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A Closely Guarded Secret: Saving the Most Vulnerable Women in Baghdad - A STATUS/الوضع Conversation with Rania Abouzeid

In this interview, Mailhe Razazan speaks with Rania Abouzeid about her article "Out of Sight" in the New Yorker. 

Rania Abouzeid is an award-winning journalist with over a decade's experience in the Middle East. She has held several fellowships, including the Ochberg at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and a visiting fellowship at the Eurpoean Council on Foreign Relations. She is currently a New America Fellow, writing a book about the Syrian uprising. 

The interview below includes two parts that you can click on seperately. Please find a transcript of the interview below the player. 



Interview Transcript

Transcribed by Nisreen Zaqout

Malihe Razazan [MR]: For Status Hour, I’m Malihe Razazan, welcome. Once upon a time, Iraq was at the forefront of women’s rights in the Middle East. In her new insightful piece in the New Yorker called “Out of Sight,” the award winning journalist Rania Abuzaid writes: “In 1959 Iraq had passed law number 188 also known as the Personal Status law which restricted polygamy, outlawed child marriage and forced marriages and improved women’s rights in divorce, child custody and inheritance.” But successive wars and the invasion, and 2003 occupation of Iraq, and ensuing sectarianism, as well as the chronic stage of corruption have since torn apart the fabric of Iraqi society. So, earlier this year Rania Abuzaid went back to Baghdad to look into the worsening situation in Iraq by focusing on women who have become victims of sexual violence. I spoke with Rania Abuzaid about her New Yorker piece, and why she decided to take on such a challenging reporting project.

Rania Abouzeid [RA]:  There is so much news about what is happening in Iraq but I wanted to look at how the massive changes in the country were affecting some of its most vulnerable citizens. I did not want to look at it from the perspective of the political power play nor the perspective of the guys with the guns. I wanted to look at how all of their actions were affecting like I said some of Iraq’s most vulnerable people. I actually went with the intention of looking at the displaced women, as well. I wrote a separate story for the New Yorker about that, and I sort of ended up focusing on sex crimes, because sadly when it comes to the vulnerability of women, that is often exploited in a sexually violent manner.

MRRania, who is behind prostitution and the trafficking of women in Baghdad? 

RA: It is quite a tangled web: most of the pimps are actually women, but beyond those women is a network of men. Some of the men are in militias, and they support or protect if you might be the pimp. Other men are in militias that would fight against it and actually kill and shoot pimps, and you have corrupt policemen as well, as well as corrupt politicians and other officials. What a tangled and messy web!

MRBut you were in Iraq the summer of 2014. I remember when twenty-nine women were slaughtered. They were prostitutes or believed to be prostitutes. That news got a brief attention in the media here. You went to the morgue, and something that struck me in that piece was how ordinary death has become for Iraqis. There was only one woman who came to see if her missing daughter was one of dead. Talk about that situation, and how that killing affected this industry if we can call it that?

RA: Yes, I happen to be at the morgue on the day that the twenty-eight women and five men -- if I’m not mistaken -- were brought in, and the thing is that every day there are undefined bodies that are turning up at the Baghdad Morgue. On this day, as I said, it was quite a large number that came in suddenly and they were all from the same place, from a couple of apartments that were believed to be brothels in Zayouna. And it was really quite a terrible sight as you can imagine. The bodies were splayed down on the ground on the blood-stained ground, and they all had pink slips on them that said identity unknown and identified when they had arrived at the morgue. They had all been shot-up and it was really quite grizzly. There is a room in the Baghdad Morgue, where family members who are looking for their missing - who are looking for people they cannot find in hospitals - turn up to see if their loved ones are among the dead. And it is quite a grizzly database: the dead are photographed in whatever shape they have turned-up to the morgue. So, you know, blood is not removed from them. If they were found with their hands tied that is how they are photographed. That is how family members would see them. And there are technicians who will upload these photos who have to see these images and have to see them repeated every day when family members come in. And it is a database of many, many thousands. On the day in question, I happened to be in that room when a woman came in and she came in with her teenage son. She did not actually know that her daughter was “among that morning find,” if you like. She just came in because her daughter had been missing for a number of days. And it quickly became clear when she started saying when her daughter went missing, where she went missing from, that she might be part of this group of women who had been killed the night before. And it was absolutely heart wrenching to sit and watch this lady go through this gruesome slideshow. And then, when she saw what she thought was her daughter she just slapped her hands against her knees, let out a shriek and the loss just hit her very quickly and very suddenly and it was a very difficult thing to see and obviously very difficult for the technician who has to see this every day, as family members identify their dead. The results of the Zayouna killings, according to an activist who works in – you know, an anti-trafficking activist - was that quite a number of pimps who she personally knew fled Zayouna along with their girls and they headed up into Iraqi Kurdistan which is relatively safer.

