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Iraqi Women and Torture, Part II
Theater That Educates, News That Propagandizes

by Lila Rajiva
July 30, 2004

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* Read Part One

It is the ambiguity in our ideas of representation that lies at the heart of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and prevents us from seeing how the act of photographing naked detainees would in itself have been seen as rape by Iraqis, even aside from the specific use intended for the photographs. 

Knowing the past use of photography in interrogation techniques passed on by CIA trainers to intelligence agencies like the Shah's notorious Savak, [1] it would have been only too credible to many that the photos were being used to blackmail and coerce through the threat of public exposure or publication on porn sites. If that indeed was the case, and there is evidence to suggest as much, then it is our distinction between physical rape and “virtual” rape that may be questionable.

Representations of sex or rape are a far more complex phenomenon than the acts themselves for they lend themselves to reproduction and transformation.  It is no longer simply a question of whether some incident or photo is a hoax or genuine but whether, even if it is a hoax, it is genuinely a hoax, that is, one designed simply to mislead, such as the Jessica Lynch story, or to cast a doubt on what is real, such as perhaps the fake rape pictures, or is instead intended to bolster what really is factual. Conversely, even if something is genuine, one now needs to ask whether it has in some way been set up or staged. One needs to know if it is being used to promote something false, in the way in which the dismantling of the Saddam statue was manipulated to give the impression that a reprise of the fall of communism in Soviet Russia was under way.

Things are no longer what they seem but what they can be made to seem. And to make something other than what it is to manipulate it, to coerce it. Ultimately then what we are talking about is the operation of power through images. Abu Ghraib is the locus where several dynamics of power come together like spokes in a wheel: the dynamic between a conquering and a conquered people; that between an expansionist religion or world-view and a defensive one; that between the active gaze of the male role and the passive objectification of the female; and finally, that between the producer of information, pornography, or violence and its consumer. To sustain these dynamics, one needs images; for the images to have effect, the dynamics need to be in play.

In this interplay, the rumors of rape, fed by the widespread stripping and photographing of detainees cannot be dismissed.  They point to the way in which power is employed by the victor not simply in the traditional methods of war -- from bombing to torture -- but also in the creation and imposition of imagery that effaces and replaces the subjectivity of the defeated people with a new reality, one that defines them as abject and dispossessed of their selves.

Consider the real incidents that we know have taken place in one year of occupation in Iraq. Although it is not clear exactly how many women have been detained since the invasion in March 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that there were 30 Iraqi women housed in Abu Ghraib in October 2003. That number was reduced to five by May 2004 and finally to zero as of May 29, according to the military. [2] A detainee at Abu Ghraib, Umm Taha, reports that when she was held there, there seemed to be around 20 women in the prison.

The main center for the detention of women has been the women’s prison at Al-Rusafah in Umm Qasr, one of the three at the complex. Gali Hassan, an Australian professor and activist, cites an Iraq Occupation Watch estimate that at one time there were as many as 625 women prisoners in Al-Rusafah and 750 in Al-Kazimah alone, [3] including girls of twelve and women in their sixties, nearly all held as security detainees, i.e., or their value in providing information. In most cases, they were arrested simply because of their relationship to a male who was of interest to the coalition (that is, accused of being part of the resistance, funding it, or being knowledgeable about it). Holding the relatives of suspects of course is an outright violation of the Geneva Conventions. In addition, Iman Khammas of the Occupation Watch Center affirms that there are five unknown prisons in Iraq apart from the well-known ten, which include Abu-Ghurayb, Al-Kazimiyah, and Al-Rasafah prisons in Baghdad and Um Qasar and Al-Nasiriyah prisons. [4]

And what does the American military have to say about the women detainees? Major- General Kimmitt stated in 2004 that the “total present female criminal population” in Iraq stood at 78, but denied that there were any women detainees at Abu Ghraib. He said the Coalition prison department was “unaware” of reports of rape at Abu Ghraib, but admitted that, “there have been reports of abuses by Iraqi police in their jails.” I leave it to readers to judge why he chooses to use the word “unaware” instead of simply issuing a clear-cut denial.

The situation is complicated a little by the fact that some reports seem to be dealing with the abuse of prostitutes.

In an interview with Al-Wasat, a weekly supplement of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, a detainee with the name “Nadia” alleges that she was beaten, stripped, raped repeatedly, and also photographed during six months at Abu Ghraib. She was finally dumped along the highway with 10,000 dinars to "start a new life." Too ashamed to go back home, she began work as a housemaid for an Iraqi family. [5]

The treatment described in this account is more explicitly sexual than in others by women prisoners but not necessarily false for that reason, given the reluctance of most Iraqi women to be forthcoming about such assaults. The reference to money is a telling detail and suggests a plausible explanation: “Nadia” might have been prostituting herself to the army either voluntarily or under coercion.

