While political crises and electoral campaigns dominate Iraq’s political scene, local media outlets have discretely released the story of the horrifying gang rape of seven-year-old Samah Ali Hussein in the poverty-stricken region of al-Washash, west of the capital.
With heart-wrenching details, eyewitnesses and relatives of the child recount the incident that took place on Feb. 27, when three young men raped Hussein near a police station.
According to witnesses, Hussein is a student just beginning her education. Her father passed away and she lives with her mother at her grandfather’s home. When she left school one day and headed toward a nearby kiosk to buy some candy, three young men lured Hussein to them and proceeded to rape her, one after the other.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, a spokesman from the Ministry of Interior, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, affirmed that “the child’s mother and aunt learned of the rape two days after the incident. When Hussein recounted the details of what had happened, they immediately reported the case to the police.”
Maan added that “security agencies rushed immediately to issue a warrant against the perpetrators who, after two days of investigation, pleaded guilty.”
Maan admitted that a significant number of kidnapping and rape incidents have occurred recently. Yet he asserted that the numbers are exaggerated, according to official records. When asked why and how this would happen, Maan noted that “the reason behind such [practices] is openness, a misinterpretation of democracy and media that cannot be held accountable.”
In the aftermath of the incident, the residents of al-Washash staged a demonstration that displayed much anger and resentment. The demonstrators called for the perpetrators to be given the maximum sentence, which is death. Civil organizations have condemned the reoccurrence of rape incidents, citing 2012 statistics that revealed record numbers of such appalling cases, unbefitting a conservative Islamic society.
Hanaa Edward, a civil activist, described the incident to Al-Monitor as “appalling, with negative effects that the child will have to bear forever.”
Speaking about the reasons behind the media’s poor coverage of the story, Edward noted that “political crises and skirmishes distract from such incidents and prevent the public from learning of and finding effective solutions for them.”
Edward believes that the solution does not lie in giving the perpetrators maximum sentences. According to her, “It is crucial to establish treatment and rehabilitation centers for both the victim and the criminal, similar to the model followed in developed countries."
She went on, “The aim of these centers is to provide the perpetrators with the needed therapy in order to tackle the psychological complexes that moved them to carry out such a hideous, unforgivable crime against a seven-year-old girl. Moreover, the centers will also address the psychological well being of the victim to help rid her of the negative effects of the incident.”
This crime is not the first and certainly will not be the last of its kind in Iraq. A few months back, a young 17-year-old woman was raped by an army officer in al-Namrud region, north of Mosul. Abir Abd Ali, a five-year-old girl from Basra, was kidnapped by four men who beat and raped her repeatedly. Banin Haidar, a four-year-old girl, experienced a similarly hideous attack in Basra province in southern Iraq. Haidar was abducted by intelligence members, taken to an unknown location in Khor al-Zubair city and raped multiple times, until they decided to brutally end her life by crushing her head with a large stone.
Assessing these crimes casts a harsh light on the moral system in Iraq. Serious questions arise in regard to the best ways to protect the security and morals of society.
Relevant institutions note thousands of cases of rape that were not reported, particularly in rural areas, as a result of a lack of societal awareness. The victimized women will end up either married to the criminal or the subject of a tribal settlement, pursuant to which the perpetrator may be forced to pay a fine to the family of the victim to compensate for his or her defamed reputation. The victims undergo two types of violation: The first is physical while the second is social. Additionally, the law is permissive and customs point the finger of blame at the victim, who carries a social label for the rest of her life.
As for legislation, Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 from 1969 sentences to death whoever forcibly assaults and rapes a minor. If the victim is an adult, the assailant shall be sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment or a life sentence. In the event that the offender marries the victim, the sentence shall be nullified.
For a long time, feminist movements have voiced demands to amend rape laws and annul the clauses that allow the rapist to evade punishment if he agrees to marry the victim. Feminist activists and civil-society groups believe that while these articles protect the families of the victims and their customs, they deny these women their rights as individuals. The activists reiterate that keeping these crimes under wraps will only encourage the offenders to repeat these violations.
Abdul Rahman Jalham, a lawyer, affirms that “many criminals are exempted from punishment because a significant number of raped woman settle for marrying the offenders to elude the censure of a patriarchal and tribal society.” According to Jalham, “Lack of awareness and legal knowledge push some families to punish their daughters, sometimes going so far as to kill them, instead of standing by their sides and pursuing the criminal.”
These crimes will continue to be settled outside the law as long as the law and courts neglect to find a solution. This fact was demonstrated in a study conducted by Human Rights Watch in seven Iraqi cities. The report found that women are the most vulnerable segment of Iraqi society, that the quality of life of women and minorities in Iraq is deteriorating and that the country is at a crossroads where it must choose between establishing a proper justice system embodying human rights or devolving into a lawless state. The report called on the Iraqi government to “amend the penal code and all other laws that discriminate against women, whether minors or adults.”
Bushra Al Mudhafar is a writer and journalist from Baghdad working in Iraqi and Arab media.