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2007-03-06

Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the US War on Iraq

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Houzan Mahmoud of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq talks about the new report which documents the systematic use of violence committed by Islamist militias against Iraqi women. Methods of violence include widespread honor killings, torture, assassination and rape. [includes rush transcript]

"Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the US War on Iraq." That’s the title of the ground breaking report being released today at the UN.

The announcement follows on the heels of two high-profile cases of Sunni women allegedly raped by Shiite security forces last month.

The report documents the systematic use of violence committed by Islamist militias against Iraqi women. Methods of violence include widespread honor killings, torture, assassination and rape. The report reveals the most extensive violence against women has been committed by Shiite militias armed, trained, and financed by the United States.

The author of the report is Yifat Susskind who is here in the studio with me. Also joining us is Houzan Mahmoud. She is the International Representative of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now!

  • Houzan Mahmoud, International Representative, Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. She is speaking about gender-based violence in Iraq before the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN today.
  • Yifat Susskind, communications director of MADRE. She is speaking about gender-based violence in Iraq before the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN today.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: "Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the US War on Iraq." That’s the title of a groundbreaking report being released today here in New York. The announcement follows on the heels of two high-profile cases of Sunni women allegedly raped by Shia security forces last month. The report documents the systematic use of violence committed by Islamist militias against Iraqi women. Methods of violence include widespread honor killings, torture, assassination and rape. The report reveals the most extensive violence against women has been committed by Shia militias armed, trained, and financed by the United States.

The author of the report is Yifat Susskind. She is here with us in studio. Also joining us is Houzan Mahmoud. She is the International Representative of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Why don’t we start, Yifat, with you just laying out what you found?

YIFAT SUSSKIND: Well, I mean, you summed it up well, Amy. There’s been, since the US invasion, a virtual epidemic of all forms of gender-based violence in Iraq, a sharp rise in violence against women in the public sphere, women being harassed, beaten, assassinated, raped. Much of it is directed by Islamist militias on both sides of the sectarian divide.

But what is really remarkable is that much of the violence — in fact, the most widespread violence — in many instances is being carried out by these militias who are essentially the armed wings of the political parties that the US has boosted to power in Iraq. So these are sort of shock troops of political parties that are closely allied with the United States. At a certain point, the US was providing military training and arms and money to these militias, in the hopes that they would sort of step up where the official Iraqi army had not and were to combat the anti-US insurgency.

You know, there’s a lot of pieces that, you know, we’ve seen in the press sort of in bits and pieces. But what we haven’t seen is kind of the story of the Iraq war told from the perspective of Iraqi women, and that’s what we aim to do in the report.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you document this, Yifat?

YIFAT SUSSKIND: Well, MADRE is an international women’s human rights organization. That’s who’s producing the report. I’m MADRE’s communications director. And we have worked for a long time, since actually just after first Gulf War in Iraq, in support of women and families there. Since just after the US invasion of 2003, we’ve been working with the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, which Houzan is representing, and OWFI is a network of very courageous women activists in cities across Iraq. They do research, they do activism. And one of the things that they do is to try to document the types and the prevalence of violence against women in Iraq in a place that — in place of the government, which really should be doing that, but hasn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Houzan, how difficult, dangerous is it to talk about this issue? Right now, you’ve just had a fatwa issued against you?

HOUZAN MAHMOUD: Yes, that’s true. Just last week.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened. You’re not living in Iraq.

HOUZAN MAHMOUD: No, I’m living in London for at least ten years now. But I’ve been very active in defense of women’s rights in Iraq, exposing the violation of women’s rights by the occupying forces, by the current government that is installed, as well as by the political Islamist groups who are using all kinds of violence, you know, all kinds of violence against women in Iraq. And I have written many pieces. I’ve been interviewed by various media outlets.

AMY GOODMAN: So who has issued this fatwa, and how do you know it was?

HOUZAN MAHMOUD: Yeah, I received an email, and the email said that "You will be killed by middle of March, because you have been campaigning against Islam." And it says Ansar al-Islam, which is a notoriously Islamist jihadist group based in Kurdistan. And they’ve been infamous, basically, for killing and beheading people in the villages in Kurdistan.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re originally from Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

HOUZAN MAHMOUD: Yes, I am.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you leave?

HOUZAN MAHMOUD: Well, you know, there was a lot of uncertainty and lack of security, and the political fate in Kurdistan is suspended. And at the time when we left, it was very unsafe, so me and my partner, we fled to London. And he was also a political activist, so we could no longer stay there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the term "Islamist" and the secular Baathists versus the Islamist militias?.

