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Violence and policing: Gendered accountability in Iraq

  • Ilham Makki Hammadi

    Researcher and activist with a PhD in Anthropology

    باحثة وناشطة حاصلة على الدكتوراة في الأنثروبولوجي

A significant but overlooked aspect to the gender problem in Iraq is in policing, where lack of accountability and barriers to reform persist.

A debate over ‘gender’ has recently erupted across Iraq, with influential political and social figures denouncing what they claim is a ‘Western’ agenda that threatens their cultural, social, and religious values. On 9 August, the government’s Communications and Media Commission (CMC) instructed all media and telecommunications networks to ban the use of the term ‘gender’. This reaction can be seen as a backlash against civil society and the focus on gender across foreign donor funding and operational programming.

Many of those who oppose the ‘gender conspiracy’ argue it is a foreign plot to raise women’s position in society over that of men. However, patriarchal norms disadvantage both men and women, and promote violent behaviours that permeate the everyday lives of Iraqi women and men alike. This issue is no more apparent than in policing in Iraq.

Pattern of disproportionate violence

In July 2023, a video clip circulated on Iraqi social media showing a young man being beaten by three policemen in the Nineveh Governorate. Had it not been captured on camera, this incident would have gone unnoticed, and no one would have been held accountable. As usual, police leadership in the governorate justified the assault and claimed the incident was the result of the behaviour of a ‘few bad apples’ and did not reflect the values of the Ministry of Interior.

For Iraqis, however, this pattern of disproportionate violence did not seem out of the ordinary. During the October 2019 protests, the violence and excessive use of force by security and police forces against Iraqi citizens was particularly brutal. More than 500 demonstrators were killed, while thousands of others were gravely wounded during the first weeks of the protests alone. According to UN reports, most of these cases were closed without the perpetrators being held accountable.

Iraqi police forces are responsible for law enforcement and maintaining public safety and order. As part of this, they have the authority to use force in dealing with perpetrators of misdemeanours or crimes. However, they systematically abuse their power. In fact, in interviews carried out with police officers, many have argued that the use of force is ‘necessary’ during their investigations. The establishment of new security forces to prevent violence and torture during arrests and questioning as an alternative to the previous regime’s oppressive security apparatus has done little to combat this issue.

Different forms of torture and violence are used by police against women and men, depending on gendered stereotypes. The aim of using violence against men is to humiliate the victim while demonstrating the perpetrator’s dominant masculinity, while violent behaviour against women is tied to overtly sexual conduct, demonstrating patriarchal superiority over women.

Lack of accountability for police violence

It is difficult to obtain data documenting gender-based violence against women in Iraqi police stations and detention centres. This is mainly because this conduct is not recognized as violence. It is also the product of weak accountability mechanisms within police institutions for violations committed against detainees, including torture. The idea of making police forces subject to external accountability is also at odds with decision-makers’ stances on this matter.

This is not merely about individual police officers’ actions; it is about a widespread and systematic failure to investigate or address violations in cases involving women. The issue is compounded by the police’s alleged involvement with so-called honour killings. For example, during an interview a policeman from a conservative tribal governorate recounted a story of a young woman’s arrest. She was under eighteen and detained for escaping from her family with her partner after a forced marriage. Instead of protecting her, the policeman informed her family of her whereabouts knowing full well that her family was going to kill her. She left the station with her family and members of her tribe. Her lifeless body was returned to the station just hours later . According to a woman judge, violent crimes, sexual violence, and honour-related killings against women often remain undisclosed due to the silence of families, neighbours, and the police.

The relationship between the police and Iraqi society is strained, especially for women seeking assistance or reporting incidents. Deep-rooted social stigma, particularly in conservative communities, deters women from seeking help, as interacting with the police could harm their reputation. Legislative efforts to combat gender-based violence have faced obstacles. Biased investigations into cases involving women, often conducted by male officers due to the scarcity of female officers, who represent only two per cent of the Ministry of the Interior, hinder justice. Some male officers will not send cases to court due to their gender bias.

Even the hotline for domestic violence cases, which is managed by male officers, tends to dismiss women’s complaints and dissuade them from pursuing legal action to preserve family unity. It was mentioned in a training workshop carried out by the author that these men will not take reports of violence seriously and will not record all complaints that are brought to them. Instead, they will try to convince women to retract their statements to prevent their families from ‘falling apart’.

Obstacles to reform

There is international interest in reforming the Iraqi security sector and Ministry of Interior, as well as developing effective internal and external accountability mechanisms. These mechanisms should be grounded in principles of human security, respect for democracy, and human rights. For this reason, a section entitled ‘The Criminal Justice Process for Women and Girls’ was added to the Ministry of Interior’s code of conduct in April 2022. It affirms that special consideration should be given to the challenges faced by women and girls during investigations and detention, and that these proceedings should be free of all forms of gender-based violence.

However, there are many signs that policymakers’ lack of engagement and political will will continue to present a significant obstacle to security sector reform. While laws may be amended and additional penalties imposed, these are unlikely to be applied in practice. Given the extent of political control over security institutions, these laws and their weak implementation reflects the interests and objectives of political elites. For them, state security continues to take precedence over individual security, with women and girls suffering the most.

This article is part of a series from Chatham House that provides in-depth insights into the inner-workings of Iraq’s government and evaluate what recent developments – both public and behind the scenes – reveal about prospects for a more a stable, accountable and prosperous Iraqi state.

This series is part of the workstream on the political economy of reform, under the Middle East and North Africa Programme’s Iraq Initiative, led by project director Dr Renad Mansour.