A story about prostitution also finds its way into the Washington Post, which otherwise has not shown much interest in the condition of Iraqi women. [6] However, “The Cost of Liberty,” unlike the story in Al-Wasat, paints a rather glowing picture of the treatment of Iraqi prostitutes by the military. Here, the young American soldiers slip an extra hundred dollars to the girl and do not hurt her physically:

“Nada says one day she and her sister were driven to an office building near the Baghdad airport and were introduced to two American soldiers. She was afraid, she says, but they were gentle and nice and made jokes and slipped them an extra $100 each.”

The article ends on the same note:

“After reviewing all the reports, a U.S. Army captain signed Halla's release papers, Halla says, and smiled as he wished her well. That gave Halla an idea. Images of money flashed through her mind. She scribbled down her phone number and slipped it to the interpreter to give to the soldier. She was disappointed when he didn't call.”

In the Post story, the young widow Halla plies her trade with the resigned approval of her destitute family and to support her brothers who are in school and unable to get remunerative work. They even end up being her bodyguards. Her Iraqi clients resemble boy friends. One favorite buys presents for her children and bickers with her like a husband.

The similarity of the names may be a coincidence. But, maybe not. If “Nada” in the Post story of June 2004 is the same as “Nadia” in the Al-Wasat story of July, what are we to make of the enormous differences in the two accounts?  Is “Nadia’s” case concocted to fit into “anti-U.S. sentiment”? Or is the earlier story of “Nada” itself suspect? While there is no reason to doubt the substance of the Post story, there is every reason to question why when rape, abduction, beheadings, trafficking, and beating are terrifying the women of the country, a case so unrepresentative of the harsh experiences of most Iraqi prostitutes is highlighted. We may be confronted here with an illustration of the perverse ways in which truth-telling can operate so that the evocative can be the literal while the coldly factual may be simply an evocation of sentiment. In the media war, the theatrical can educate, news can propagandize. The Al-Wasat article is written as a graphic first-person account in incorrect, emotional, unidiomatic English and with few corroborating details, but the substance of what it describes is in keeping with scores of reports. The Post article is on the surface written more dispassionately with names and corroborating detail, filled with nuances of thought and analysis. Yet being anomalous, it manages to give us a quite misleading picture of what the aggregate of reports on Iraqi women conveys.

Here, arranged in a rough time-line that establishes a clear pattern of abuse from the beginning of the occupation, are some of those reports:

September 2003:

Nagem Salam interviews a former Abu Ghraib detainee, Umm Taha, arrested on September 14, 2003 and held at Ba’qouba, Tokrit, Abu Ghraib, and Tesfirat transfer station although she had two small children at home. She alleges that she was frisked by a female soldier in front of several men, yelled at, pushed around, and put into an old, very hot bathroom, infested with insects and with four clogged toilets. She was kept there for 22 days, sleeping on the floor and allowed out only to relieve herself in front of the male detainees, receive fluid infusions, or to clean toilets in front of the men. Since she was vomiting most of the time and was drinking out of an overheated barrel outside, she had to be given several bags of fluids with a dirty IV. In Tikrit, she was kept in a tent surrounded by razor wire with another woman and 10 children between the ages of 10 and 14 years, forced to use a sieve to separate feces from urine in a waste-bucket, and then made to stir the mess after it was burned. She recalls another woman, Afaf Said, who had a black eye and bloody lips who told her she was put into a wooden cage and beaten. [7]

Khammas also reports that a middle-aged woman was sexually assaulted after she was detained at Baghdad airport in September 2003. [8]

October- November 2003 (especially November 8):

A US military policeman “had sex” with an Iraqi woman; Iraqi women were forced at gunpoint to bare their breasts (according to some reports also their genitals), and naked female detainees were videotaped. [9] The photographic evidence, part of the Taguba report, has been shown to Congress, but has not been deemed suitable to show to the public.

November 2003:

According to the CSM article, another woman at the US military base at al-Kharkh in Baghdad tells Amal Kadham Swadi, an Iraqi woman lawyer investigating the abuse, that she has been raped by several American soldiers and shows her the stitches where her arm has been hurt trying to fight them off.

December 2003:

The anonymous letter writer the CSM article refers to, “Noor,” claims that she and others were stripped, raped, and impregnated by American soldiers. Her case is investigated by Amal Kadham Swadi, who finds her credible and part of a picture of systematic abuse and torture perpetrated by US guards “all across Iraq.”

