Surging Violence Against Women in Iraq

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Iraq’s latest surge in sectarian violence threatens to unleash a wave of new violence against women. (Photo: Jason Fudge / Flickr)

Shortly after their conquest of Mosul, young men armed with assault rifles went door to door in Iraq’s second-largest city, taking “women who are not owned” for jihad al-nikah, or sex jihad.

From June 9-12, women’s rights activists documented 13 cases of women who were kidnapped and raped by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or DAIISH, the Arabic shorthand for the group’s name. Of the 13 women, four of them committed suicide because they couldn’t stand the shame. One woman’s brother committed suicide because he could not bear the fact that he was unable to protect his sister.

The dispatches from Mosul are just one account of the extreme violence that has plagued Iraq since Sunni ISIS militants seized control over large portions of the country. Being a woman in Iraq was difficult before the current conflict. But the current wave of militarization threatens to make life even worse.

“Women are being taken in broad daylight,” said Yanar Mohammad, co-founder and president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, a Global Fund for Women grantee partner. “Men have the weapons to do whatever they want and [ISIS'] way of dealing with things is to kill.”

Now military leaders are handing guns to young, untrained, undereducated, and unemployed Shia men. These men are promised big salaries if they leave their homes to fight, according to an anonymous Global Fund ally in Baghdad.

“When we [women] commute to our office, walk in the street, or take the bus, we experience harassment,” added the Global Fund ally, who remains anonymous due to security concerns. “But now, all of the men have weapons. I think maybe he will kidnap or shoot me if I don’t do what he wants. They will shoot and do anything, and because of the fatwa [urging able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists] no one asks questions.’”

Sectarian Violence Slows Women’s Progress 

With a death toll of 1,000 and rising since the beginning of June, the sectarian conflict has forced most women’s rights organizations to scale back their programs.

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq was in the middle of a campaign against Article 79 of the Jaafari Personal Status Law—a law which, among other women’s rights violations, would grant custody over any child two years or older to the father in divorce cases, lower the marriage age to nine for girls and 15 for boys, and even open the door for girls younger than nine to be married with a parent’s approval. Now it takes everything the organization has just to keep their shelters open and women safe.

“We cannot speak of women’s rights now unless we are speaking of the livelihood of those who are totally jeopardized, such as women who lost families and young girls who are vulnerable to corrupt officials or clerics,” said Yanar Mohammad. “We went from legal work and improving rights of women to working in a state of emergency and trying to find the lowest chain in society and get them to safety.”

The Tangled Web the U.S. Wove

Such extreme sectarian violence is a relatively new phenomenon in Iraq, reflects Yanar Mohammad, who is “sick and tired” of western pundits on TV saying there is no hope for Iraq.

“The mainstream media trashing Iraqi people is unbearable and is a total manipulation of the facts of America’s role in dividing Iraqi people,” said Yanar Mohammad. “The political process that the U.S. government put in place is a total failure and they [the United States] just left. The damage is not on them, it’s on us now.”

The damage comes in the form of, among other things, a generation that didn’t have access to education.

“This generation listens to whatever the clerics and politicians say,” said Yanar Mohammad. “They are ready to throw themselves in the fire and they do it in the name of their Imam. … Both politicians and religious heads are pushing the country into a very sectarian divide and it’s frightening.”

Refugees Flee to Kurdish Region

As the fighting intensifies in northern and western Iraq, over 300,000 people have already fled to the Kurdish region for safety, where the United Nations and relief organizations have set up a refugee camp in the arid region of Khazer.

“It is very hot and there is no water; we were not prepared for this influx of refugees,” says a Global Fund ally in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “The situation is by no means sustainable. The majority has nowhere to go and is staying in parks. Entire families are left without the most basic of shelter, food, and clothes.”

While these waves of displacement to Kurdistan include Shia, Sunni, and Christian families, the pressure on Iraqi Christians has been strongest due to the infamous brutality of ISIS.

“Christian women in the areas controlled by ISIS are forced to wear hijab or face death,” said a Global Fund ally who lives in Baghdad. “They must pay a protection tax, or jizyah to ISIS to stay safe.”

If the violence is not seriously addressed, our ally in Erbil says Iraqi women know exactly what is going to happen next because they have endured it over and over again since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and during the first and second Gulf War.

“We know what has happened to women in Iraq—a lot of murders and violations—and we have already suffered to an unbearable extent,” said the Global Fund ally in Erbil. “There is nothing they haven’t done to us, which is why panic spreads among women as soon as we hear of another crisis. Women are used as a weapon for retaliation.”

Zahra Radwan is the program officer for Middle East & North Africa at Global Fund for Women and Zoe Blumenfeld is the communications manager at Global Fund for Women. They are both guest columnists at Foreign Policy In Focus.