12 May 2004
Coming clean on rape and other sexual torture of women and girls at the hands of US and UK armed forces or their agents in Iraq and Afghanistan
By Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape
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We are writing to you, women legislators in both the UK and the US. That there are now many more women in Congress and in Parliament is due to a massive women’s movement over decades in every area of this planet. In the name of all the women whose movement helped get you there, we ask for your accountability in the present crisis of war, occupation, war crimes and torture, including rape, in which both your governments are complicit.
1. The rape and other torture of women and girls has been largely hidden
Information has exploded onto our screens and in all the media about the sexual humiliation, torture and murder of prisoners in Iraq and the murder of civilians, including children, in the streets and in their own homes. Questions are also being raised about Afghanistan. Yet while the rape of men (and increasingly boys) is beginning to be acknowledged, the rape of women and girls was initially dismissed as “a soldier had sex with a woman prisoner.” Greater truth is now emerging.
Iraqi women have told us that women are in prison to be interrogated and tortured to get information on male relatives. For women, torture almost always begins with the torture of rape, often gang rape. A US reporter said that “Last month women prisoners at Abu Ghraib smuggled out leaflets claiming they’d been raped.” (Anne Garrels, National Public Radio, 4 May 2004) A woman from Baghdad University working for Amnesty International has described her own sexual abuse at a check point and what she knows from others. “He pointed the laser sight directly in the middle of my chest, then he pointed to his penis. He told me, ‘Come here, bitch, I’m going to fuck you.’ . . . According to Prof. Huda Shaker several women in Abu Ghraib jail were sexually abused, including one who was raped by an American military policeman and became pregnant.” (London Guardian 12 May) Other sources have confirmed this.
The horrendous prison conditions to which women have been subjected have been mentioned as an aside. Iraq’s human rights minister, Abdel Bassat Turki, who resigned a month ago, said he spoke to US chief administrator Paul Bremer last November about the treatment of women in Abu Ghraib: “They had been denied medical treatment. They had no proper toilet. They had only been given one blanket, even though it was winter. And their families had not been allowed to visit them.” (London Guardian 10 May 2004)
The International Committee of the Red Cross report hardly mentions women, and their reporter interviewed only men. (There has been no mention either that the ICRC reports there were riots against the prison conditions and Iraqis were shot dead.)
l Why are these attacks on women largely invisible? l Have you or others asked questions about this? l How many men will ask if women do not? l If you did ask, what answers have you received? l Why are they not yet known to the public?
2. Most women and girls cannot speak out
Organisations like Black Women’s Action Project and Women Against Rape which have been demanding justice and protection for women for decades and which work with asylum seekers from all over the world who have fled rape, know only too well that most rape survivors anywhere in the world find it almost impossible to speak about their ordeal. They feel degraded and ashamed, especially since society and the criminal justice system usually blame the woman for what happened to her. In both the UK and the US, women often call the trial of their attacker “a second rape” as it is the woman’s mental state and sexual history which are publicly examined to destroy her credibility and get the rapist off. In other countries, hostility to the victim can be even more extreme. Rape survivors may be un-marriageable, ostracised and even killed. We have read that girls as young as nine who were raped under Saddam Hussein were refused hospital treatment and that this practice continues under the occupation.
An Iraqi lawyer said that her client, an ex-Abu Ghraib prisoner, “fainted before providing further details of being raped and knifed by U.S. soldiers. Another lawyer representing five former detainees described to their lawyers having been beaten. But they did not say they had been raped. "They are very ashamed." "They say, 'We can't tell you. We have families. We cannot speak about what happened.' " (Los Angeles Times, 12 May 2004) “A female colleague of mine was arrested and taken [to Abu Ghraib]. When I asked her after she was released what happened there she started crying. It is very difficult to talk about rape. But I think it happened.” Prof. Huda said the woman made pregnant as a result of rape by a US soldier has now disappeared and may have been killed. “When I went to her house . . . the neighbours said she and her family had moved away.” (London Guardian 10 May 2004).
How convenient for the troops that the women and girls they rape should be too vulnerable to tell the truth.
3. Photos of women’s torture have not hit the front pages
Given that women and girls who are rape survivors risk being ostracised and even killed, we must protect their anonymity. Yet unless there is incriminating photo proof, those in power seem unwilling to acknowledge what is going on. There has been no statement and no apology regarding the rape and other torture of women and girls.
We attach photos which have been sent to us of women being raped by soldiers, which have already appeared on some websites. We have disguised the women’s identity and will not circulate any photo where women are identifiable. While we cannot verify the authenticity of these photos, it is clear from all the other information now circulating that these or similar rapes have taken place. We have heard that thousands of photos like these have circulated like baseball cards among the troops and even used as computer screensavers. The Pentagon is quoted as saying that it knows of at least two CDs of photos containing several hundred images of US troops “abusing” prisoners, including “beating an Iraqi inmate to the point of unconsciousness, having sex with a female prisoner, and gloating over a corpse.” (London Guardian 10 May 2004).
It is not new for rape or other sexual torture to serve as pornography. Women Against Rape (WAR) has complained that in Britain in “normal” times photos and witness statements where the victim describes her rape are often circulated for their pornographic value in prisons by convicted rapists as well as among the police.