December 2003:

David Enders writes that there were nearly 1,000 prisoners in Al-Rusuphah in December 2003, 54 of whom were women (note the huge divergence in this number from that given by Iman Khammas), held in cells as they were at Abu Ghraib. The cells were certainly safer than the tents in which the men were held. Prison officials insisted that none of the women were pregnant, but according to Enders at least one was seven months pregnant. Another had recently given birth while incarcerated. His report indicates that there were other women held all across Iraq. Some of the women held include economist Heifa Abdul Rahman, 50, Victoria Abdulla Dirbash, the former director of one of the Rashid Banks in Al-Dora, south of Baghdad who had only one leg and had been held since August 11 for being a member of the Baath party, a lawyer Wajiha Mohsin Shalash, over 50 years old, who said she had been arrested at her house in Diala on July 24 during a wake for her brother and had been made to stir a barrel of human feces in front of other prisoners, including men. Also imprisoned were psychologically disturbed women and three juveniles, one 14 years old. [10]

Daham al-Mohammed, head of the Iraqi group, the Union of Detainees and Prisoners, also reports a case of a mother of four, arrested in December, who killed herself after being raped by U.S. guards in front of her husband at Abu Ghraib. The story was related to him by the woman’s sister who had assisted with the suicide. Iman Khammas of Occupation Watch Center describes the abuse of several women including Um Tai, the wife of an ex official in the presidency. She was arrested as a hostage to force her husband to give himself up. Over sixty, she had liver and kidney ailments but was kept in solitary confinement in a tent the size of one mattress, not allowed to go to the bathroom for two days, left without water or food for two days, and had to use one corner of the room-mattress as a bathroom. Iman Khammas also describes eyewitness accounts that state that in Abu Ghraib there were women who had given birth to children inside the prisons or had been arrested while they were pregnant. Khammas, Mohammed, and Hoda Nuaimi, a politics professor at Baghdad University, all separately said that three young rural women from the Sunni Muslim region of Al-Anbar, west of Baghdad, had been killed by their families after coming out of Abu Ghraib pregnant. [11]

One prisoner in Baghdad described three separate rooms for three different kinds of women prisoners and estimated that there were 56 women altogether. The rooms had cold drafts from open windows and there was little or no hot water. The women had stomach, colon, respiratory, and ear infections as well as diarrhea. There were only two meals a day consisting of a handful of rice, soup, beans, lentils, or eggplants. The food was so bad and greasy that diarrhea was prevalent. One prisoner was raped 17 times by Iraqi policemen with the knowledge of American guards. An older woman was humiliated and beaten publicly in the genitals in full view of male detainees by a female soldier frisking her. A male prisoner gave the names of 3 Iraqi women who were forced to lie on their backs with their legs up and were beaten on their feet. [12] Khammas also cites a second report of an older Iraqi woman forced to stir feces in front of male prisoners. [13]

February 2004:

Professor Huda Shaker is sexually assaulted at a checkpoint. She reports that a colleague is also sexually assaulted. She describes having heard numerous accounts of rapes and impregnation of Iraqi women by American soldiers. [14]

March 2004:

When Swadi complains about not having access, US guards threatens to arrest her.

April 2004:

Three soldiers are fined and demoted for sexually assaulting a female detainee.

According to a Reuters cameraman held at Abu Ghraib, a 12-13 yr old girl is stripped and paraded before male inmates. [15]

May 2004:

British Labour MP Ann Clwyde investigates and finds accurate a story that an Iraqi woman in her 70s, held for six months without charges, was derided and then harnessed and ridden like a donkey. [16]

May 2004:

At Abu Ghraib, until May, a handful of middle-aged women were held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day with windows boarded up in cellblock 1A, where the notorious photographs were taken. US military officials only said that they were suspected of “anti-coalition activities.” None had seen their families since their arrest earlier in the year. Swadi found the charges against them “absurd.” The women were apparently arrested not because of anything they have done, but to coerce their spouses and for potential intelligence value. [17]

One former detainee, Mithal Il-Hassani, a 55-year-old divorced mother of five, who was accused of supporting insurgents, was dragged, beaten, and stripped of her clothes by American soldiers. Two former prison-mates, the sisters Hoda and Nahla al-Azzawi, the last two women now at Abu Ghraib have been behind bars for more than seven months, also accused of supporting insurgents. [18]

Two detainees admit to having been beaten before their arrival. The officer in charge admits that rape has taken place in the cell block. Hamid Abdul Hussein, whose brother was held at Abu Ghraib says former detainees who have returned to their home town reports that several women have been raped and have committed suicide.