MRAnd did they come back?

RA: Not to my knowledge.

MRIn your recent piece, “Out of Sight,” you give us a picture of what is being done to try to help some of these women. Your main contact and guide in Baghdad was a woman called Layla. She is a former prostitute that knows the landscape pretty well and seems to be trusted by female pimps in Baghdad. She is basically trying to shut these places down, if she can, through letting the authorities know through intermediaries. So, first off, how did you find her? And how did she trust you - so you can just ride with
her in her car to these brothels?

RA: I have known her for a number of years. This was not my first encounter with her. But this was the first time that she let me go with her. You know, what she does is extremely dangerous and all it can take is one slip-up for her to be uncovered. So, I was very careful and I greatly appreciated the trust that she placed in me and I made absolutely sure that I did not do anything to harm that, to harm her, or to jeopardize the very important work that she does. I’m unwilling to go into too many details to protect her. [MRI understand] I apologize but I cannot go into too many details about this lady.

MRNo, I totally understand. So, give us a sense of what she does, because you, as I said, accompanied her on several of her visits to some of these brothels in Baghdad. They were scattered all over the city.

RA: I did not enter the brothel. I went to the home of a pimp. I did not enter the brothels because many of the brothels are - or plenty of the nightclubs are essentially brothels and Layla the woman who I was accompanying actually had not been into these nightclubs for
almost a month because of the threat of raids from militias.

MRCan you talk about these night clubs and what they are?

RA: They are nightclubs where women are and girls are prostituted by female pimps, and the main character in the story: Layla, had not been into a nightclub for almost a month because of the raids from militiamen. So, I did not actually go into a nightclub. At one point, she and her husband Mohammed, who helps her with her work, were debating whether or not they would take me in because I repeatedly asked if that was a possibility. They said that, “If I were to go in there, I would be as vulnerable as any woman in there to the men who turn up in these places.” I could not protect myself from potentially being prostituted or trafficked. Layla said that even if I were to go in with an undercover policeman, if there was somebody higher than him, in terms of the social hierarchy, if you’d like, the criminal hierarchy -- if somebody higher than him would approach me, the policeman could not really do much to protect me. So, it is a very dangerous underworld that she tries to navigate.

MRSo, Rania, these nightclubs are the actual brothels?

RA: Prostitution and trafficking happens in too many places. It happens in the nightclubs, and there are also private homes that function as brothels as well. So, that is what the Zaynouna apartments were - they were in a private residential building and yet they were brothels. So, there are two sort of main places where this kind of activity happens.

MRSo, how are they able to stay open? 

RA: Corruption; a weak state that is not taking this issue terribly seriously. The state is falling apart, I mean, there are so many crises in Iraq at the moment that this one does not seem to be a priority.

MRAnd who is making money off this business? 

RA: Well, you know, I mean, all sorts of people. Militiamen who back it; the pimps, obviously; corrupt politicians; some of whom allegedly back this or at least protect pimps and prostitution. It is a very messy game.

MRBecause, I remember I was reading that last year and you even wrote it in the piece, your 2014 piece, that they suspected this Iranian backed Shi’a militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which means league of the righteous, to be the killers of these women at the neighborhood. Zayouna that you also write about in your recent piece - this is where they are in control, apparently. And I was reading that in these neighborhoods Iraqis live under the authority and at the whim of such men. So, what do people say about the relationship between these militias and especially Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and prostitution rings in Baghdad?