HOUZAN MAHMOUD: I really — I don’t agree with this term, a "secular Baathist," because even during Saddam’s regime, Saddam relied onto religion in his latest years. For example, he wrote "Allah Akbar" — "God glorious" — on the Iraqi flag, and he was trying to basically use Islam and become a known nationalist Muslim leader among Arab countries.

But the thing is the term "Islamist," these are groups, or these are people or individuals who are using Islam, a religion, as a political way of ruling the society. For example, they want to implement Sharia law, they want to veil women. They just want the entire population to live according to their will and desire, which doesn’t belong to this century, really. It’s a lifestyle that belongs to the medieval times. And this is what we are up against.

AMY GOODMAN: Yifat Susskind, what is the Salvador Option, and how does this weigh in here?

YIFAT SUSSKIND: The Salvador Option is the name of a policy that the Pentagon began instituting in early 2005. It was a decision to arm and train the Shiite-based militias in Iraq in order to use them as forces against the anti-US insurgency. And under the so-called Salvador Option, those groups received money and weapons and training, military training, by the Pentagon, by the US military, under the command of a man named James Steele, who’s a colonel in the US Army. This happened during John Negroponte’s stint as US ambassador.

AMY GOODMAN: That was to Honduras — well, twenty-five years ago, he was ambassador to Honduras. Now, talking about his being ambassador to Iraq?

YIFAT SUSSKIND: Right. Back in 2005, he was the US ambassador to Iraq. And Steele, who commanded the Salvador Option, worked together with John Negroponte in Central America during the 1980s. And, you know, it’s almost a kind of sort of horrible joke that they would name this policy the Salvador Option, because it’s a reference, of course, to the US backing of death squads in El Salvador. John Negroponte is the person who pulled together the death squads in Honduras. James Steele had much to do with the death squads of El Salvador. And these two men, you know, are sort of back in action in Iraq, sort of recycling that same policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the various forms of violence? You’re talking about rape. You’re talking about honor killings.

YIFAT SUSSKIND: There’s violence — much of the violence is happening in the public sphere. In a lot of places in Iraq, women are virtually confined to their homes because of the likelihood of being beaten or abducted or raped out in the street. The so-called misery gangs — which I think is a really apt term, "misery gangs" — of these Islamic militias are patrolling and beating and harassing — in a lot of places, outright assassinating — anybody who’s not dressed or behaved to their liking.

You know, the social vision of these groups really requires, as Houzan was saying, the subjugation of women and the outright elimination of anybody who poses a challenge to, you know, their vision of the future for Iraq.

In addition to these kinds of, you know, public sphere assaults, we’re seeing a very sharp rise in violence within families, so-called honor killings. And there’s also been — you know, this has been somewhat in the media — a clear pattern of gender-based violence, rape and other forms of sexualized torture in Iraqi jails by both Iraqi forces and the US forces that preceded them.

AMY GOODMAN: Houzan Mahmoud, can you talk about the US-brokered Iraqi constitution, particularly Articles 39 and 41? Yifat, you call the system "gender apartheid."

HOUZAN MAHMOUD: Yes, we do call it, actually, as well, gender apartheid, because the constitution in Iraq, which was written by a group of clerics and religious people — and they were handpicked and chosen, of course, under the US occupying forces’ supervision, and they wrote up this Islamic — we call it Islamic constitution of division and a reactionary declaration against the rights and freedoms of women in Iraq. And it calls for implementation of Islamic Sharia law, of the principles of Islamic Sharia law, which are highly discriminative against women. And really, there is no hope with this constitution. And we condemned the constitution, and we called for the boycott of the referendum when it was held in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: For those who say to you, Houzan, "Aren’t you glad Saddam Hussein was deposed?" what is your response?

HOUZAN MAHMOUD: Certainly, it is important that any dictatorship regime that is oppressing people and killing them, getting toppled and deposed by the people of the country. But the toppling of Saddam came as an outcome of a part of the US agenda for political power expansion and for asserting its hegemony and supremacy all over the world. They did not come out in defense of Iraqi people’s rights or in defense of their freedoms and liberating them, as they say. But what we see actually in the last four years, there has been an eruption of violence and destruction of the society. So, really, we don’t have to pay such a big price for not having a dictator, for example. Now, there are many more dictators, not only one.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us. We will certainly link to your report, "Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the US War on Iraq," on our website. Today at 2:00, you’ll be holding a news conference at the UN Church Center, across the street from the United Nations, in New York, open to all. Thank you very much, Houzan Mahmoud and Yifat Susskind, for joining us. MADRE is the organization that produced this report.

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