For Iraqi women, Abu Ghraib's taint

Photos - even if fake - spark rumors that hit family honor

The pictures would horrify anyone: hooded US soldiers raping and torturing naked Iraqi women at gunpoint. But for Farah al-Azzawi, these blurry photos burn with agony and shame.

Ms. Azzawi is part of a secret sisterhood: her mother is one of three women inside Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison where US soldiers took smiling snapshots of themselves sadistically humiliating Iraqis.

That's why some anonymous ill-wisher slipped a newspaper with the rape photos on the front page under her front door.

The pictures in the paper are fakes, bad copies lifted from a porn website and now ricocheting around the Internet. But in Iraq, where the photos circulate on floppy discs and CDs and splash across newspapers and TV screens, most people believe them.

"I know they're not real, but people won't believe it," says Azzawi, a pretty 20-year-old, holding up the paper with a shaking hand. "Who's going to marry their daughters after they see a thing like that?"

It's not just the shame that makes Azzawi's hands shake with rage. What makes the counterfeit photos so searing, for her, is the fear that they might hold some truth. Among the 1,800 or so pictures taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, there are others, viewed by Congress but not released to the public, of at least one Iraqi woman forced to bare her breasts. And a US military investigator, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, cited at least one case of a military police guard "having sex with" a female prisoner.

A spokesman denies that any of the five women now in coalition custody - three at Abu Ghraib, two more at other locations - have been abused. "All of these women being detained have been treated humanely," says Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the general in charge of detention operations. "None of their families need to be concerned that their dignity has been tarnished during their detention."

But in Iraq, where rumors alone can destroy a woman's reputation, the consequences of US detention are much more severe for women than for men. In a way, it scarcely matters if Azzawi's mother was raped or not: If she denies being raped, nobody will believe her, because Iraqi women rarely admit to being raped, a charge that can ruin a woman's life.

Now that there are real pictures of US troops sexually humiliating Iraqi women, reality and rumors have tangled inseparably. "With the pictures and the CDs, it becomes almost irrelevant if they're raped or not," says Manal Omar, the Iraq coordinator of Women for Women, which helps women in former war zones. "Even before the torture, the rumor was out that they were raping women in the prison. With or without the pictures from the porn site, the real pictures made people believe that. It made that rumor fact."

Rumors of prison rape have been eddying for months. They started with a letter, allegedly smuggled out of Abu Ghraib by a female prisoner. Passed from one person to another, the letter and the photos are being used by anti-US clerics and militants to stir up outrage against the occupation.

"Please, bomb us with bombs, and even with nuclear weapons, because we are all pregnant by American soldiers," reads one version of the letter. "Every day they walk us naked in front of soldiers and other prisoners. We want you to know that if you have a daughter in here, or a mother, or a sister, that she has been raped and is pregnant by these American soldiers."

The letter might be fabricated - different versions of it crop up, and no one has been able to find the girl who wrote it. But to most Iraqis, it doesn't really matter: the real photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib gave all rumors, both true and false, instant credibility.

Even before the scandal at Abu Ghraib, many Iraqis viewed imprisonment of women as tantamount to rape. "In our culture, if a woman has been to prison, it's as though she has been violated," says Yanar Mohammed, a woman's rights activist and editor of the newspaper Equality. "It is assumed that men have put their hands on her, that she has been touched in improper ways."

In Iraq, even a whisper of rape is enough to dishonor a woman - and her family. Sometimes families will even kill women who have been raped to "wash" the stain from the family name.

That may be what happened to one girl, rumored to have been pregnant when she was released. "Her father and brother wanted to kill her," says Huda al-Nuaimi, a professor at Baghdad University who is interviewing female prisoners as a volunteer for Amnesty International. "The sheikh of the mosque and the neighbors stopped them, because she was raped, and it wasn't her fault."

But when Dr. Nuaimi went to visit the girl, her family had moved away. The neighbors told her they didn't know where they went - unusual in Aadhimiyah, the girl's tight-knit Baghdad neighborhood. "I wonder whether this girl is still alive," says Ms. Nuaimi, a professor who wears a tiny silver outline of Iraq around her neck. "I think, given this local custom, it would be very difficult for her to stay alive."

Azzawi hasn't seen her mother since Dec. 24th, the day she was arrested with her sister, Azzawi's aunt. She goes to Abu Ghraib and spends hours standing in the dusty parking lot, hoping to be allowed to see her mother. But the guards on duty, she says, tell her, "there are no women here."

In fact, there are three women at Abu Ghraib. Kept separately from the men, with female guards, the women are inside cellblock 1A, the infamous ward where most of the military pictures were taken. "They are living together," says Colonel Johnson, "separated from the male detainees, for their own well being and to ensure their privacy is fully respected."

Declining to discuss specific cases, Johnson could not confirm whether Azzawi's mother and aunt were among those three women. But Azzawi got a letter two months ago from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors prison conditions, telling her that her mother was being held at Abu Ghraib. Like most families of detainees, she still doesn't know whether her mother has been charged with any crime.

On May 14, Azzawi was allowed to visit her uncle, also being held at Abu Ghraib. She took her cousin Raghada Qusay, a 14-year-old with large, sad eyes. Raghada's mother - sister of Azzawi's mother - is in Abu Ghraib, too.

The girls were horrified to see that their uncle's nose had been broken. He told them it didn't matter. "What's important are my sisters," he told them tearfully through a glass window. "They were humiliated. I'm desperate."

They listened in horror as he told them what he said he'd seen: Raghada's mother forced to take off her head scarf. "My mother wears a hijab, and my uncle told us they were dragging her by her hair," says Raghada, her eyes red from crying.

In a torrent of words, she speaks of other tortures: her mother forced to eat from a dirty toilet. Urinated on. As the stories rush out, it's hard to tell what she heard from her uncle and what is prison scuttlebutt.

As Raghada speaks, her 21-year-old sister Hiba breaks in and demands that she stop. Bursting into tears, Hiba runs from the room."I'm not afraid any more," says Azzawi, angrily. "I'll keep talking, even if they take me!"

These days, the girls spend their time taking care of Raghada's 3-year-old sister, and crying over the phone with other girls whose mothers are in jail. They visited another girl they knew, who had just been released from prison. She couldn't speak; they are sure she was raped.

"It's been five months," says Hiba, who has returned. "We haven't seen our mothers for five months. Azzawi is sure they are being tortured. "One day, they'll be released," she says grimly, "and they'll tell everything."

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