RA: That was the allegation that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq were involved in it. Militias in Iraq are proliferating - it seems like every few weeks there is a new one. In my most recent piece, I actually spoke to a spokesperson from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq - I went to the headquarters in Baghdad - and put the claim to him that they were responsible for this and there was and some other militiamen who were protecting him, and you know, he denied this. But he did say that a lot of people who claim that they are Asa’ib are not necessarily Asa’ib. People are using this and this is something that Layla, the activist, also told me as well, she said the same thing. She said that every four or five men are simply calling themselves a militia. And they can do whatever they want to do. So, whether or not it is actually Asa’ib men or whether they are men who simply claim to be Asa’ib is unclear. Because, I mean, that is the state of chaos in Iraq today.

MRDo we know, or is there any statistic - I’m sure it is very difficult to get any statistics - how dire the situation is?

RA: You know it is very difficult, as you said, to get statistics on something like this. Especially in what is essentially a failed state with many other priorities. It is also a war-torn country that had been through quite an experience over the past decade at least. And it is a state that is very weak and that is not undertaking a lot of these sorts of studies. The last statistic that I could find, a study, a very small study, and it was a survey that had been done in 2011. I was not keen to extrapolate from what a small survey conducted many years ago, but certainly human rights activists, and women’s activists who work in this field say that the situation is quite dire.

MRYeah. On the one hand, you showed through a couple of examples not only the lawlessness but also ineffectiveness and the corruption of the state for example Bayan Nouri she is the minister for women’s affairs but it is largely a ceremonial body and she does not even think that sexual violence is on the rise in Iraq. And there is the anti-trafficking department of the Iraqi police force, and this department does not have any patrol cars or any officers out on the beat. And there are committees they meet several times and they have a hotline number and when you asked a friend to call the hotline number it was not working.

RA: Yes, most certainly civil society organizations and individual activists are attacking this problem in a much more ferocious way than the official organs of the state.

MRLayla, one of the people you profiled, her name is Layla, and she is a former prostitute. How did she end up helping these women or trying to help these women? And what was her own interaction with the Iraqi officials?

RA: Well, she was a victim of sexual violence.  She was raped at a very young age - when she was a teenager - and she fled her family home. Her mother did not believe what had happen to her, nor did her brother, so she fled. She was angry, she was ashamed, and she went to Baghdad where she was pimped. So, she became a victim of the very sexual violence that she now tries to combat or at least map-out. And, you know, she got to a point in her life where she realized that – this is it, enough is enough.  She did not want to be a part of this world anymore and she pulled herself out of it. And she has vowed - she made a vow, and maintained this vow - that she would try and help other women and girls who are in her situation. And what she does is extremely dangerous. She could be killed if they find out what she is really doing, and yet, despite the very real danger, she had told me on many occasion that she views this as her life work, this is her core. And she will not stop as long as she feels that she can still do something to help.

MR: In your piece, there are also some bright spots. One is Layla for example who is trying to help these women in the midst of disintegration of social and political fabric of the Iraqi society. You also write about a safe house run by the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, which is located, actually, in one of the worst neighborhoods in Baghdad - and this safe house has sheltered twelve women. Talk a little bit about the safe house, and who ends up in these homes? 

RA: The O.W.F.I is one of the only organizations that is actually running these safe houses outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is illegal for NGOs to run these safe houses, actually, although activists are hopeful that there might be legislation that would permit them to do so. So their covert operations, and the one that I visited, was in Bataween which is one of the roughest neighborhoods in Baghdad. It is a secret location - so secret that even some members of the NGO do not know where it is. It was run by a very brave woman, very young woman. She was in her early twenties, and she had sheltered twelve women when I was there. So, up until May she told me that she since accepted a number of other women who have come to see her. When I was there for a few days there were four young women who were staying there. One of them had two young children and she had just been divorced and was going to be out on the street and potentially vulnerable to these traffickers. She came with her sister who she had rescued from an abusive stepfather. They were three sisters. And the third sister had actually been trafficked to Basra in the south and she had only been in the shelter for two weeks, whereas her other two sisters have been there for several months. And this third sister was very vulnerable - she was raw, she would literally flinch when somebody else walked into the room, she did not speak, she did not want to be around people. I mean, she was still in the very rawest part of her trauma and the woman who runs the safe house was just sort of leaving her alone, she said that she just wants her to feel comfortable, she did not want to question her too much about what she had been through. She wanted her to now that she was in a safe place and that slowly with time, she would open up to her, so that the organization could best help her. But at the moment they were just providing her with a safe place and they wanted her to know that she would be ok. And there was another young girl there who was - her mother actually brought her - because she feared that the girl’s stepfather would sexually assault her. It is a mix of people who end up in these sorts of safe houses many of them are young women and girls who do not have the support of their families or who are displaced as well as the displacer being prayed on now. Because many of the women who are displaced, especially from Islamic State controlled areas in Iraq, are finding themselves in places where they do not have the family network and the family support that they usually have in their home environment. Activists tell me that there are also trafficking networks are swooping in and threatening some of those displaced women as well. So, it is a real mix of who ends up in these safe houses.

