We recently heard from a young Iraqi woman, Dareen, who lives in Baghdad. She told us that she’d never believed that prostitution was simply a matter of a woman’s choice as most people in her country seem to accept, and how elated she was when she stumbled on our website and realised that she wasn’t alone.
We started a correspondence and she shared her own knowledge of the situation on the ground and the many factors that make women end up in prostitution in Iraq, along with links to articles and documentaries.
“There are many factors in Iraq that make women end up in prostitution. For example, gender, racial, and class inequality, domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment by family members, and poverty, government corruption, war and human trafficking all play a part in leading many Iraqi women into prostitution – and the worst part is the stigma attached to the women.
As a feminist woman and an Iraqi abolitionist, I wish to see the Nordic Model in Iraq and l will fight beside all feminists in Iraq to make my wish become a reality. Sincerely, Dareen.”
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and subsequent war
Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition that included the UK, the status of women in Iraq, while not perfect, was the envy of women activists in most of the other Middle Eastern countries. Thanks to decades of women’s struggle, they were able to hold high-level positions in business, education and the public sector, their rights were protected by statutory family law, and prostitution was uncommon.
Then the US-led invasion happened and many years of war and occupation followed. In spite of Western rhetoric that things would improve for women in Iraq, the status of women has been one of the major casualties. The damage to women’s status has been nothing short of catastrophic. It is precisely because of this predictable outcome that 20 years ago many of us marched against the war and begged our governments not to participate in it.
Along with an increase in violence against women and girls following the March 2003 invasion, there was a rapid increase in prostitution in Iraq. Breakdown in civil order, destruction of infrastructure, a huge increase in the number of widows and orphans, the loss of women’s rights, freedoms and livelihoods, were all contributing factors; as was the deliberate trafficking of women and girls for the purpose of prostitution (sex trafficking) within Iraq and to other countries in the Middle East, not least by various militia groups. It is well known that when war comes to a region, it is almost always accompanied by an explosion in prostitution and sex trafficking.
Hypocrisy and temporary ‘marriage’
Iraq has now reverted to an extreme patriarchal society. Girls and young women who are deemed to not be ‘virgins’ are outcast by their families or even murdered and there are limited options for women to earn an independent living.
There are many ruthless characters who are only too willing to exploit women’s marginalisation and there is a now a thriving prostitution industry feeding off desperate women and girls and pandering to entitled men. Society turns its back by blaming the women for the abuse and exploitation they suffer, saying, “She chose prostitution, so she must take responsibility for her choice”. As if…
In Iraq, if the police do enforce the law, action is usually taken against the women while the pimps and sex buyers are given impunity. Sometimes they even help the pimps and brothel owners to continue – while brutally abusing the women who end up in jail.
There is little awareness about how prostitution decimates women’s mental health and misogynistic ideas persist – for example, that women in prostitution are ‘sinners’ and ‘whores’ and that because they choose that path, they must be held accountable and don’t deserve empathy.
The Shi’a branch of Islam has the concept of temporary ‘pleasure marriages’, which allow men to pay for the sexual use and abuse of a woman or girl while staying within the Shi’a rules and regulations. This is prostitution in all but name.
A recent BBC Arabic channel investigation uncovered harrowing evidence of Shi’a clerics using this system to pimp out marginalised young women and even a girl as young as 13 for profit. It also shows the desperation of women activists trying to provide support to the women affected and their despair at the decimation of their hard-won rights:
Temporary ‘marriages’ are also used by Shi’a Muslims elsewhere to normalise prostitution. The police took decisive action against this practice in Sweden – probably because their training under Sweden’s Nordic Model law helped them identify what was really going on.