Rape isn’t Torture . . . ?!?

The Daily Telegraph is reporting that some of the torture photos that Obama won’t release involve the rape of both male and female prisoners by U.S. soldiers and paid translators. I’m unclear as to why people are acting like this is new information. When the Abu Ghraib photos were leaked to the media they included images of female prisoners being raped and forced to give multiple soldiers oral sex. As the world became obsessed with the degradation of male prisoners the engendering of abuse concretized around the image of female soldier, England, dragging a naked male detainee by a leash. The discourse quickly became one of either female soldiers as victims of a boy’s network in which she “had no choice” or discussions of queer erotica and BDSM. Both depended on the suspension of engendered racial discourses that negate the presence of actual women of color victimized at the hands of mostly white men. The queering of the Abu Ghraib landscape also largely failed to imagine the rape of men of color as a function of white male power and white female complicity. Thus these victims were erased entirely from the N. American imaginary at the very moment in which public outcry against the abuse of prisoners of war was at its height.

While not the same as explicitly claiming waterboarding isn’t torture, the failure to address rape as an accepted strategy for breaking female (and some male) prisoners of war erases the express understanding of rape as sanctioned torture. The failure to recognize rape as anything other than a strategy for “stopping terrorism” represents the tacit complicity of the N. American government in sexual abuse and homophobic intimidation. A complicity that spills out into the ranks.

President Obama’s decision not to release these photos for the security of N. American troops relies upon the idea that our safety is as compromised by honesty and condemnation as it is by the actions and/or orders to torture. It is a stance that is not as different from Bush as we might have once hoped. And while I do think these graphic images would increase hatred toward a nation that condoned sexual violence as routine, the failure to address it then or now, continues to compromise the safety of all women. More than that, people in the Muslim world have noted that when the original Abu Ghraib photos came out  they created or increased public outcry against the war and encouraged people to become active in demanding an end to war. It seems the argument for keeping these images from the N. American people and the world is also steeped in sexism in the sense that the rape is seen as too heinous a crime to show the world. At the same time this insistence on the virtue of women and the outrage of women as plunder contradicts the very policies that targeted women and further utilized the false engendering of rape to target male prisoners as well.

Among the rape crimes found & or photographed were:

  • sexual assault of female prisoner by an MP
  • threat of rape
  • sodomizing with chemical light and “perhaps a broomstick”
  • forced oral sex by multiple MPs of female prisoners

Homophobic sexual abuse also occurred as part of the torture of prisoners including:

  • calling prisoners “gay” before stacking them naked on top of one another, “ensuring the bottom guys penis would touch the top guys butt”
  • forcing prisoners to kneel with other prisoners were forced to stand with their penises against their mouths or faces

Prisoners also self-reported abuse sexual abuse and/or threats of abuse:

Ameen Saeed Al-Sheik, detainee No. 151362.

They stripped me naked. One of them told me he would rape me. He drew a picture of a woman to my back and makes me stand in shameful position holding my buttocks. (Washington Post 2004)

Kasim Mehaddi Hilas, detainee No. 151108,  said

he witnessed an Army translator having sex with a boy at the prison. He said the boy was between 15 and 18 years old. Someone hung sheets to block the view, but Hilas said he heard the boy’s screams and climbed a door to get a better look. Hilas said he watched the assault and told investigators that it was documented by a female soldier taking pictures. (ibid)

If you have not seen these images, but need them as proof, you can see some here and here (note this site has its own racialized and anti-semitic narrative that is inappropriate as well). You can read the investigative report here.

These rapes were not solely done at Abu Ghraib. Female prisoners have been accusing both Iraqi and N. American soldiers of assault since the war began. One such former prisoner reported her cellmate:

had been raped 17 times in one day by Iraqi police in the presence of American soldiers. (HR organization Director as quoted in Middle East Online)

Another woman is said to have killed herself after being raped by U.S. soldiers infront of her husband (ibid). Some of these reports were confirmed by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Red Cross as early as 2004. At the same time, these reports were hard to confirm by Amnesty International because of the stigma of rape in Iraq. The existence of photographic evidence then helps to corroborate some women and internal HR groups stories. The release of those photos then would help raise awareness about sexual assault and women’s rights through education and support services to the entire community. Given the anecdotal and evidentiary findings, these services are desperately needed and the President’s decision to suppress images is a potential hindrance to their existence.

Once again, Gender Based Violence in war zones is taking a backseat to political mechanations of governments. At the same time, the Abu Ghraib photos remind us that GBV is often initiated from the top as much as from the grunts at the bottom. While we stare in horror and condemnation at what goes on in the DRC, the rape camps in Rwanda, or the evidence of sexual assault and sex trafficking by some UN forces in refugee camps in Bosnia, we have remained silent for 5 years about our own involvement in similar behavior. It is a silence that these photos could force us to break.

For those soldiers who have never participated in sexual assault, the silence around those who did and the people who authorized it, compromises both their safety and their image. Silence does not protect them anymore than it protects women targeted for their gender and men sexually assaulted to emasculate them.

update: The Pentagon has now formally denied all of these allegations claiming the Daily Telegraph cannot be trusted. They have made no comment about the images that have been in circulation for 5 years however or any of the allegations that have surfaced from HR groups.

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