In Iraq, women ‘are the battlefield’

By — August 12, 2014

Yanar Mohammed’s voice is shaky when she picks up the phone. It is noticeable. She apologizes and takes a quick second to compose herself. She has been unnerved by something she just saw on television.

It’s hard to imagine that an activist like Mohammed is easily spooked. The network of underground shelters she runs through her nonprofit, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, was originally meant to protect women from honor killings and domestic abuse. Now, they are flooded with refugees.

Sectarian violence has killed more than 5,600 civilians in Iraq this year, according to U.N reports. Conflict between the Iraqi government and the Islamist fundamentalist juggernaut that is the Islamic State has consumed most of the country, as well as parts of Syria and Kurdistan—and the fighting only seems to be escalating. On Friday, the U.S. entered the fray, sending arms and warplanes to Kurdistan in hopes of stopping what President Barack Obama has called a potential “genocide.”

Originally called the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, or ISIS, the Islamist fundamentalist group formed in April 2013, led by former Al-Qaeda commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The rebels split from Al-Qaeda and have since shocked the world with their massive military success and the brutal persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.

Civilians flee the Iraqi city of Mosul in July, where militants of the Islamic State have taken control. (ActiveStills)

In addition to constant shelling and terror, there have been reports of torture, beheading, and even crucifixion. As the violence rages on, Mohammed tells me many of her refugees have survived the unthinkable.

“At the time when we first spoke about it [in June], people would not believe it and even our supporters wrote us that they don’t believe it,” she says. “And now the videotapes come up.”

Mohammed describes one video she’s seen as the testimony of a young girl who said she was raped by ISIS troops. In June, human rights groups reported that militants had gone door to door in Mosul, abducting women from their homes and raping them, sometimes in broad daylight. The girl said she and her sister were brutalized while her mother was in the house.

Mohammed says it’s remarkable for a young Iraqi woman to speak so openly about her ordeal. Rape survivors throughout the Middle East are often silenced by fear or ostracized by their families—some are killed by husbands or male family members, a way of erasing the shame and stigma.

This may help explain why, to date, human rights organizations have had difficulty verifying reports of rape in the conflict zone. Tirana Hassan, a senior researcher in the emergencies division at Human Rights Watch, tells me she hasn’t seen any evidence of systematic sexualized violence being perpetrated by Islamic State troops who, she says, are hoping to win hearts and minds (despite mass killings) in the regions they’ve conquered. But, she says, the honeymoon phase won’t last long: “This has been the early stage of the game and, if we follow the pattern that we’ve seen in Syria under ISIS control, it’s pretty much playing out the same.”

In addition to what ISIS has been perpetrating, Hassan says she has seen a good deal of violence perpetrated by the Iraqi government and vigilantes loosely affiliated with both sides—or neither.

“Basically, you’ve got masses of marauding Shia militia,” Hassan says. “We documented them being responsible for all sorts of horrific crimes, and it’s very possible that they’ve also been responsible for some cases of sexual violence.”

She says that women traveling in groups, or with male relatives, appear to be relatively safe. But, she says, it is not known how well women fare when alone.

And the stories keep trickling in.

According to the 2014 World Report on Iraq published in January by Human Rights Watch, women reported being targeted by both government security forces and Islamic State militants—raped and tortured for the purpose of intimidation or to punish male family members. When Mosul was first taken last June, media outlets reported that 18 women were allegedly raped in the span of a week. Four of them were said to have committed suicide.

Yifat Susskind, executive director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization that works in partnership with local women, summed up the situation eloquently in a piece for The Guardian earlier this month. “As Iraq descends into war, women are not only on the frontlines: they are the battlefield,” she wrote.

Mohammed says she has seen firsthand how women’s bodies have become collateral damage in the fighting. She tells me about a woman who was targeted because she was the widow of an Islamic State fighter. The woman said she had been exploited sexually by the soldiers and fled to a humanitarian aid organization only to discover that, even there, she was not protected.

“After she began to receive humanitarian aid and [her identification] was registered, word spread that she is a widow of an ISIS warrior,” Mohammed says. “This time, the Shia [soldiers] would approach her and victimize her. They began to force themselves on her.” Mohammed says the woman is now safe, but too traumatized to speak.

Still, there is strength in numbers. Mohammed says that most of the volunteers working in her shelters are “graduates”—survivors of rape who had come to the shelter for help. 

There have been two instances in which young rape survivors at the shelter urgently needed abortions, according to Mohammed. In one case, the volunteers were able to pool their resources and bring the young woman to a clinic. Abortion is allowed in Iraq if the fetus is impaired or the mother’s life is endangered, but under the new rule of law, or lack of it, seeking an abortion is risky.

Another survivor at the shelter was not so lucky. Some women working there, influenced by their conservative religious beliefs, refused to allow the girl—who was so young, Mohammed says, that she had no real comprehension of what happened to her—to terminate the pregnancy. This happened while she was away, Mohammed says. She was enraged to discover upon her return that the infant had been given up for adoption.

Since 2003, long before the Islamic State came to power in Iraq, Mohammed’s organization has operated this way—carefully, underground—shielding women from heinous acts of sexual discrimination. Mohammed has seen at least one regime come and go. She has learned that when the law is not for you, you are forced to make your own rules: “What [the government] does allow or doesn’t allow for us is not really a concern.”

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The text of this entry has been updated and modified to refer to ISIS as an Islamist group.