Iraq: Are you man enough?

Iraq is a dangerous place for many if not most of its citizens but a report issued today by Human Rights Watch looks at a spreading campaign of violence against one group in particular: men who are suspected of homosexual conduct or considered not “manly” enough.

Murders are committed with impunity, admonitory in intent, with corpses dumped in garbage or hung as warnings on the street. The killers invade the privacy of homes, abducting sons or brothers, leaving their mutilated bodies in the neighbourhood the next day. They interrogate and brutalise men to extract names of other people suspected of homosexual conduct. They specialise in grotesque and appalling tortures: several doctors told Human Rights Watch about men executed by injecting glue up their anuses. Their bodies have appeared by the dozens in hospitals and morgues.

How many have been killed is impossible to say, but the report suggests the total is in the hundreds. The campaign is thought to have begun in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army's stronghold in Baghdad, but has also spread to Kirkuk, Najaf and Basra. The most trivial details of appearance, such as the length of a man's hair or the fit of his clothes, can determine whether he lives or dies.

Although this is partly about “sinful” sexual behaviour, enforcement of gender stereotypes seems to be at least as important a factor. The militia killings tap into social anxieties about "traditional" values and cultural change, the report says. “These fears, springing up in the daily press as well as in Friday sermons, centre around gender – particularly the idea that men are becoming less ‘manly’, failing tests of customary masculinity.”

The notion of a "third sex" threatening the other two is rife, Human Rights Watch says – and it is not confined to the militias. One man is quoted as saying: "The police at checkpoints always give us grief about our clothes, our jewellery. They call us kiki – it means someone who's effeminate or soft."

The report continues:

Stanley Cohen, a British sociologist, wrote almost forty years ago that "societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic" … when "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests". In such moments, deep uncertainties about rapid change gather to a head … People look for scapegoats: not just to explain, but to incarnate the unsettling transmutations around them, shifts that they cannot fully articulate but are determined to stop.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 August 2009.