MRYou know, this reminded me of what is happening in Afghanistan, because the same sort of safe houses are scattered in Kabul where women who are victims, or survivors, I should say, of domestic violence and abuse end up in these safe houses in safely-guarded places in Kabul.

RA: Yes. 

MRIt is very similar. So, how do these women - is this by word of mouth? How do these women, these courageous women, find each other?

RA: Yes, word of mouth. They very carefully approach girls on the street and elsewhere to let them know that there is a safe place if they need it, if women and girls come to the organization, the O.W.F.I, then they are directed to the safe houses as well. It is done very quietly, because as I said, shelters are actually illegal in Iraq. So, the organization has to tread very carefully.

MRYou wrote, “Iraqi authorities forbid nongovernmental organizations to operate shelters outside Iraqi Kurdistan. (A domestic-violence bill that is currently before parliament includes provisions for shelters, as does the 2012 anti-trafficking law, but no state-run shelter has opened.)”

RA: Yes, that was my understanding at the time.

MR: So, when Layla succeeds in shutting down some of these brothers, where do these women go if the state has absolutely no way of supporting them and actually forbids non-governmental organizations to operate shelters in Baghdad? So, what happens to these women?

RA: well, they are actually turned into jail for crimes that they have committed as a result of being trafficked. So, they are charged with prostitution or they are charged with possessing forged documents or things like that so they end up in jail alongside their pimps—if they are even convicted. The number of convictions is very, very small; it is in the single digits, it is not a large result. But that is what happens to some of these women who are victims the same crime.

MRSo, someone like Layla who is trying to help these women and she went sort of through the same experience and she ended up in jail. What does she want to happen to these women? What does she want to see change?

RA: She wants them to be safe; she wants safe houses; she wants to try and put some of these pimps behind bars; she wants a state that will most seriously take into account the level of the threat against these vulnerable women and actually protect them.

MRBut she knows that under the current circumstances when there is absolutely no support and even NGOs cannot operate that these women will end up in jail. She would rather have them in jail than being prostitutes?

RA: You know, she is one woman and she is doing what she can.

MR: What did you want your readers to come away with? Why is this story so important for you as a reporter, because you basically take quite a bit of risk writing stories such as this, and if people go to the New Yorker website, or your own website, you have done feature stories from various places in the Middle East. Why do you do this?

RA: In this particular story I wanted to, first of all, inform - to contribute to the literature about this issue, to let people know that this was happening. I also wanted to show, I mean, this is a story about women, it is about female victims and it is also about very strong Iraqi women who are not waiting to be rescued by international NGOs or by the government or by their security forces. They are rescuing each other and that is another element of the story that I hope comes through, that there are Iraqi women who had recognized the problem in their country and they are trying to do something about it at a great personal risk. And quite frankly, I’m privileged to meet women like this and to be a megaphone for this story and to let people know what they are doing.

MRAnd we are very privileged to be able to read it and connect with these women who are often nameless and faceless in the Western media. So, what kind of reaction have you been getting to your piece?

RA: Actually, a lot of support for the activists. A lot of admiration for the work that they do and I relay that to the women in my piece, and they were very touched to know that their stories had resonated with people around the world. That was one of the best phone calls that I have made in a while actually - to let these women know that what they do is valued, respected, and appreciated.

MRRania Abuzaid is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the Middle East for more than a decade. Her work has been published in a number of publications, including: Time, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Politico, Guardian and the New Yorker. You can read her piece “Out of Sight” on the New Yorker website at For Status Hour, I am Malihe Razazan. This episode was recorded at KPFA studios in Berkeley. Thank you for listening. 

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