Preserving the Abu Ghraib Culture: The Harrowing Abuse of Iraqi Women
18 February 2014
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 her heartrending testimony.
Israa (not her real name) was arrested by US and Iraqi
forces in 2010. She was tortured to the point of
confessing to terrorist charges she didn't commit.
According to HRW's "No One is Safe" - a 105-page
report released on Feb 06 – there are thousands of
Iraqi women in jail being subjected to similar
practices, held with no charges, beaten and raped.
In Israa's case, she received most degrading, but
typical treatment. She was handcuffed, pushed down on
her knees, and kicked in the face until her jaw broke.
And when she refused to sign the confession, it was
then that electric wires were attached to her
Welcome to the ‘liberated' Iraq, a budding ‘democracy'
which American officials rarely cease celebrating.
There is no denial that the brutal policies of the
Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki is a
continuation of the same policies of the US military
administration, which ruled over Iraq from 2003 until
the departure of US troops in Dec. 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.'
Only the naïve would buy into the ‘bad apples' theory,
and not because of the sheer horrendousness and
frequency of the abuse. Since the Abu Ghraib
revelations early in 2004, many such stories emerged,
backed by damning evidence, 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 some of the most 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 of the past. If
such a reality were to exist in a different political
context, the global outrage would have been so
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 case of today's Iraq, the HRW
report is likely to receive bits of coverage where the
issue is significantly deluded, and eventually
In fact, the discussion of the abuse of thousands of
women – let alone tens of thousands of men – has
already been discussed in a political vacuum. A
buzzword that seems to emerge since the publication of
the report is that the abuse confirms the ‘weaknesses'
of the Iraqi 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-led training of
Mostly absent are the voices of women's groups,
intellectuals and feminists who seem to be constantly
distressed by the 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 remerged in complete isolation from
an equally harrowing political context 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
had begun, Major General Antonio Taguba, who had
conducted the inquiry, 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 Telegraph newspaper on May
Maj Gen 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 had set foot in Afghanistan.
Considering the charged political atmosphere in Iraq,
the latest reported abuses are of course placed in
their own unique context. Most of the abused women are
Sunni, and their freedom has been a major rallying cry
for rebelling Sunni provinces in central and western
Iraq. In Arab culture, dishonoring one 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 heaven for
democracy and human rights, the ‘new Iraq' has
solidified 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
- 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