4. We want to know
We want to know what is happening to women and girls in Iraq, in prison and elsewhere, at the hands of British and US troops, beginning with the women already mentioned. We want to know what is happening to women in Afghanistan at the hands of occupying forces there. We understand that much of the brutality and murder may be perpetrated by or on the orders of the CIA and private military contractors – a euphemism for mercenaries. We want to know about any mercenaries guilty of any of these crimes against women and children, and how much they were paid to perform and/or oversee these atrocities.
Despite international precedents to the contrary, it is common for the US and the UK to consider rape by agents of the State not to be torture and therefore grounds for political asylum. As a result, women are consistently denied the international protection to which we are entitled. For example, the UK asylum claim of a mother of five who fled Uganda after being raped by soldiers who were interrogating her, was repeatedly rejected by the authorities. The rape, they said, was merely ”sexual gratification” and “simple dreadful lust”, not torture or persecution. Only after she decided to give up her anonymity so that we could make her case public, and after we called on prominent women to support her, did she finally win the right to asylum in 2003. We have examples of many such cases in our files.
While rape is not limited to war, everyone acknowledges that in war rape is inevitable. In order to make war, men, and now women (since we have been urged to be more like men as the only route to equality), are trained to kill. Once killing is acceptable, rape is hardly a moral problem. And during a period of mass slaughter, rape is even less likely to be taken seriously. When Iraqi casualties are treated as irrelevant as they have been (the body counts are for US and UK troops not for Iraqi or Afghani military or even civilians), are we not also expected to dismiss or ignore the rape and other torture of Iraqis or Afghanis?
l So why is the rape of women and children treated as a surprise result of war now? l Why were no questions asked about rape during the debate about whether to go to war?
Defence secretary Geoff Hoon, commenting on the photos of torture by US and UK troops, said: “I do not see that it is torture: it is abuse. I do not see any evidence of systematic torture in terms of interrogation.” (London Guardian 7 May). Donald Rumsfeld has said publicly that photos and videos depicting worse atrocities are still to come; these are rumoured to contain scenes of the rape of women and children.
l How will such rape be viewed if what we have seen so far is not considered torture? l How do you plan to deal with further information on rape that is bound to emerge? l Will you excuse it as Ann Clwyd, the UK government’s special envoy for human rights, initially did, saying that it was not as bad as what Saddam Hussein had done? She now says that she was never shown the International Committee of the Red Cross report. Will she resign?
5. Rape of women soldiers and within soldiers’ families
l What are the implications for the families of officers, soldiers and mercenaries who are trained to rape, murder and torture with impunity in this way? l How often do they face rape and other violence at the hands of these same men? l How often do they get justice?
The effects of army training and war on women soldiers and the families of military men is dealt with in an extensive letter by our colleague, former air force captain Dorothy Mackey. Rev. Mackey was herself raped within the US army, and has been in touch with many other women (and some men) survivors of such violence, either within the military or as partners of military men. She makes clear that rape of women within the army is condoned by the hierarchy. Soldiers’ rape of women is treated as a component of soldiers’ pay, a cost not to governments but to women. We enclose excerpts from Rev. Mackey’s expose. More comprehensive documentation is available on request. Rev. Mackey has forwarded to us the preposterous “McDowell’s scoring” system used by the US military for assessing the veracity of rape allegations. Investigating themselves and accountable to no one, they employ every prejudice against women to dismiss the victims as liars.
We now hear that 100 US women soldiers are claiming to have been raped by their colleagues while serving in Iraq.
l Will this or similar sexist measures be used to “weed out” women who manage to come forward with allegations of rape in Iraq or Afghanistan? l What will you do to ensure that these cases are investigated by people truly independent of the authorities that are accused of the assaults?
6. We demand accountability from women in Congress and Parliament
We do not accept that those in authority merely “turned a blind eye”. There is mounting evidence that orders to torture, including rape, came from the highest levels. Neither do we accept that the UK government bears no responsibility for the actions of US troops and vice versa. The Coalition of the Willing must mean joint responsibility.
l Why are women soldiers who took part in the outrages we all know about apparently the first ones to be named and prosecuted? l Why has no one in a position of authority resigned? l Will you ask that they do now and face prosecution?
We are asking, urging, in fact demanding, that on the issue of the rape of women and children which took place as a direct result of the war and occupation that your governments perpetrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the women in Congress and in Parliament are accountable to women generally. We need the full information and we need to know what you propose to do about it, individually and collectively.
We must point out that even in ‘normal’ times, the forces of law and order
have always found ways of protecting the rapist.
In the UK, Soham murderer Ian Huntley, convicted in 2003, was reported nine times for rape and sexual assault over years before killing schoolgirls Holly Chapman and Jessica Wells. This is typical of how the sexism of the criminal justice system when dealing with rape. Nationally, just 5% of recorded cases of domestic violence and less than 6% of reported rapes end in conviction. Incompetence and carelessness permeate the gathering of evidence (beginning with the woman’s statement to the police), and the decision on whether to prosecute. In court, in the 23% of cases that get that far, the woman or girl is "put on trial", and is left undefended by the prosecuting barrister and by the judge. Victims who are Black, immigrant, working class, single mothers, children, older, lesbian, have disabilities or a mental health history, who were attacked by their partner or ex-partner, are sex workers or have a criminal record, stand even less chance of getting justice or protection, especially if their attacker has higher social status. Rape and sexual abuse by police officers, soldiers and prison guards are notoriously difficult to get the police to investigate and the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute, even when the victim is a fellow (woman) officer. We can document this from our files.
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