‘You are not honourable anymore’

Shamed and trafficked into Iraq's sex trade

A trafficking victim in Iraq
Shahad, a trafficking victim in Iraq [People & Power/Al Jazeera]
Shahad, a trafficking victim in Iraq [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

Part I – The Ambush

The sedan pulled into a side street in Mansour, an upmarket area of western Baghdad. The rush-hour traffic on the main thoroughfare had thinned into a trickle, allowing the neighbourhood to settle into the mellow, late-morning rhythm of middle-class life.

Rolling past the high concrete walls and manicured hedges, the car paused upon reaching a red Kia, parked by a small shop that had been agreed as the meeting point. Two girls, whom we’ll call Noor and Shahad, emerged from the backseat. They wore black abayas, full-length garments usually associated with more conservative communities. Their long, black hair was straightened and partly pinned up, the tips distinctly dyed in red and white. They glanced around nervously as a potbellied, middle-aged man, Husham (not his real name), shepherded them towards the Kia.

Noor and Shahad were about to be sold for $5,000 each.

In the distance, Wissam al-Zubaidi from Iraq’s anti-trafficking unit watched the scene from his black Toyota Landcruiser. A moustachioed general in his mid-40s, Wissam wore civilian clothing and Ray Ban aviators, his pistol wedged between his seat and the centre armrest. The driver of the red sedan was one of his men, posing as a pimp who wanted to buy prostitutes to work in northern Iraq. Nearby, a handful more undercover officers stood ready to intervene.

There was an air of confident routine; Wissam’s unit had staged dozens of sting operations like this before, apprehending lowly pimps as they traded women in broad daylight, in the middle of one of the capital’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Since his appointment two years ago, Wissam had become one of the most active officers in the Ministry of Interior’s anti-trafficking department. He could claim credit for many of the sex trafficking cases the ministry had investigated last year. But the official figure – a mere 115 cases in 2021 in a country of 40 million – was likely just the tip of the iceberg.

General Wissam Al Zubaidi sits at his desk
Brigadier General Wissam al-Zubaidi in his office at the Ministry of Interior's anti-trafficking unit [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

For more than a year, Al Jazeera investigated the sex trade in Iraq, a growing phenomenon fuelled by deeply entrenched socioeconomic factors and enabled by a tangled web of corrupt officials and armed groups, a toxic mix that has become the hallmark of the United States’s post-2003 legacy in Iraq. The practice appeared to stand in stark contrast to the tenets of Iraq’s patriarchal society, where honour and reputation are paramount and closely tied to a woman’s chastity.

But beneath this veneer of conservative social norms, young girls from poor backgrounds are routinely sold into prostitution, Al Jazeera has found through interviews with more than three dozen individuals, including survivors, women’s rights activists, security officials, pimps and judges.

The victims tend to be girls and women from underprivileged backgrounds who are fleeing domestic abuse or child marriage, with traffickers often exploiting society’s preoccupation with honour to shame vulnerable women into the sex trade. Iraq’s justice system is infused with the same patriarchal norms and often convicts trafficking survivors for prostitution. There is far less accountability for those who benefit from the trade.

The pimps and madams that Wissam’s team targeted were often small cogs in well-oiled machinery that supplied trafficked girls to brothels, hotels and nightclubs across Iraq, lucrative establishments that could operate only with the backing of people with guns and power. Government contacts were needed to issue fake IDs, facilitate passage through checkpoints and get tipped off before the occasional police raid, while militias provided protection in return for a cut of the proceeds. Wissam, who came from a lineage of military officers and held a firm belief in institutions, insisted that nobody was immune from prosecution. “The law is above everyone,” read a slogan scribbled in red paint on the outer walls of his office, housed in a single-storey, dilapidated police station in the Hai al-Jamiya neighbourhood. In truth, the unit lacked the resources and political muscle to turn the tide against the soaring sex trade.

Iraq's anti-trafficking unit apprehends a suspect
Iraq's anti-trafficking unit apprehends Husham during a sting operation in Baghdad's Mansour district [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

Wissam’s team consisted of only eight officers and a few dozen support staff to cover the entire western half of the capital, an area home to millions of people. Victims rarely reported to the police because of fear of retribution and the shame associated with prostitution. To apprehend traffickers, Wissam’s men had to acquire sources inside the trade, usually by pretending to be clients on social media. The undercover officer who was sitting in the red sedan had spent weeks building a relationship with Husham. In repeated phone conversations, he joked, haggled and requested pictures of women, winning Husham’s trust while creating an electronic record of the negotiations. “There’s a lot of effort. The officers stay up during the night and sleep during the day,” Wissam told me. He pulled out his phone and played a recorded phone conversation between his undercover officer and Husham:

“Please send me her pictures. But not over Snapchat, please,” the undercover officer said, referring to 17-year-old Shahad.

