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Iraqi Women and Torture, Part One
Rapes and Rumors of Rape
by Lila Rajiva
July 27, 2004

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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. 

Other Articles by Lila Rajiva

* 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