F.A. works as a teacher in the Karrada district of Baghdad, and says her brother almost ended her life following a verbal argument over the way she wore her hijab. He had choked her, she asserts, and the marks of his hands are still on her neck. According to the teacher, she repeatedly reached out to the community police to report the mistreatment she had experienced and request her brother be kept away from her due to the abuse he subjects her to. Eventually, she received the following response: "We are fasting, go solve things amongst yourselves, why don’t you?", or more accurately, "We are not inclined to listen to your complaint".
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Iraq has witnessed a sharp increase in cases of violence against women – an increase that was especially pronounced during the past year. Social media platforms have been inundated with images, videos, and content reflecting women’s anger and dissatisfaction with the situation, along with comments expressing their outcry and rejection of the hostile behaviors and domestic violence they are being subjected to. In most cases, it has been noted that authorities suddenly become involved and investigate the circumstances only after the case starts receiving wide media attention.
Established by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in 2008, the community police in Iraq was tasked with the main role of supporting families, resolving social altercations, and protecting human rights, vulnerable groups, and minorities. It was initially considered a progressive step towards supporting and assisting women, and this has been the case in many instances. However, the harsh reality remains that many women in Iraq continue to live in tragic conditions.
The role of the police and the hand of law
Through photos of the torture and psychological exhaustion evident on their faces and bodies, Iraqi women share messages laden with sorrow and anger amongst themselves. Whether to share the burden of their suffering, seek help, or curse out their abusers, many women seem to share their stories in search of a little consolation or assistance. However, even that aspiration is not always achievable in light of the authorities’ inaction and failure to protect them as first-class citizens.
F.A. reached out to the community police several times to report the mistreatment she is experiencing, and say she can no longer endure the abuse her brother subjects her to. The response that came was: "We are fasting, go resolve things amongst yourselves"
In this regard, the Head of Cyber Monitoring at the Community Police of al-Najaf Province, Asmaa al-Talqani, says, "The role of the community police is to resolve issues in a friendly and educational manner, without the need to resort to police stations or the judiciary. This helps to alleviate the burden caused by the daily and continuous influx of reports received by the police. We engage directly with the complainant as soon as we receive the necessary information."
Al-Talqani discusses the challenges they face that impede their work, with the most prominent ones being the tribal nature of Iraqi society and the difficult mindset of the local community. This necessitates "communicating with them for days, solely to persuade them to refrain from harming or even killing the runaway girl, for example."
Many cases have occurred where community police returned girls to their families, such as the case of Tayiba al-Ali. Community police and the local police personally communicated with her family after she informed them that she would be killed by her own family. The authorities obligated the family to sign a pledge to not harm her. Tribal parties also intervened in an attempt to calm the situation. However, the case ended tragically with Tayiba being strangled to death three days later, on February 2nd.
According to al-Talqani, "We have limited powers, and when we encounter cases where individuals refuse to return, we hand them over to the judiciary, and they are then referred to the shelters and homes in the province. However, we cannot forcibly take abused girls against their families' will, as we don't have any legal provisions that align with such action."
She adds, "Our mission is to contain the situation and prevent it from escalating. We provide guidance to parents regarding psychological support and how to deal with victims of domestic violence and extortion, within the limits of our authority. Then we follow up on the case using our own methods, and we are serious about our work. However, there is no work that is free from problems and pressures. There may be minor failures, but women should not hesitate to file reports and complaints or contact us."
Suffering that ends in death
There will be no full rights for an individual without them realizing their need for those rights themselves, and without government institutions focusing on granting those rights. Social security cannot be provided to a victim who lives in fear in her own home more than she fears strangers in the streets. A woman may receive hits and kicks, but she cannot make a call or file a complaint seeking refuge for herself. The possibilities here are limited and unsafe, as they are subject to certain powers and conditions. Obedience and silence are the absolute necessity for women to stay alive. This is how this society has built its walls around women, making them completely helpless and powerless over time.
A study on violence against women in Iraq, published on the United Nations Women website, indicated that the absence of a deterrent law to protect women and girls from domestic violence, weak law enforcement institutions, and the proliferation of weapons outside the scope of state control, are all factors that have led to the escalation of violence against women and girls.
In the same judicial study, the investigation found that court decisions tend to be lenient in some of the penalties imposed on perpetrators of domestic violence crimes, and most of these cases end in reconciliation.
M.A., a teacher at the University of Basra, says she called the community police line several times after hearing her neighbor's screams, and she received the following response: "You think we don't have any work to do besides you?" Then the line was disconnected. Two days later, in the same area in Basra province, a banner was put up in mourning of H.A., her 20-year-old neighbor whom she used to occasionally run into by chance when she'd return from university. She says, "No one spoke about her death, and we didn't know the cause."
