There can be no other region in the world now as broad as the swath of Middle Eastern and North African nations where so many women are living in violence, extreme vulnerability and a corrosive foreboding about their future. These deprivations are occurring from Tunisia or Egypt — where women struggle to keep the legal rights and freedoms they once enjoyed before political revolutions opened the way to Islamists — to Syria, where women are killed, starved or driven from their homes in large numbers by civil war.
Now, a new report from Human Rights Watch reveals that in Iraq, women are routinely being accused of crimes they insist they did not commit, severely abused in police or in prison custody and executed without credible due process in a politicized justice system.
For Iraqi women, the situation did not arise out of the Arab Spring, but rather during the years of the Saddam Hussein regime, when human rights were abused wholesale in the lives of men as well as women. The new report, “No One Is Safe: Abuse of Women in Iraq’s Criminal Justice System,” finds in extensive case studies that ill treatment of women did not stop during the American-led occupation of the country and has apparently intensified under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in defiance of the government’s own laws.
An increasingly recognized sectarian factor in Arab conflicts emerges from the report, which found that Sunni women were by far the most frequent targets of warrantless arrests and the abuses that follow. Prime Minister Maliki, who spent years in exile in Iran, comes from Iraq’s Shia population, which suffered under relentless prosecution and often death under Saddam Hussein’s policy of Sunni rule and privilege. An official in the prime minister’s office provided figures showing that 4,200 Sunni women and 57 Shia women were in defense or interior ministry custody.
To the consternation of many — including the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq — Maliki refuses to accept that his apparently deep-seated penchant for revenge is threatening the future of the country by allowing security services and rogue ministries to act outside the law while promising reforms that never get instituted effectively. A June 2013 UN Iraqi mission human-rights report said that arrests and torture under a 2005 antiterrorism law were continuing. The abuses can only fuel growing Sunni violence, some of it linked to Al Qaeda.
The Human Rights Watch report — based on information collected through interviews with prisoners and other witnesses, Iraqi officials, the UN and the Iraqi parliament’s human-rights committee — acknowledges that far fewer women than men have been locked up in Iraq’s prisons. Nevertheless, many of the women appear to have been arrested, some seized in public or at home in front of their children, simply to intimidate or punish relatives whom the government suspects of being tied to militants.
According to witness accounts and information from numerous civil society activists and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provided to Human Rights Watch, women are frequently targeted not only for crimes they themselves are said to have committed, but to harass family or tribal members, the report said. Furthermore, it noted, “once they have been detained, and even if they are released unharmed, women are frequently stigmatized by their family or tribe, who perceive them to have been dishonored.”
The sexual abuse of women by the police and other security forces is rampant and extremely violent in many cases. A chilling indication of widespread abuse — including multiple rapes, burns on bodies and torture methods such as tying women to pillars and leaving them standing in that position for many hours — was offered by a prison official who told interviewers that women brought to jail were automatically sent for pregnancy testing because it was assumed that they had been raped by police after their arrests.
Women are often asked to sign papers that they cannot read or are never told what the charges are against them, and by whom. “In almost all of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, courts based convictions on coerced confessions and secret informant testimony,” the report said. “Women — like many Iraqi men — have little or no access to an adequate defense, either because they cannot afford one or because lawyers are fearful of taking on politically sensitive cases.”
One encouraging note in the report found that attention has been focused on the plight of women among the public, civil society, the Iraqi parliament, at least some government officials and the media.
“In response to the media reports and to subsequent mass protests against the treatment of women in detention, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced in January 2013 that he would task Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani with overseeing reforms to the criminal justice system,” the report said. “But a year later, the government has not made desperately needed reforms, and the justice system remains plagued by corruption and abuses against women from all sects, classes, and regions.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.