This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
The Iran-Iraq war was an armed conflict between Iran and Iraq, and was fought from September 1980 to August 1988. The war began with Iraq’s invasion of Iran in September 1980, on the ground that it needed to prevent Ruhollah Khomeini, who had spearheaded the Iranian Revolution in 1979, from exporting his ideology into Iraq, and to prevent Iran from possibly exploiting sectarian tensions in Iraq by rallying its Shia majority population against the Ba’athist government which comprised Sunni Muslims (Tabatabai, 2020; Segal, 2009; Razoux, 2015). An ulterior motive for Iraq at the time was to replace Iran as the major power player in the region, given Pahlavi Iran’s major economic and military superiority and closeness with the US and Israel (Tabatabai, 2020).
The war had its roots in a long-running border dispute between Iran and Iraq – where Iraq wanted to retake the territory of Shatt al-Arab that it had ceded to Iran in the 1975 Algiers Agreement. Taking advantage of Iran’s post-revolution chaos, Iraq invaded the country (Karsh, 2002; Segal, 2009). Following this, the Iranian military gained momentum against Iraq, and pushed the forces back to the pre-war border lines. UN Security Council Resolution 514 (1982) called for a ceasefire, but Iran rejected it and launched an invasion of Iraq. This phase lasted five years, and Iraq took back the initiative in 1988, launching a series of major counter-offensives that culminated in a stalemate (Molavi, 2005). The war eventually ended with the acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 598 by both sides.
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Reports suggest that the Iraqi secret police sexually assaulted prisoners and video taped these incidents. Women and girls during the war faced rape and sexual violence, and were also abducted (Association for Iranian Studies, n.d.). When food and water became scarce, and violence against women and girls escalated, they were forced to work in agriculture and give up access to education (Jawad, 2014). Reports suggest that women who lived in the battle zones also faced violence at the hands of the invading Iraqi forces, including rape (Esfandiari, 2019). Forced marriage also prevailed, where war widows were forced to remarry the brothers of their slain husbands (Esfandiari, 2019). Owing to several factors including the lack of historical analysis of the conflict and its impact on women and the lack of attention to the issue owing to stigma, very little information is available on the precise scale and nature of sexual violence faced by women (see generally Esfandiari, 2019).
At the time of documenting this case, no data were available on the experiences of Iraqi women in this war.
Basis of the Use of Sexual Violence
Rape and sexual violence formed part of the “war strategy of Iraq” (Sarhangi, 1990). Iraq’s use of sexual violence and rape was specifically aimed at humiliating, intimidating, and shaming women and girls from Iran.
Association for Iranian Studies (n.d.). Women in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) https://associationforiranianstudies.org/content/women-iran-iraq-war-1980-1988
Esfandiari, G. (2019). “Iran begins to acknowledge its forgotten women.” https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-begins-to-acknowledge-its-forgotten-women-of-war-/30188632.html
Jawad, A.-A. (2014). “The Higher Education System in Iraq and Its Future.” International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies 8(1), 55–72.
Karsh, E. (2002). The Iran–Iraq War, 1980–1988. Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing.
Molavi, A. (2005). The Soul of Iran: A Nation's Journey to Freedom (Revised ed.). England: W. W. Norton & Company.
Segal, D. (2009). "The Iran-Iraq War: A Military Analysis". Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/1988-06-01/iran-iraq-war-military-analysis
Razoux, P. (2015). The Iran-Iraq War. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Sarhangi, M. (1990). The Secrets of the imposed war, narrated by Iraqi PoWs. Hoze Honari.
Tabatabai, A. M. (2020). No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran's National Security Strategy. Oxford University Press. https://www.iruns.ir/article_80915_212cbdf977c67dad00aead95452eb23a.pdf