Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender Based Violence and the US War on Iraq

Saturday, March 1, 2008
Western Asia

In spring 2003, as the smoke began to clear from the US invasion of Iraq, a wave of kidnappings, abductions, public beatings, death threats, sexual assaults, and killings gripped the country. The targets were women. US authorities took no action and soon the violence spread. Killings of Iraqi men and foreigners became commonplace as Islamist militias launched a campaign of terror that mushroomed into the civil war now raging across Iraq. While the militias were taking to the streets, their political leaders were taking their seats in a new Iraqi government. With money, weapons, training, and political backing from the United States, Iraqi Islamists have put an end to 85 years of secular rule in Iraq and established an Islamist theocracy. As Yanar Mohammed, director of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI, a partner organization of MADRE) said, “We used to have a government that was almost secular. It had one dictator. Now we have almost 60 dictators—Islamists who think of women as forces of evil. This is what is called the democratization of Iraq.”

Since 2003, the media has documented Iraq's mounting civilian death toll. A few accounts have also described the ongoing rise in violence against women. But few analyses have examined the relationship between these phenomena. Most casualty reports by governments, the United Nations, and human rights organizations have not disaggregated data by sex. They fail, therefore, to reflect the growing number of attacks on Iraqi women and the rising incidence in gender-based attacks. For women have not only been targeted because they are members of the civilian population; Iraqi women—in particular those who are perceived to pose a challenge to the political project of their attackers—have increasingly been targeted because they are women.

This report explores the scourge of gender-based violence in US-occupied Iraq. It documents the use of gender-based violence by Islamists seeking to establish a theocracy, including assaults on women in the public sphere, “honor killings,” violence against women in the context of Iraq's civil war, gender-based violence against men, and torture of women in detention.

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 empowered. This tactic has relied on and reproduced ideas about violence against women and ideas about Muslims that serve to justify US intervention in the Middle East. For example, although most assaults on women occur in public, violence against Iraqi women continues to be perceived mainly as a “private” or family matter, somehow outside the realm of “politics.” Meanwhile, characterizations of violence against Iraqi women as “cultural” in nature de-emphasize the ways that such violence is used as a means toward political ends and obscures the role of the United States in fomenting gender-based violence. Critiquing these assumptions is key to supporting Iraqi women who are combating gender-based violence, military occupation, and religious coercion.

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