Those of us studying feminist IR, gender and conflict, “new wars” in Africa, and grassroots politics are never surprised by stories like this. Rape is very common in conflict. It is a deliberate strategy often used by all parties to the conflict, whether rebel groups or national militaries, or security services such as the police. In patriarchal societies (ours included) women are conceptualized in terms of their bodies and as reproducers of the nation. Rape is about power and hate. In conflict, rape is a way to humiliate and shame the enemy. It is done to take power away not only from the woman but from her family and community. It is at once a personal and communal attack.

We all know that in the years since the United States invaded Iraq security for women has been severely curtailed. Many Iraqi women are afraid to leave their homes. Occurrences of rape have multiplied in the last few years and many women have disappeared. When a Sunni woman claimed on Monday that she had been raped by three officers in the Iraqi National Police, the reaction wasn’t pretty. Iraq divided along sectarian lines: Shiites condemned her while Sunnis supported her. In a ridiculous move, Iraq’s Prime Minister released some kind of medical reports that supposedly show the woman was not raped. (U.S. military officials cannot confirm the authenticity of the document, nor can they say how the Prime Minister’s office actually got these records in the first place.) Now the Prime Minister’s office is calling her a liar and a wanted criminal. This is bullshit.
Here is an excerpt from today’s New York Times:

“If we want something, we will take; and things we don’t want, we will kill,” the woman said she was told.

She said that the attack was videotaped and that she was told she would be killed if she told anyone about it.

A nurse who said she treated the woman after the attack said that she saw signs of sexual and physical assault. The woman, according to the nurse, could identify one of her attackers because he was not wearing a mask, as were the others, and could identify a second attacker by a mark on his genitals.

The nurse would speak only on the condition of anonymity because she feared that Shiite militiamen would kill her for speaking out. The nurse said she was also wanted by the authorities, who believed the clinic she works at was used by insurgents.

She said the clinic was simply for Sunnis in the Amil neighborhood who were too afraid to the visit the Shiite-run hospital.

It is not uncommon for rape victims to be further attacked and vilified when they speak out against their attackers. It is very rare for women in Muslim societies – or any highly patriarchal society – to actually speak out against this, because they are often blamed and, in some cases, killed for making it public. Why would any woman in Iraq make up a story like this? As the NYTimes says:

Sabah Salem, a professor at the Baghdad University College of Law, said that while men were occasionally charged with rape in Iraq and punished, many cases went unreported.

“Rape cases in Iraq are viewed as a shameful thing to any woman regardless of the fact that she is the victim,” he said in an interview.

I’m surprised that the Prime Minister of Iraq would be part of these attacks on this woman. Whether the sectarian issue is “delicate” or not, the reaction should be to condemn rape completely, not to accuse the woman of making the story up. It looks like the Americans haven’t gotten around to conducting gender mainstreaming training for their new friends in the Iraqi leadership – not that I’m surprised. Prime Minister or not, he’s still blaming the rape victim, and that is wrong. Then again, given the high-profile cases of American soldiers raping Iraq girls, why would we expect them to get it either? Proof that there is still a very, very long way to go.

I remember thinking when the U.S. invaded Iraq that this would be very dangerous for Iraqi women. I wasn’t wrong.