The Rape of a Nation: Iraqis resist on multiple fronts
When I first travelled to Iraq in 1997, to write about the humanitarian disaster of the sanctions regime for the NY Times, right wing pundits called me an evil Saddamist for my efforts.
No matter how hard I tried to convey the complexity of the situation – a client regime where sanctions hurt everyday Iraqis and entrenched Saddam’s power; a booming theatre scene that could critique the ruling class via clever double meanings; a higher status for women than most places in the Arab world slowly being eroded by the excesses of the embargo – I could feel people’s eyes gloss over - All the nuance wiped away by an unblinking ‘but Saddam is evil- no?’ response. It was as if the entire nation was reduced to a single image of an archetypal Arab dictator.
The other day at a reception, an American woman academic asked me about my plans for the fall. When I mentioned I’d be travelling to Iraq to research my next book – a political travelogue of ancient sites that subverts the traditional touristic narrative with stories of widows, orphans and the displaced – I felt the same blank stare. “Oh great, so you plan on ending up as an ISIS sex slave then?” she deadpanned – as if ISIS were the singular narrative – and singular evil – in a country of some 33 million souls.
A decade ago, the caricatured reduction of 33 million people to mini-Saddams that once typified mainstream media portrayals of Iraqis before the invasion was replaced by a terrible new cartoon: Iraqis as mad suicide bombers magically transformed from secular to sectarian within a few years of occupation. The victims of the new terror were labeled as its perpetrators.
For years Iraqis have had to live with this bizarre conflation and ISIS provides a whole new opportunity.
“ISIS sex slave” is the new neo-liberal dinner party circuit catchphrase - the 2015 equivalent of “Saddam is evil” that eviscerates context, complexity and any sense of Iraqi agency.
Why must the dominant media narrative continue to portray Iraqis as either terrorists or victims the West is either fighting or rescuing? Once again the oppression of the binary dialectic rears its ugly head as ISIS has put Iraq back on the media map after a long hiatus.
In the past decade so many foreign news bureaus have been shut down in the country that on the ground reports have been few and far between. It was as if Western audiences were satiated by horror stories and could consume no more. That is until ISIS - the ultimate conflation of Western fears and neo-colonial fantasies about the region, straight out of a Hollywood action movie and starring characters from central casting – came along and hogged the media spotlight.
The media attention of course feeds right back into the ISIS agenda, so much so that an odd collusion of right wing Islamophobes and the brutal terrorists they decry has emerged as a fresh new monster. Pamela Geller and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would seem a match made in heaven- with a marriage performed on YouTube.
Articles like the recent NY Times story on ISIS and the “theology of rape” – while chilling and well-written - provide little context and feed into the sensationalism that ISIS seeks, while remaining devoid of any linkage to the root cause of the whole situation: not only an illegal invasion and disastrous occupation, but also the installation of corrupt and highly sectarian post-invasion regimes.
Stories about rape culture and other post-invasion terrors are highly selective and incredibly myopic in their approach.
Where are the outraged stories on the ongoing horrors of rape culture (targeting both men and women) in the corrupt Iraqi prison system? Funny but I don’t remember – apart from a brief flurry on the case of the American marine who raped and murdered an Iraqi girl and her family on the basis that he “didn’t consider them as humans” – as much coverage of the terrible statistics on sexual violence against women by occupying forces. Or on the huge increase in post-invasion sex trafficking, violence against women and degradation of women’s status in general.
Where are the stories about the raping and pillaging by the Shia militia dominated Iraqi army – who use the pretext of “liberating” Iraqi villages from ISIS as an excuse to ransack them? Or the violence – sexual and otherwise - of Kurdish militias against Arab and Turkmens in the areas the Peshmerga have neatly subsumed in the name of fighting ISIS? Or that of the Yazidi militias who have admitted to destruction of neighboring Arab villages and to their own campaigns of terror including abduction and murder.
The ongoing cycle of violence and retaliation speaks to the fact that in essence, the entire nation has been raped.
A creepy Western fascination with ISIS war crimes at the exclusion of all others– insults Iraqis even as it claims to champion them.
ISIS for all its horror did not invent rape culture, there’s nothing Islamic about it, and the current situation did not emerge in a political vacuum. To pretend otherwise would be disingenuous at best.
The great light at the end of this very dark tunnel, is the current wave of anti-corruption, anti-sectarian demonstrations- that receive a fraction of the ‘Isis is Evil’ media coverage - taking place throughout Iraq. Demonstrations that cut across class, gender and sectarian lines threaten not only the corrupt and violent status quo- but the very binary dialectic that feeds it.
If post-invasion governments had not been run by scurrilous thieves who enriched themselves at the expense of their nation and through patronage and militia rule, but rather by politicians who invested in public health and education systems that had once been the envy of the Arab world, and empowered women’s centers rather than sectarian gangs, what would Iraq look like today?
But wait – that’s too much to ponder. Let’s read another story about ISIS sex slaves and revel in our moral higher ground.
Hadani Ditmars for RT
Hadani Ditmars has been reporting from Iraq since 1997 and is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone. Her next book Ancient Heart is a political travelogue of historical sites in Iraq.www.hadaniditmars.com
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.