Imagine yourself in a Shiite mosque in a city in Baghdad. A young woman turns to you and asks the question weighing on everyone’s mind – “have you got yourself a gun?”
You ask her why she needs one. “One has to protect herself” she replies. “Once they get here, you know what they will do.”
The context here is clear: rape.
As the soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) advance their way through the state of Iraq, blood pressures rise. The residents of Iraqi cities contemplate the atrocities that these men will commit after they arrive. One of the key concerns is the threat of sexual violence – a threat alluded to by many women and men who list protecting women as their key motivation behind taking up arms.
The threat of this kind of violence has been declared by the Nouri al-Maliki government, the Shiite Prime Minister and the media, ever since ISIS took control of the city of Mosul on June 10.
Interestingly is the way this government has capitalised on this threat from ISIS – in an attempt to galvanise Shiites, with the implication that rape will be used against them as a form of sectarian violence. Maliki has been very eager to solidify his Shiite support base as he fights off political death while simultaneously encouraging Shiite volunteers to prop up his military.
Sexual violence is a wicked reality of war, and it could become more virulent in the chaos that is now Mosul, where the security forces that be cease to be relevant.
The international community have also warned of the threat of sexual violence under ISIS. For Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hauge – “anyone glorifying, supporting, or joining [ISIS] should understand that they would be assisting a group responsible for kidnapping, torture, executions, rape, and many other hideous crimes.”
Yet Middle Eastern women’s rights activists claim that the Iraqi government has captured this issue as a means for political manipulation – a cog in a cynical and sectarian-oiled machine designed to hold onto power.
For politician and former minister for women’s affairs, Azahar al-Shekhly: “Whether these rumours are correct or not, Maliki has already promoted this narrative. He is using it to incite his followers to get support for his regime.”
On a rudimentary level, at the very least this suggests that the government is working to inflame fears instead of calming them. Sectarian strains in Baghdad were shaken by ISIS, but according to Shekhly, they had already been rising steadily. “Now there is something like a nightmare gripping everyone’s minds, even in Baghdad. We start to imagine what kind of violence ISIS will do if they enter Baghdad — kidnapping, rape. [Even] if ISIS never makes it to Baghdad, people imagine how the situation will be if [Sunni and Shiite residents] start fighting among themselves.”
Shekhly has advised friends with daughters to stay at home.
It is hard to quantify how prevalent, or even whether or not, sexual violence is actually occurring in Mosul. The leader of the NGO al-Amal, or Hope, Hannaa Edwar, said that as soon as the rape rumours began flowing out of Mosul, she scurried to get confirmation from her Mosul contacts. Edwar is “in daily contact about this,” because she “hates ISIS and [is] sure that they will do this [kind of thing] – the hatred, the sexual violence, everything.” According to her, “Women are very low for [ISIS]; women exist only to serve them. But we have to be careful now. The government is using this to scare people and to get people to protect the regime.”
But just because Edwar’s sources aren’t confirming any new cases of sexual assault in Mosul, this doesn’t mean it’s not happening. But it can’t be ignored that this threat is being used as a political tool by the government. “This was the same during Saddam’s time,” Edwar said. “When the regime felt threatened, it spoke about defending Iraq and defending the honour of the women of Iraq. As if the honour was only with the women and not with the country as a whole.”
Another Iraqi women’s rights activist, Basma al-Khateeb says she is “sure it’s happening [in Mosul]. Not just by ISIS, but by all armed groups.”
But it’s important to remember that the crime itself isn’t actually a concern of the government, as it is all just about politics.
The issue of women’s safety in Iraq has never come without baggage – whether spoken about by Saddam, the Bush administration, or the Maliki government.
This is summed up by Khateeb: “They use it for propaganda.”