"M." called the community police line a few times after hearing her neighbor's screams, but they only said, "You think we don't have any work to do besides you?" before the line was disconnected. Two days later, a banner was put up in mourning of her neighbor
"The circumstances of death here are mysterious and ambiguous most times, but the features of death are the same on women's faces. Sometimes, when a woman tries to file a complaint against an abusive father or brother, she may be met with religious advice and preaching, as if the community police have suddenly become the morality police," says A.J., a 23-year-old student at the College of Arts in Baghdad. She explains how she reported her father's threats to kill her, and her report was met with these words: "It's just an angry outburst; do not be afraid. These problems happen within families."
For her part, Nourhan, a 19-year-old student at a Baghdad high school, provided us with information and pictures she had stored in the past years about an attempted assault by her younger brother. She would repeat, "He's a monster, not a brother." She spoke of several attempts to report the abuse, but she would hesitate when picking up the phone. Every time she wanted to speak up about what happened, she would get scared and back down, like any other girl who sees the conditions of women and hears about their fates when facing the perpetrator or facing death.
Nour's testimony ends with a bitter smile and a derisive joke, the kind that a person rarely forgets, "If something happens to me, seek justice for me, reclaim my rights, and don't remain silent," as if seeking justice and reclaiming rights after death will produce a result. But if the girl reclaims her rights, will she reclaim her life?
Preserving rights.. but
Basma al-Zaidi, the Director of the Women's Affairs Section in the Community Police within the Baghdad Police Directorate, says that "the community police's performance and tasks are humanitarian missions aimed at preserving human rights and promoting civil peace within its authorized powers."
She recounts that during her work in the Women's Affairs Section, she encountered many success stories of battered and abused women who had run away. However, "there are some cases that require days or months to be resolved completely. We try to convey to people that the solutions provided by the community police are friendly and reconciliatory, and that our work is based on the principle of restorative justice between the parties, rather than engaging in conflict and dispute and exacerbating the situation."
As for the reports and appeals received via the hotline, she says, "We do our part by responding to the reports immediately, and if the case needs to be referred to another institution, we also guide and direct the informant to the judiciary within our knowledge and capabilities. We have units and patrols that work on a daily and regular basis to reduce the cases of running away and suicide that have been prevalent among women and teenagers recently. We encourage a culture of reporting cases of violence and are confident that we will do our best and everything in our power."
"We know that blame will always be placed on us under all circumstances, while the real delay and incompetence is not in our system or the police's response, but rather in the government system that is still revising drafts laws without passing any of them"
In a conversation with Iraqi researcher Janan al-Jabri, she focused on mentioning the basics, which is that when we call something a person's right, we mean that society should protect it by law enforcement, education, and upbringing. So how come the relevant authorities are unable to provide full assistance due to the lack of fair laws that enable them to perform these tasks? When it comes to a battered or fleeing woman, the authorities she sought help from might return her to her family, like what had happened last month – as reported in the media – when the community police returned four abused girls to their homes fearing tribal retribution after obtaining written commitments from their families to not harm them, regardless of the consequences the fleeing women might face upon their return. Where should women turn to in such cases? What are the alternatives?
Fear is always present
The community police mentions that they monitor these cases upon their return, but there are reservations due to the confidentiality of their work, and sharing the details of these cases without the consent of the families is not allowed. They also address the ethical aspects of their work, which require them to adopt a certain methodology that has to be near-hidden from the public eye. For example, we asked a group of young people working in the medical field about cases of suicide or abuse that reach hospitals and what actions and procedures they take in turn. The collective response was, "Most of the girls who attempted suicide refuse to have their parents and families with them in the hospital room. They just scream and cry most of the time, and the abusers are often the ones accompanying them. Therefore, we only treat them. As for reporting, it doesn't help because we are harmed, and the patient is harmed even more. Her life may even be in danger."
One nurse mentioned that she once tried to file a report about a married woman who was brutally abused in a bloody and horrific way, with blue bruises on her face along with jaw fractures, but she didn't complete the report out of fear of legal accountability and violating the patient's privacy.
After a long conversation with a member of the division who receives the reports, he stated, "There are what we call empty reports that take up time from police work when they do not deserve it. We are asked to sort out these reports so that we can focus on the urgent tasks. There are cases when we try to call those who filed the reports, but their devices are either off or busy. What can we do in such situations?"
He adds, "We know that blame will always be placed on us under all circumstances, while the real delay and incompetence is not in our system or the police's response, but rather in the government system that is still revising drafts laws without passing any of them to advance or progress our work".
These are endless narratives about the realities experienced by women in every part of the country, some of which are recorded in memoirs and others shared as anecdotes. The reality remains as it is between the testimonies of victims and the discussions among personnel in security and government institutions. How can we obtain our rights and address these cases without waiting for a response from a call that may see our lives end before we can hang up, or even fail to make the call in the first place?