“OK,” Husham replied.

“But not over Snapchat,” the officer insisted again, referring to the messaging app that automatically deletes images. He needed the photos to build up the case and obtain an arrest warrant.

“Where is his location?” Husham asked, referring to a made-up hotel owner the officer pretended to represent.

“He’s based in Erbil and Mansour. He will probably stay in Erbil for five days and come back here.”

“If he takes her to Erbil, I need to go with her, because she is still young. They will not let her through the checkpoints,” Husham said.

“He will get her in through his relations. He has a hotel there,” the officer reassured him.

Minutes after Husham, Noor and Shahad had gotten into the sedan, the headlights began flashing. It was the signal to intervene. Handguns drawn, Wissam’s men ran towards the car and opened the passenger door. “Get out,” they ordered Husham, grabbing him by the neck and both hands, including the one which held the incriminating bundle of hundred-dollar bills. “This isn’t my money,” Husham protested as the officers handcuffed him and drove him away for interrogation.

Noor broke down in tears, convinced they must have been caught up in a turf war between competing trafficking networks. Shahad didn’t cry, but her eyes were wide open with panic as the policemen led them to Wissam’s car. The survivors were taken to the anti-trafficking unit for questioning. A few days later, they were admitted to a government-run safe house, where they shared their stories.

An illustration of two women walking into a mosque.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Part II – Trapped in the sex trade

Noor, 21 years old at the time of her rescue, hailed from the southern shrine city of Najaf, one of the most important centres of Shia Islam. Her family belonged to a powerful tribe, which followed customary law and often defied the state’s authority. Noor’s life was governed by a set of conservative norms that centred around the preservation of collective honour. Like the other women in her family, she grew up largely confined to the family home.

One day, when Noor was in ninth grade and on her way back from school, she greeted a teenage boy from her neighbourhood a few years her elder. “My relatives didn’t accept that,” she said. By interacting with a male outside her immediate family circle, Noor had brought shame upon her community. A tribal meeting was convened, with Noor’s male relatives seated on one side of the spacious majlis, the boy’s male relatives on the other. Over sugary tea, the men sealed her fate: to restore the family’s honour, she was to marry the young man. “I remember my father telling me that I would live and die with him. He told me to never come back,” Noor said. She was 15 years old.

“The society puts the entire blame on the girl. I was a child, they should have protected me and given me a chance. But no, because of the tribes and the traditions, they sacrificed me. I ended up where I am because of them,” Noor said.

Trafficking victim in Iraq

Iraq was once among the most progressive countries in the region, but women’s rights have steadily regressed during the past decades. The reversal began during Saddam Hussein’s 1990s “faith campaign”, when the late dictator attempted to shore up political support among a population reeling from wars and a crippling trade embargo. Poverty rose, while women’s labour participation and literacy rates plummeted. The government issued numerous decrees that eroded women’s rights, including an anti-prostitution law that punished sex workers with execution - the law is still in place, but the maximum sentence has been reduced to life imprisonment.

The trend continued after the US toppled the old regime, as the violence and breakdown of the social fabric that followed the invasion disproportionally affected women and girls. Sex trafficking soared amid the chaos, precipitated by weak institutions, mounting corruption and the growing influence of armed groups. The prevalence of child marriage rose from 17 percent in 2006 to 28 percent in 2018, according to the World Bank, even though the 1959 Personal Status Law sets the legal age for marriage at 18 unless a judge granted an exception. Girls like Noor were married off with impunity in ceremonies administered by religious leaders instead of civil servants. Domestic violence, more likely to afflict child spouses, became widespread. According to the United Nations, 46 percent of women in Iraq experience emotional, physical or sexual violence at home.

After she married, Noor was forced to quit school. She felt increasingly trapped inside her home, at the mercy of her new husband and his family, who soon began to beat her. Two years into her marriage, she absconded, an act of defiance deemed unacceptable in tribal culture. Noor caught a bus to Baghdad, where she hoped to find solace at the Imam Kadhim shrine, one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Shia Muslims.

It was a cold, rainy winter day. Noor sat on the pavement next to the entrance of the imposing, gold-domed mosque, her desperation mounting as night drew near. “I didn’t know where to go. I thought that I will be killed if I go back to my family,” she said. For a while, a woman had been observing her from a distance. It was close to midnight when she finally approached, offering Noor a place to stay. “She told me that my family would find me in Baghdad, that she would take me to a place where I’d feel comfortable.”

Noor was trafficked to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and handed over to another woman, who took away her phone and gradually began to mistreat her. When Noor demanded to return to Baghdad, the woman laughed. “My darling, we bought you. You will never go back,” Noor recalled her saying. “I was shocked. I didn’t know that people could be sold like that.”