Some of these real instances of sexual assault of Iraqi women by Americans are allegations, most are corroborated, but all are credible and supported by other available testimony and evidence. If anything, given the reluctance of Iraqi women to openly speak about sexual violation, the odds are overwhelming that there are many more cases than those we have heard of.

Yet none of these incidents have been investigated seriously or reported widely in the mainstream American press. Except for a piece in the Nation and the ambiguous one in the Christian Science Monitor, the accounts of prison abuse in this article are taken mostly from the alternative press, activist sites and from foreign newspapers, such as the Guardian and the Scotsman.

The silence, I have suggested earlier, can be attributed partly to the reluctance of the women involved to talk about their experiences and partly to a cultural gap between western and Muslim attitudes toward sexuality and sexual crimes. But other factors have exacerbated the situation. One is the simply overwhelming nature of the violence in Iraq -- sometimes as many as 400 deaths in a month, according to veteran journalist Robert Fisk. [19] In this chaotic picture, violence on the street against women cannot get enough attention, let alone hidden violence in the prisons.

Perhaps that explains why even an otherwise well-written article in the Boston Globe about the dramatic increase in street crime manages to insert a comment on “exaggeration”:

“Whether the stories are real or exaggerated, however, Iraqi women say they no longer shop alone or go out at night…”

Yet the same article goes on to report that both activists and officials concur in believing that the rates of rape are much higher than what is reported because numbers are not being tracked and because women are simply too ashamed to come forward:

“Coalition authorities and local police do not keep statistics on kidnappings and rapes of girls” and “both activists and police officers, however, agree that the crime is likely to be dramatically underreported, since Muslim Iraqi women may fear rejection or violence from their families.” [20]

The fact is that over 400 women were raped or kidnapped in the summer of 2003 alone and this figure in all probability is both a gross underreporting and one that does not take into account either attempted rapes and kidnappings or any lesser offenses, attempted or accomplished. Moreover, abductions that are sexual have simply not received much attention, as they are a fraction of the kidnappings, mostly for ransom, that have been keeping the police busy. A further source of tension have been the house-raids and check-point searches where women are frequently frisked by males soldiers because of a shortage of female soldiers to do the job.  In Muslim culture for a strange man to touch a woman is violative of her honor and experts have from the start warned against the practice:

William Beeman, the head of Middle East studies at Brown University, has condemned any searches of women by men as “extraordinarily ignorant and offensive” to Muslims and added, “The matter is so serious that for some very conservative people it is the equivalent of being raped, and may render the women, if they are not married, unmarriageable.”  Juan Cole, a history professor and Middle Eastern specialist at the University of Michigan has compared the searches to previous colonial intrusions into private life and warned that “rather than preventing violence, the practice could spark more clashes.” [21]

Add to the assaults, rapes, and abductions on the street. The body searches by the military, the increase in prostitution and honor killings in society, the practice of stripping and photographing in detention, the abuse and torture, physical and mental, that detainees have been subjected to, and you have a picture of extraordinary and random sexual violence ravaging city and countryside. No lucid observer would be concerned about exaggeration. If anything, outsiders have not adequately grasped the depth and extent of the suffering of Iraqi women, a suffering equal to that of their men although less reported. In fact, it’s likely that the overwhelming number of reports and cases may simply have been too difficult to sort through for the average journalist looking for a story to cobble together in the relative safety of a few well-protected enclaves in Baghdad. Unfamiliar with the language, unable to safely travel around a country the size of California, talking mostly to American military officials and Coalition spokesman, to one or two western human-rights groups, and to English- speaking or westernized Iraqis in the more affluent areas, reporters become trapped by their own cultural and political preconceptions. Looking through an archive of articles specifically on Iraqi women at an activist site ( one notices that there are fewer than 30 from the major American news outlets and magazines, mostly from the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. [22] One notices only seven pieces that focus on the endangerment of women’s lives, of which one is about the death of an American activist.  A March 7 article in the New York Times raises the first hint of concern about the women whose fathers, brothers, and sons have been snatched from them and who crowd the prisons frantically waiting for any word about them - one mother searching for son charges that she was shoved and chased with dogs. There are two other articles about the possible abuse of women in Iraqi jails, both of them after the story went public on CBS at the end of April. By contrast, as many as four articles focus on the restrictive clothes of Iraqi women and make much of their increasing inability to wear make-up or westernized clothes. Most of the women described are well to do and westernized and one wonders how representative their experiences and opinions are of what is going on in most of Iraq. But the question doesn’t seem to come up.

