Yifat Susskind is communications director of MADRE , an international women's human rights organization. She is the author of a new report on violence against women in U.S.-occupied Iraq.
The international news media is flooded with images of a woman in a pink headscarf recounting a shattering experience of rape by members of the Iraqi National Police. Most of the media coverage has focused on her taboo-breaking decision to speak publicly about the assault, but has missed two crucial points for understanding—and combating—sexual violence by Iraqi police recruits.
As Iraqi women’s organizations have documented, sexualized torture is a routine horror in Iraqi jails. While this woman may be the first Iraqi rape survivor to appear on television, she is hardly the first to accuse the Iraqi National Police of sexual assault. At least nine Iraqi organizations as well as Amnesty International, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq and the Brussels Tribunal have documented the sexualized torture of Iraqi women while in police custody. These include Women’s Will, Occupation Watch, the Women’s Rights Association , the Iraqi League, the Iraqi National Association of Human Rights, the Human Rights’ Voice of Freedom, the Association of Muslim Scholars, the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Iraqi National Media and Culture Organization.
According to Iraqi human rights advocate and writer Haifa Zangana, the first question asked of female detainees in Iraq is, "Are you Sunni or Shia?" The second is, "Are you a virgin?"
Next week, MADRE , an international women’s human rights organization, will release a report that documents the widespread use of rape and other forms of torture against female detainees in Iraq by U.S. and Iraqi forces. The report includes testimonies collected by the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) of numerous rape survivors. Since November 2005, OWFI has conducted a Women’s Prison Watch project and has found that "torture and rape are common procedure of investigation in police stations run by the militias affiliated with the government, mostly the Mahdi and Badr militias," according to their summer 2006 report.
These are the same sectarian Shiite militias that have been prosecuting Iraq’s civil war, the same militias that stepped into the power vacuum created by the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the same militias that have been systematically attacking Iraqi women in their bid to establish an Islamist theocracy. As the occupying power in Iraq, the U.S. was obligated under the Geneva Conventions to provide security to Iraqi civilians, including protection from sex-based violence. But the U.S. military, preoccupied with battling the Iraqi insurgency, simply ignored the reign of terror that Islamist militias were imposing on women, including a campaign of assassinations, rapes, acid attacks and public beatings targeting women perceived to pose a challenge to the project of turning Iraq into a theocracy.
By 2005, the U.S. was actively aiding the militias. As the "cakewalk" envisioned by U.S. war planners quickly devolved into the quagmire is the Iraq War, the U.S. began to cultivate Shiite militias to help battle the Sunni-led insurgency. According to Newsweek, the plan was dubbed the "Salvador Option," recalling the use of militias by the U.S. to bolster right-wing regimes in 1980s Central America. Today, the Mahdi Army controls the police forces of Baghdad and Basra , Iraq’s two largest cities. The Badr Brigade is headquartered in Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, which directs the country’s police, intelligence and paramilitary units. And the United Nations special investigator on torture is reporting that torture in Iraq is worse now than under Saddam Hussein.
It’s no surprise that we’re hearing allegations of rape against the Iraqi National Police, considering who trained them. DynCorp, the private contractor that the Bush Administration hired to prepare Iraq’s new police force for duty, has an ugly record of violence against women. The company was contracted by the federal government in the 1990s to train police in the Balkans. Human Rights Watch reports that DynCorp employees were found to have systematically committed sex crimes against women, including "owning" young women as slaves . One DynCorp site supervisor videotaped himself raping two women. Despite evidence, the contractors never faced criminal charges.
Contrary to its rhetoric and its international legal obligations, the Bush Administration has refused to protect women’s rights in Iraq. In fact, it has decisively traded women’s rights for cooperation from the Islamists it has helped boost to power. Torture of women in detention is one symptom of this broader crisis.