Human rights are a litmus test for democracy, but contrary to what Iraqis had hoped for – the "liberators" have actually set the conditions for the continuity of injustice.
By Haifa Zangana
25 February 2013
An Iraqi woman, in 2008, walks past a British soldier and military vehicle with a poster of a dollar bill inscribed, in Arabic: 'You can get some money, in exchange for some information.'
A decade on from the US-led invasion of Iraq, the destruction caused by foreign occupation and the subsequent regime has had a massive impact on Iraqis' daily life – the most disturbing example of which is violence against women.
At the same time, the sectarian regime's policy on religious garb is forcing women to retire their hard-earned rights across the spectrum: employment, freedom of movement, civil marriage, welfare benefits, and the right to education and health services.
Instead, they are seeking survival and protection for themselves and their families. But for many, the violence they face comes from the very institution that should guarantee their safety: the government.
Iraqi regime officials often echo the same denials of the US-UK occupation authorities, saying that there are few or no women detainees. An increasing number of international and Iraqi human rights organizations reports otherwise.
The plight of women detainees was the starting point for the mass protests that have spread through many Iraqi provinces since 25 December 2012. Their treatment by the security forces has been a bleeding wound – and one shrouded in secrecy, especially since 2003. Women have been routinely detained as hostages – a tactic to force their male loved ones to surrender to security forces, or confess to crimes ascribed to them. Banners and placards carried by hundreds of thousands of protesters portray images of women behind bars pleading for justice.
According to Mohamed al-Dainy, an Iraqi MP, there was 1,053 cases of documented rape (pdf) cases by the occupying troops and Iraqi forces between 2003 and 2007. Lawyers acting on behalf of former detainees say that UK detention practices between 2003 and 2008 included unlawful killings, beatings, hooding, sleep deprivation, forced nudity and sexual humiliation, sometimes involving women and children. The abuses were endemic, allege the detainees' lawyers, arising from the "systems, management culture and training" of the British military.
These same occupation forces trained Iraqi forces. Abuses often occurred under the supervision of US commanders, who were unwilling to intervene, as the Washington Post reported:
"Of all the bloodshed in Iraq, none may be more disturbing than the campaign of torture and murder being conducted by US-trained government police forces."
In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, detainees were handed over to Iraqi forces. This enabled them to be tortured, while occupation troops could disclaim responsibility.
Today, Iraq can boast one of the highest execution rates in the world. In a single day, 19 January 2012, 34 individuals, including two women, were executed – an act described by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay as shocking:
"Given the lack of transparency in court proceedings, major concerns about due process and fairness of trials, and the very wide range of offences for which the death penalty can be imposed in Iraq."
No wonder, ten years after the invasion, the Iraqi authorities are accused by US-based Human Rights Watch of "violating with impunity the rights of Iraq's most vulnerable citizens, especially women and detainees". HRW's account is echoed by a report by the Iraqi parliament's own human rights and women, family and children's committees, which found that there are 1,030 women detainees suffering from widespread abuse, including threats of rape.
Responding to these findings, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threatened to "arrest those members of parliament who had discussed the violence against women detainees". Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani has acknowledged that there are 13,000 prisoners in custody accused of terror offences, but he only mentioned women detainees in passing:
"We transferred all women prisoners to prisons in their home provinces."
Al-Shahristani's statement is one in a long list of contradictory and misleading statements by the regime's most senior officials – from al-Maliki speaking of "not more than a handful of women terrorists", to his contradictory promise that he will pardon all "women detainees who have been arrested without a judicial order or in lieu of a crime committed by some of their male relatives". That assurance was followed by parading nine women, cloaked in black from head to toe, on the official state TV channel, al-Iraqiya, as a gesture of the regime's "good will".
Protesters and Iraqi human rights organizations estimate that there are as many as 5,000 female detainees. The truth is leaking out, drip by drip. A few weeks ago, 168 women detainees were released and there were promises of another 32 waiting to be released. No one accused of torture, rape or abuse has yet been brought to justice.
And it was all supposed to be so different. That was what Iraqi women were promised.
A political quota system, established in post-invasion Iraq, was designed to ensure that at least 25% of the members of the parliament were women. That was applauded as a great achievement of the "New Iraq" – compared with 8% female representation under Ba'athist regime. But this token statistic has repeatedly been trotted out to cover up the regime's crimes against women.
In reality, the al-Maliki government has since dispensed with the quota for government posts: there is only one woman minister among 44 positions. But even this appointment contains a grim irony: the minister for women's affairs, Ibtihal al-Zaidi, didn't hesitate to announce:
"I am against the equality between men and woman. If women are equal to men, they are going to lose a lot."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many women's organisations have demanded the abolition of the ministry of women's affairs after the minister adopted a position against, rather than for, women's rights.
Human rights, including women's rights, are a litmus test for democracy. Statements by senior officials, including the prime minister himself, show that – contrary to what some Iraqis had hoped for – the "liberators" have actually set the conditions for the continuity of injustice. And that, in turn, gives rise to extremism.
Haifa Zangana is a Kurdish-Iraqi novelist and former prisoner of Saddam Hussein's regime, whose works include Not One More Death (2006) and War With No End (2007).