Now wonder then that reporters dwell at length on the rumor mongering, exaggeration, and unreliability of Iraqi reports of prison rape. It’s all most of them have to work with. Having cultivated few reliable sources of information, possessing no body of knowledge about the country against which they can measure hearsay, indoctrinated by Pentagon news briefings and bureaucratic sloganeering, they retreat defensively into agnosticism about what can be known.

This is not to defend the Arab media or suggest that it does not propagandize. Nor am I suggesting that every allegation made has been credible.

However, given the murderous and chaotic conditions into which Iraq has been plunged, and the breakdown of its communications networks, the indisputable fact is that many assertions made by Iraqis have proved to be rather credible, from the non-existence of WMD’s to the nature of the resistance against the occupation. An objective observer might come to the conclusion that Iraqis have been more truthful on many more issues than the American government. If so, it is a matter of more than curiosity why, even after the irrefutable evidence from Abu Ghraib, charges made by Iraqi women about rape and torture by the military tend to be categorized as exaggerated.

Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer in Baltimore currently working on a book about the press. She has taught music at the Peabody Preparatory, and English and Politics at the University of Maryland and Towson University.


(1) “Torture Photos, Videos, a Time-Honored CIA Tradition,” Peter Dale Scott, Pacific News Service, May 14, 2004. 

(2) “Pattern Emerges of Sexual Assault Against Women Held by U.S. Forces,” Chris Shumway, The NewStandard, June 6, 2004.

(3) “Colonial Violence Against Women in Iraq,” Ghali Hassan, February 6, 2004.
Cites Iman Khamas, head of the International Occupation Watch Centre, a non- governmental organisation  which gathers information on human rights abuses under coalition rule, said, “one former detainee had  recounted the alleged rape of her cellmate in Abu Ghraib. According to  Khamas, the  prisoner said; “her cellmate had been rendered unconscious for 48 hours.” “She had been raped 17 times in one day by Iraqi police in the presence of American soldiers.”

(4) “New Iraq’s Prisoners, Unknown Numbers, Charges,” Al Zawra, March 29, 2004.

(5) “Iraqi Woman Recalls Abu Ghraib Rape Ordeal,” Islam Online, July 21, 2004.

(6) “The Cost of Liberty: In a Chaotic New Iraq, A Young Widow Turns to Prostitution,” by Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post, June 24, 2004.

(7) “Crimes in Iraq: A Crime with No Roots,” Nagem Salam, Islam Online, June14, 2004.

(8) “Human rights groups: Iraqi women raped at Abu Ghraib jail,” Rouba Kabbara, Middle East Online, May 29, 2004. 

(9) “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” Seymour Hersh, New Yorker, May 10, 2004.

(10) “Women Prisoners in Iraq,” David Enders, Occupation Watch Center, Dec 12, 2003.

(11)“Human rights groups: Iraqi women raped at Abu Ghraib jail,” Rouba Kabbara, Middle EastOnline, May 29, 2004. 

(12) “Iraqi Women in the Occupation Prisons As Material and Means of Violations,” Eman Ahmed Khammas, Occupation Watch Center, May 26, 2004.

(13) “New Iraq’s Prisoners, Unknown Numbers, Charges,” Al Zawra, March 29, 2004. Also see Chris Shumway, New Standard, June 4, 2004.

(14) “Focus shifts to jail abuse of women,” Luke Harding, The Guardian, May 12, 2004.

(15) “Iraqi Children among Abused Prisoners at Abu Ghraib,” AP, May 7, 2004.

(16) “Guards treated woman like donkey,” Andrew Miga, Boston Herald, May 6, 2004.

(17) “The Other Prisoners,” Luke Harding, The Guardian, May 20, 2004.

(18) “Iraqi women stigmatized by prison: Once freed, they often disappear,” Orly Halpern, Special to the Globe and Mail, July 21, 2004.  

(19) “The Occupation at 114 Degrees,” Robert Fisk, Counterpunch, July 28, 2004.

(20) “Iraqi Women Recoiling in Fear of Crime,” Susan Milligan, Boston Globe, August 3, 2003.

(21) “Iraqis Concerned With Male Soldiers Frisking Women,” AP, June 18, 2003.

(22) Peace Women website:

Other Articles by Lila Rajiva

* Iraqi Women and Torture, Part I: Rapes and Rumors of Rape
* Nicholas Kristof's Fox Pas(s)
* Putting Conservatives on the Couch: Transactional Analysis and the Torture Apologists
* The New Post-Colonial Racism
* Eyeless in Iraq: The L.A. Times and the Fog of War