Saturday, September 15, 2007

Using Rape As A Weapon

Diane E. King*
International Herald Tribune
July 8, 2007

Iraq's diverse cultures share a way of understanding the family,"patriliny," in which identities ranging from religion to ethnicity to clan are conferred by fathers alone, not mothers. Understanding patriliny can help shed light on inter-group conflict in Iraq, specifically on the inter-sectarian rapes and killings that take place every day.

In the cultural logic of patriliny, a child receives social and legal categories from his or her father. The child of a Kurdish mother and an Arab father, for example, is regarded as 100 percent Arab.

There are not any Iraqis who are legally regarded as belonging to two different parentally conferred categories. The categories are thus sealed off from each other by the conventions of kinship, and there are no people who share multiple categories. While that alone might be regarded as giving rise to the perfect inter-sectarian storm, it is not the only facet of patriliny that may contribute to conflict.

In the kind of patriliny found in Iraq, procreation is imagined via a seed and soil metaphor. During ethnographic research I have carried out since 1995, Iraqi Kurds have explained to me their understanding that, during sex, a man "plants a seed" in a woman. This seed is then nurtured in the "soil" of the womb. Only the seed is seen to contribute the essence of the child. I once heard it explained by a proponent of this cultural theory that a child who bears resemblance to his or her mother is a product of a seed that failed to fend off permeation by some of the soil during gestation. This could lead, I was told, to ridicule of the child's father for producing weak seed.

Rape is always humiliating, always a violation, always awful. But under patrilineal cultures, it can also be a tool of sectarian discord and even genocide. This is the case in Iraq, where rape is frequently used as a weapon of sectarian conflict. When a Shiite militiaman rapes a Sunni woman, for example, he is seen as potentially implanting a Shiite individual into her womb. He is causing her to suffer dual humiliations: She is sexually violated, with all of the personal implications that that would carry in any culture. But the rape further serves like a Trojan Horse: hereafter, an offspring bearing the rapist's identity may well be hidden inside her body, an enemy who will emerge in nine months.

So cross-sectarian rape as a weapon of political conflict hypothetically can force a woman to nurture her own enemy. But in actual practice, this rarely happens. Rather, the tragedy of rape is compounded when a member of that woman's group eliminates her and any enemy offspring through an "honor killing." Honor killings are usually carried out by the father or brother of the victim, although they may be committed by others from the group. Alternatively, the woman herself may commit an "honor suicide."

Honor killings have been on the rise in Iraq. The connection these killings have to a corresponding rise in rapes has not been documented, but there seems to be every reason to assume a connection.

Women are not the only ones whose victimization in warfare takes on richer meaning in light of patriliny. In patrilineal logic, a man is not simply an individual with the ability to wage conflict; he is the sole bearer of seed, the sowing of which adds greater strength to his group. A man who is killed is eliminated from producing any further members of his group.

In patriliny, the stage is set for one patrilineal group to inflict maximum harm on another: Rape the women, and thereby inflict one of the awful options of bearing enemy children or killing their own. Kill the men, and thereby eliminate not only combatants, but those with power to produce more members of the enemy. No people with hybrid identities exist.

Inter-group enmity driven by patrlineal logic has already given rise to genocidal conflict from Bosnia to Rwanda, Kosovo to Darfur. Iraq may already justifiably be placed on this list. Who will speak up for the victims? All those in power in Iraq bear a responsibility to stop the madness.

Diane E. King, a cultural anthropologist whose research focuses on Iraqi Kurdistan, is a researcher at Washington State University.


Ellen said...

"Honor" killings are on the rise elsewhere, too. . .not just in war-torn nations.

And there seems to be a correlation between the increase in "honor" suicides and legal reform in countries that have attempted to toughen the penalties for these killings. No one has demonstrated that the legal reform has directly caused this increase, but it's a viable hypothesis.

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

Subir said...

Yea I agree Ellen.. It happens in my own country too among certain traditional/orthodox communities and in a couple of neighbouring countries where "acid attacks" are becoming pretty common on women. There was a hue and cry about a case where a woman was 'legally' punished by being raped. A 'judgement' pronounced by the elders of the community, if I am not mistaken.

As if thats not enough, people from these few countries who move to the UK, USA and Canada also practice the same. When in some cases their community back home may have given up on those practices but since they are alienated from their own country and community, these immigrants feel proud of the fact that they are upholding the 'tradition' of their ancestors by victimizing their women. :(