Iraqi women endure Abu Ghraib legacy
By Ramzy Baroud
"When they first put the electricity on me, I gasped; my body went rigid and the bag came off my head," Israa Salah, a detained Iraqi woman told Human Rights Watch (HRW) in heart-rending testimony released last week.
Israa, not her real name, was arrested by US and Iraqi forces in 2010, according to HRW's "No One is Safe" - a 105-page report released on February 6. The HRW report says Israa was tortured to the point of confessing to terrorist charges she didn't commit, and that she is just one of thousands of Iraqi women being detained illegally and abused.
HRW writes that Israa was handcuffed, pushed down on her knees, and kicked in the face until her jaw broke. When she
refused to sign a confession, electric wires were attached to her handcuffs.
Welcome to "liberated" Iraq, a budding "democracy" that American officials rarely cease celebrating. There is no denying that the brutal policies of the Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki are a continuation of the same policies of the US military administration, which ruled over Iraq from 2003 until the departure of US troops in December 2011.
It is as if the torturers have read from the same handbook. In fact, they did.
The torture and degrading treatment of Iraqi prisoners - men and women - in Abu Ghraib prison was not an isolated incident carried out by a few "bad apples".
Since the revelations of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib prison surfaced in 2004, many other stories of US torture emerged not only throughout Iraq but in Afghanistan as well. The crimes were not only committed by the Americans, but the British as well, followed by the Iraqis, who were chosen to continue with the mission of "democratization".
"No One is Safe" presented harrowing evidence of the abuse of women by Iraq's criminal justice system. The phenomenon of kidnapping, torturing, raping and executing women is so widespread that it seems shocking even by the standards of the country's poor human-rights record.
If such abuse had been exposed elsewhere, the global outrage would have been profound. Some in the liberal Western media, supposedly compelled by women's rights would have called for some measure of humanitarian intervention, war even. But in the context of today's Iraq, the HRW report is unlikely to receive much coverage.
A buzzword that has emerged since the publication of the report is that the abuse confirms the "weaknesses" of the judicial system. The challenge then becomes the matter of strengthening a weak system, perhaps through channeling more money, constructing larger facilities, and providing better monitoring and training, likely carried out by US staff.
Absent are the voices of the same women's groups, intellectuals and feminists who seem to be constantly distressed by traditional marriage practices in Yemen, for example, or the covering up of women's faces in Afghanistan. There is little, if any, uproar and outrage, when brown women suffer at the hands of Western men and women, or their cronies, as is the situation in Iraq.
If the HRW report emerged in complete isolation from the harrowing political situation created by the US invasion of Iraq, one could grudgingly excuse the relative silence. But it isn't the case. The Abu Ghraib culture continues to be the very tactic by which Iraqis have been governed since March 2003.
Years after the investigation of the Abu Ghraib abuses, Major General Antonio Taguba, who conducted an inquiry in them, revealed that there were more than 2,000 unpublished photos documenting further abuse. "One picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee", reported the Daily Telegraph newspaper in May 2009.
Major General Taguba had then supported Obama's decision not to publish the photos, not out of any moralistic reasoning, but simply because "the consequence would be to imperil our troops, the only protectors of our foreign policy, when we most need them, and British troops who are trying to build security in Afghanistan". Of course, the British, the builders of security in Afghanistan, wrote their own history of infamy through an abuse campaign that never ceased since they set foot in Afghanistan.
Considering the charged political atmosphere in Iraq, the latest reported abuses have their own unique context. Most of the abused women were Sunni, and their freedom has been a major rallying cry for rebelling Sunni provinces in central and western Iraq.
In Arab culture, dishonor through occupation and the robbing of one's land comes second to dishonoring women. The humiliation that millions of Iraqi Sunni feel cannot be explained by words, and militancy is an unsurprising response to the government's unrelenting policies of dehumanization, discrimination and violence.
While post-US invasion Iraq was not a haven for democracy and human rights, the "new Iraq" has a culture of impunity that holds nothing sacred. In fact, dishonoring entire societies has been a tactic in al-Maliki's dirty war. Many women were "rounded up for alleged terrorist activities by male family members", reported the Associated Press, citing the HRW report.
"Iraqi security forces and officials act as if brutally abusing women will make the country safer," said Joe Stork, deputy MENA director at HRW. It was the same logic that determined that through 'shock and awe' Iraqis could be forced into submission.
Neither theory proved accurate. The war and rebellion in Iraq will continue as long as those holding the key to that massive Iraqi prison understand that human rights must be respected as a precondition to a lasting peace.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).