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Iraqi women still live the legacy of gender-based violence

Iraqi women still live the legacy of gender-based violence
7 min read
08 March, 2023
In-depth: This International Women's Day, and 20 years after the US invasion of Iraq, the post-2003 state still does not have the capacity to ensure gendered security.

In January, a 22-year-old Iraqi YouTube star Tiba Al-Ali was strangled to death by her father in an “honour killing,” the latest case of the quotidian violence the nation has endured over the last two decades.

Her death sparked outrage and protests across the country, with activists calling for laws to prohibit violence against women.

International Women’s Day 2023 coincides with another milestone: the start of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which began two decades ago this month.

For decades, Iraqis, particularly women, have endured violence from a myriad of sources, not only from foreign occupying forces, but Iraqi criminal gangs, militias, tribes, and family members in the form of honour killings or domestic abuse, in addition to the new security organs of the state.

The Islamic State (IS) group, which evolved in 2014 out of Iraq’s insurgency, a product of the chaos that followed the disbanding of the military, was responsible for a systematic campaign of gender-based violence (GBV), heightening the risks faced by Iraqi women.

The past, present, and future of Iraqi women and the gendered violence they face are entwined in the country’s long history of conflict, instability, and foreign interference. 

The pre-2003 era

Historically, there has been silence around GBV in Iraq. In the 1950s, the poet Nazik al-Mala’ika sought to break the silence on this subject with her poem 'Washing Off Disgrace', in which a young woman is stabbed to death by a male relative in the wake of some actual or imagined sexual transgression on her part.

During the years of the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988, Iraq had the highest percentage of women in the workforce as a result of the conscription of men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. However, women were forced away from their jobs after the war.

Their situation deteriorated after the 1991 Gulf War. Saddam Hussein revived tribal traditions as a political tool to mobilise these groups in order to consolidate power. In alliance with conservative religious groups and tribal leaders, new laws impacted women negatively in the criminal justice system, and personal status laws.

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“We have a revival of a tribal culture which accepts the butchering of women to settle scores between them,” former Iraqi ambassador Rend Al-Rahim, co-founder of the Iraq Foundation, told The New Arab.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Violence against Women reported that since the passage of these reforms in 1991, an estimated 4,000 women and girls had been victims of “honour killings.” This problem continued after the 2003 war unabated, and still persists today.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s security sector was brutal, and violence, including against women, was primarily inflicted by the state. The Fidayeen Saddam paramilitary group led by his son Uday, for example, was responsible for beheading alleged prostitutes in Iraq’s major cities and leaving the heads on their homes as a deterrent.

An Iraqi woman with her children raise their hands as US soldiers search their house in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, on 19 December 2003. [Getty]

Gendered violence and the US invasion

After 2003, violence against Iraqi women increased substantially. Iraq’s gendered insecurity continued unabated as the security sector collapsed. The few protections that women had from gender-based violence were weakened in the chaos of the war.

The presence of US and other foreign forces also posed a significant threat to women, as soldiers were responsible for many cases of sexual violence. The same was true of the new Iraqi security forces that the US trained. 

In the most well-known and horrific incident, the 2006 Mahmudiyya murders, five US soldiers gang-raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, murdered her father, mother, and sister, before killing her, dousing the family in petrol, and setting the home on fire to hide the evidence.

Although official figures are hard to obtain, honour killings, which were historically prevalent in Iraq, also intensified since 2003 as a weak Iraqi security sector, the law enforcement agencies, and courts, fail to punish perpetrators of these crimes.

Women who sought to escape this insecurity were subject to GBV during their flight. Zahraa Jabbar, an Iraqi student at IE University in Spain, escaped conflict both in Iraq after the 2003 war, and fled to Yemen, only to have to flee there after the 2015 conflict.

She told The New Arab that as she crossed into Turkey and then into the Balkans, “women in general, including Iraqi women, were either raped, or smugglers included sex as part of the smuggling fee”.

One of the most significant factors of the US invasion that continues to undermine women’s safety from violence is how the US mismanaged the security sector reform of the Saddam-era forces, disbanding most of them, including the entire Iraqi army. This eventually resulted in the emergence of IS. 

The failure of the post-Saddam state to provide security for women is a legacy of the 2003 war, and multilateral efforts on behalf of the international community are needed more than ever to secure their future.

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IS, Yazidis, and sexual slavery

As of 2018, IS has been militarily diminished since the collapse of its self-declared state.

Yet, Yazidi women, an ethnoreligious minority in Iraq and Syria, who were sexually enslaved by the terrorists, still bear the trauma of their ordeal.

When IS administered a state from 2014 to 2018, it traded in various commodities. The first was syphoned petroleum, the second was looted antiquities. Enslaved Yazidi women were also treated as commodities, managed by the bureaucracy of this state as “war spoils” to be redistributed to its fighters.

IS’ crimes were a tragic component of the history of political violence and its impact on women, which continues in the present, in conflicts ranging from Ukraine to gang warfare in Haiti, and, unfortunately, will into the future.

Iraqi women chant slogans and wave their country's national flag during anti-government protests in the central Iraqi city of Najaf on 30 October 2019. [Getty]

Soldiers, militants, and terrorists engage in sexual violence during conflict for a variety of reasons, but two are actually orchestrated by the leaders of the combatants.

GBV builds morale among the fighters, creating a joint camaraderie of machismo in the form of collective sexual violence, a macabre “band of brothers,” where in the tragic case of child soldiers, boys are allowed to rape women as an incentive.

Second, sexual violence demoralises the enemy, demonstrating they cannot protect “their women”. IS implemented this strategy in tandem with the destruction of Syria and Iraq’s pre-Islamic heritage.

Both tactics attempted to forge a homogeneity within their “Islamic” state through the destruction of pre-Islamic antiquities or what it deemed as “non-Islamic peoples,” thus expelling Christians from Mosul, or enslaving Yazidi women as a means to ensure they will not be able to give birth to future Yazidi children.

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Looking forward

Today, structural violence against women is enshrined at the state level. The US touted post-Saddam Iraq as a model state that would inspire a wave of democratisation in the region. Yet Articles 41 and 409 of the Iraqi Penal Code, to this day, permit males to “punish” female members of a household.

The security sector continues to systematically fail to protect women from GBV. In fact, the police allegedly knew beforehand that Al-Ali’s life was at risk and failed to take action.

Still, according to Al-Rahim, there is a positive trend as security forces in Iraq have recruited women to serve as an interface with Iraqi women, tasked with countering GBV at the household and community level. The international community could do more to support these issues.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has called for greater protection for women in light of Al-Ali’s death and a revision of the Iraqi penal code.

The UN’s World Health Organization has tried to implement mental health strategies for Yazidi women suffering from trauma only to be stymied by rivalries between the Ministry of Health of Iraq and its rival, the subnational Ministry of Health in the Kurdistan Regional Government. All three will need to coordinate on the national level, along with international and local NGOs.

This mental health trauma is not only an Iraqi issue. There is a generation of women that have been traumatised by war, conflict, and occupation, including from Iraq, that are dispersed around the world making this a global mental health issue.

Twenty years ago, the US tried to secure the cooperation of the UN, but failed, and invaded Iraq unilaterally. Today, multilateral institutions, in tandem with Iraqi civil society, are the nation’s greatest hope for the next twenty years.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. He is co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History and The Modern History of Iraq.

Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi