prisoners. They use mandatory pat-frisks to grope women's breasts, buttocks, and vaginal areas, view them inappropriately while in a state of undress, and engage in constant verbal harassment of female prisoners, contributing to a custodial environment that is often hostile and highly sexualized.” 52% of these women are African American women and most are imprisoned on minor and non-violent drug related charges.

See also: Women’s Human Rights web page, Amnesty International 

(7) “Piss On My Leg: Perception Control and the Stage Management of War,” Stan Goff, Counterpunch, October 13, 2003.

According to Disinfopedia, “Citizens for a Free Kuwait also capitalized on the publication of a quickie 154-page book about Iraqi atrocities titled The Rape of Kuwait, copies of which were stuffed into media kits and then featured on TV talk shows and the Wall Street Journal. The Kuwaiti embassy also bought 200,000 copies of the book or distribution to American troops.”

(8) “Rape of Iraqi/US Military Women,” Lysistrata Project, May 26, 2004.

(9) Gregg Hilton, American Security Foundation Caucus website.

(10) “Feminists Silent About Freedom for Iraqi Women,” Lisa DePasquale, July 15, 2004. 

(11) “Founding Mothers: The women rebuilding Iraq,” Janice Shaw Crouse, November 20, 2003, National Review Online.

(12) “Why Feminism is AWOL on Islam,” Kay Hymowitz, City Journal, Winter 2003.

(13) Excerpts from Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate by Leila Ahmed, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. Material excerpted by Carol Cox, August 22, 1999.

(14) Cited in Hymowitz, op.cit.

(15) “The Mess in Mesopotamia, Alexander Cockburn, The Nation, September 1, 2003. “Sanctions-era Iraq was a country of 600,000 war widows, many of whom joined the stream of prostitutes that emerged as one of Iraq's principal exports in this period.”

(16) “Assault on Iraqi Women,” Gregory Elich, Al Jazeera, July 28, 2004. 

(17) “Women’s Groups Give Bush an F on Iraq, Afghanistan,” Jeffrey Allen,, August 27th, 2003. 

(18) Houzan Mahmoud, speech delivered at the “Empowering Women” conference, International Humanist Organization, London, Nov. 15, 2003.

(19) “Muta’a temporary marriages appearing in Iraq,” Hannah Allan, Knight Ridder, August 26, 2003. 

(20) “Iraq’s Oppressed Majority,” Yanar Mohammed, Founder of Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, on web-site of About Women and Democracy in Iraq. Response to:” Iraq's Hidden Treasure,” by Raja Habib Khuzai and Songul Chapouk (women members of the Governing Council in Iraq) 

(21) “Veiled and Worried in Baghdad,” Lauren Sandler, New York Times, September, 2003.

(22) “Iraqi group claims over 37,000 civilian toll,” Ahmed Janabi, Al Jazeera, July 31, 2004.

Other Articles by Lila Rajiva

* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part III: Violence and Virtual Violence
* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part II: Theater That Educates, News That Propagandizes
* 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