As though recoiling from her own memories, Khalida shrank deeper
into her faded armchair with each sentence she told: of how gunmen
apparently working for Iraq's Interior Ministry kidnapped her, beat
and raped her; of how they discarded her on a Baghdad sidewalk.
But her suffering did not end when she fled Iraq and became a
refugee in Jordan's capital, Amman. When Khalida's husband learned
that she had been raped, he abandoned her and their two young sons.
Rumors spread fast in Amman; soon, everyone on her block knew
that she was without a man in the house. Last month, her Jordanian
neighbor barged into her apartment and attempted to rape her.
Khalida never reported the incident. Like tens of thousands of
Iraqi refugees in Jordan, she does not have a permit to live or work
here, and she is afraid that if she turns to authorities for help
she will get deported. So instead of seeking punishment for her
assailant, she latched the flimsy metal door of her apartment and
stopped going outside.
Her story sheds light on a problem that is little researched,
poorly understood, and largely ignored: Iraqi rape victims who now
live in Jordan illegally and without protection. Sexual assault is
heavily stigmatized in the Middle East, and victims are often afraid
to talk about it to anyone, fearing that their families will abandon
them. And their shaky status in Jordan leaves them afraid to seek
help and vulnerable to new assaults and abuse. They fear persecution
by Jordanian immigration authorities almost as much as they fear
returning to Iraq.
"The lack of legal status does lead to these sorts of protection
issues [and] puts them in very exploitative situations," says Imran
Riza, who heads the mission in Jordan of the United Nations' High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the main international agency
that assists Iraqis in Jordan. Women like Khalida, he says, "are
certainly vulnerable, and much more vulnerable than others."
Rape is a common weapon of any war; no one knows how many Iraqi
women have been raped since the war began in 2003. Most crimes
against women "are not reported because of stigma, fear of
retaliation, or lack of confidence in the police," MADRE, an
international women's rights group, wrote in its 2007 report about
violence against women in Iraq. Some women, like Khalida, are raped
by Iraqi security forces. A 2005 report published by the Iraqi
National Association for Human Rights found that women held in
Interior Ministry detention centers endure "systematic rape by the
A handful of organizations are working to help rape victims in
Iraq. MADRE, together with the Organization of Women's Freedom in
Iraq, operates several shelters and safe houses in Baghdad for Iraqi
rape victims, where the women have access to healthcare and