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The Rape of Iraq’s Sabrine

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
February 27, 2007

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In Iraq, as in much of the Muslim world, rape remains a contentious, taboo topic. Siblings of rape victims speak of shame brought forth on their families. Restoring honor is often paramount in their minds, not bringing the accused rapist to justice. Rape victims risk being shunned socially. And revenge killings against the accusers are common, which partially explains why accusations of rape are so rare, according to the International Society of Human Rights.

With sectarianism already at fever pitch in Baghdad, a recent accusation of gang rape has set off a firestorm of controversy and finger-pointing (Middle East Online). The victim is Sabrine al-Janabi, a Sunni Turkmen and married twenty-year-old. The alleged rapists are three Shiite members of the Interior Ministry. They accuse the woman of aiding Sunni insurgents. Because the alleged rapists wore police uniforms, some Iraqis wonder if rape is now being sanctioned from above as an instrument of sowing greater sectarianism. Iraq’s premier, a Shiite, backed the policemen’s version of events and, along with other Shiite politicians, accused the victim of fabricating the story (NYT) to undermine the Shiite-led Interior Ministry. The reaction from the Sunni community was swift. Thousands rallied in support of the alleged rape victim. Hundreds volunteered for martyr operations.

The incident has opened fresh sectarian wounds but also exposed one of Iraq’s central contradictions: While the constitution forbids “discrimination because of sex,” it also enshrines sharia, or Islamic law. Under a strict interpretation of this code of conduct, a rape victim must demonstrate a high burden of proof. Without any male witnesses of the crime, she may be accused of slander, punishable by flogging. Worse, should she become pregnant, she can be accused of adultery. In Pakistan, Mukhtar Mai emerged as a cause celebre after being gang-raped (IHT) by order of a village council in 2002. The case drew international coverage and stained the reputation of the U.S.-backed government of President Pervez Musharraf. Last fall he amended Pakistan’s austere Hudood Ordinance (WashPost), which required four male witnesses for a rape accusation to go forward.   

In Iraq, however, the issue of rape has until recently flown under the radar. It is increasingly frequent in female prisons, reports NPR, and often engenders sectarian tensions. The most recent allegations of rape have prompted a full-blown media campaign to pan the Shiite-led government’s handling of the case, as well as revenge attacks (RFE/RL) from Sunni insurgent groups. “I hate the Iraqi government for turning this atrocity into another Sunni-Shia debacle,” writes the Baghdad-based female blogger, Riverbend.

The incident and its fallout highlight a heated regional debate over the role of women in more progressive Muslim societies. Some Muslim women, including the Iranian-born activist Mina Ahadi, say Islam is inherently hostile toward females, “misogynist,” and incapable of modernizing (Der Spiegel). While CFR’s Isobel Coleman, writing in Foreign Affairs, suggests it would have been preferable for sharia not to be written into Iraq's constitution, given the present realities she advises Iraqis to fight “theology with theology” and work within the confines of Islamic law to promote women’s rights. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraqi women enjoyed greater empowerment than most of their counterparts across the Arab world. With religious Shiite parties now in command, and despite constitutional mandates requiring one quarter of Iraq’s parliamentary seats to be reserved for women, many experts say the gender gap has widened.

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