The terrorists who kidnapped American journalist Jill Carroll thought they would win Arab sympathy if they demanded the release of Iraqi women detained by U.S. forces.
After all, what could be a surer bet than claiming to be acting in the name of the “honour” of our women, particularly when that “honour” is threatened by Americans?
The U.S. is said to be holding eight or nine Iraqi women on terrorism-related suspicions. If, as Iraqi human rights activists claim, any of these women were detained as bait to induce wanted male relatives to hand themselves in, then the
U.S. and the post-Saddam Iraqi army have taken one of the worst pages out of the book of Arab dictatorships.
But the masked cowards who kidnapped Carroll are the last people to claim they care for Iraqi women or for their well being.
As Amnesty International made clear in a report it published in July called “ Iraq : In cold blood – abuses by armed groups”, scores of women and girls have died in attacks by these groups. In some cases, the deaths have been the result of indiscriminate attacks. In others, women campaigning to protect women’s rights have been threatened, kidnapped and killed by members of armed groups in Iraq . Sometimes, the perpetrators have identified themselves as members of Islamist groups, linking their attack to the women’s activism for women’s rights, according to the report.
If we are condemning the Americans or the Iraqi army for holding female relatives of wanted men, then what about Ansar al-Jihad, which in November 2004 abducted three relatives – two of them women – of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi from their home in Baghdad ?
As Amnesty reported, the group demanded that U.S. and Iraqi military operations in Falluja be halted and political prisoners released and threatened to kill the hostages unless their demands were met within 48 hours. A day later, they released the two female relatives. One was 75 years old and the other was pregnant.
Who kidnaps elderly and pregnant women? Where is the “honour” in that? And what message does this send? That we can abuse our own women but it is unacceptable when the Americans do it?
That was just one example of the hostage taking of women for political demands. Dozens of Iraqi and foreign women have been kidnapped for ransom too. According to Newsweek magazine, armed groups killed twenty women in Mosul and a dozen more in Baghdad between March 2003 and mid-January 2005. Two particularly gruesome murders were those of Zina al-Qushtaini and Margaret Hassan.
Al Qushtaini, a mother of two in her late thirties who ran a pharmacy in Baghdad , was abducted along with her business partner Dr. Ziad Bahu. Ten days later their bodies were found near a highway close to Baghdad . Bahu was beheaded and al-Qushtaini was shot in the head. Her murderers dressed her in a black abaya and a headscarf, which she did not wear when she was alive.
Margaret Hassan, who was married to an Iraqi and who was herself a national of Ireland, the UK and Iraq, had lived in Iraq for 30 years when she was abducted. She was Iraq country director of relief organization Care International and was the only foreign female hostage who was killed.
While it has been good to hear various Muslim and Arab officials and groups roundly condemn Carroll’s kidnapping, it is equally important to call out the hypocrisy of the terrorists who claim to be championing the plight of Iraqi women.
Iraqi men are also victims of indiscriminate attacks by terrorists and armed groups. While they too are kidnapped and held hostage for ransom or political demands, their position in Iraqi society is not as dependent on the hypocritical notions of honour that women must navigate. In most Arab countries, any woman held in detention is assumed to have been sexually assaulted.
If they are, shouldn’t the shame lie solely at the feet of those who assaulted them? Rape is one of the least reported crimes in the Arab world precisely because we place the blame and shame for it on the victim and not the perpetrator.
While Iraq tries to from a tenuous coalition between its various ethnic and religious groups, some might say it is not the time to tackle those hypocritical notions of honour that burdens women. That would be a monumental mistake. If women are not a priority now, as the country tries to stand on its own feet, then they never will be.
Ever since the U.S. media uncovered the Abu Ghraib torture and abuse scandal and released photographs of the sexual humiliation of Iraqi male inmates by American soldiers, there have been rumours that Iraqi women too were abused.
Human rights groups and members of the U.S. Congress who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal have said that there are photographs and videos that show women being sexually humiliated.
After the Abu Ghraib scandal and following outrage at their heavy handed search methods, the Americans have tried to become more culturally sensitive by ordering male troops not to touch Iraqi women and by using female soldiers to search them at checkpoints.
That is quite ironic in light of the heavy handedness of our own security forces, which pay little regard to the “honour” which we claim to so value.
Just four days before Jill Carroll was kidnapped, ostensibly for the sake of Arab women’s honour, Egypt’s prosecutor general dismissed all charges in an inquiry into the sexual assault of female journalists by government supporters during protests in Cairo in May.
Perhaps if the Egyptian women had been assaulted by Americans, the case would have gone to trial.