Janat al-Ghazi
Janat al-Ghazi from the Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

Three survivors interviewed for this story were lured into the sex trade at the shrine in Baghdad's Kadhimiya neighbourhood, where traffickers preyed on distressed girls desperate for help. “If a young girl has been exposed to problems inside her home, there’s no specific institution she can turn to,” explained Janat al-Ghazi, a women’s rights activist who works for the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq. “She decides to escape, but on the street, she will be hunted by traffickers.”

Janat went on to describe the playbook commonly used by traffickers to draw victims into the vortex of prostitution. They tended to target vulnerable girls from poor communities who grew up with little education and exposure to the outside world. Ironically, the very seclusion that was supposed to protect their reputation made them susceptible to sweet-talking traffickers offering help, marriage or work opportunities. Once the girls took the bait, there was no way back. “The first thing they do is to assault her,” Janat said. “Then they tell her that it is done, you are not honourable anymore, you can just as well continue down this path.”

Noor was sold from one trafficker to the next and eventually ended up in the hands of Husham, the pimp apprehended by General Wissam’s unit. That’s when she first met Shahad, Husham’s now 17-year-old daughter who was rescued at the same time. Shahad came from a broken family and had grown up in an orphanage in Baghdad. When she turned 13, Husham suddenly turned up to reclaim her. “I was delighted,” Shahad recalled. “My whole life, I had been deprived of my family.” Her hopes for a better life were shattered when Husham took her to Erbil, where he let one of his friends rape her. “I lost my virginity. After that my father started to assault me sexually,” Shahad said in a chillingly matter-of-fact tone. “He kept on beating me, insulting me, and torturing me if I didn’t want to work. I reached the stage when I wanted to commit suicide.”

Husham forced the girls to work in Erbil, Baghdad and Dubai, trafficking them with the help of government contacts across Iraq. “He used to give them girls for free and in return, they’d protect his back,” Noor said. A government official in Baghdad issued a passport for Noor, giving her a fake identity as Husham’s wife to ease passage through checkpoints and borders. “I even entered Dubai with it, no questions asked,” Noor said.

Their repeated attempts to run away were futile and met cruel punishment. On one occasion, Noor contacted an officer who worked with the Assayish, the Kurdish security service. He promised to help, but while she waited in his office, he reported her to Husham. “What did you think, Erbil is all mine,” he mocked her when he showed up to take her back. His beating left her bedridden for a month. A second failed escape was punished with a broken arm. After Noor fell pregnant and gave birth to a son, Husham used the child to coerce her. “If the clients complained about me, he’d put the call on speaker phone and beat my son so that I could hear him cry,” she recalled. “For the sake of my son, I did what they wanted.”

An illustration of the outside of a nightclub.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Part III – Inside the red-light district

Past the checkpoint that marks the border of northern Iraq's Kurdish region with the rest of the country, the potholed roads transition into a smooth tarmac highway leading to the capital, Erbil. The semi-autonomous region has its own government, run by two families who keep a tight grip over politics and the economy. It’s perceived to be safer, for those who don’t challenge the governing party; more liberal, for outsiders and; more developed, although corruption and unemployment are still rampant, than the rest of the country. But this relative stability has also spawned domestic sex tourism, fuelled by a steady supply of trafficked girls from southern Iraq and, to a lesser extent, neighbouring Iran.

“We do enjoy more freedom here in Kurdistan, there is more economic freedom, there is more social freedom, and of course driving human trafficking and sexual exploitation is financial interest, powerful financial interest,” said Sherri Kraham Talabany, the president of the SEED Foundation, an organisation that works to combat human trafficking. Three of the five survivors Al Jazeera interviewed were trafficked to Erbil and forced to work in hotels and nightclubs as dancers and prostitutes. On the nights they weren’t pre-booked by clients, their pimps and madams would ferry them to luxury hotels across Erbil to acquire new customers.

A survivor pointed to one place in particular: the Lebanese village, a flagship real estate development consisting of a residential area with high-rise apartment buildings, reportedly used by prostitution rings to entertain clients. The Lebanese village is also home to the Masaya hotel, which runs two nightclubs, Laiali Beirut and Yaqoot. According to insiders, the establishments are particularly popular among Arab businessmen and officials from Iraq’s south who come to spend their weekends in Erbil.

A nightclub in Iraq
Young girls seen dancing in a nightclub inside Masaya hotel in Erbil [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

Both clubs feature a stage in the middle, surrounded by tables that could be booked starting from $70, with those closest to the stage reserved for special guests. Yaqoot club was the bigger of the two establishments. On the two occasions Al Jazeera visited as part of an undercover investigation, a dozen young girls dressed in tight-fitting clothes stood on stage, dancing apathetically to the beats of Arabic music blasting from the speakers. Most of the time they stood still, as if to display their bodies to the audience. Every so often, the waiters showered the girls with money that appeared to be tips from the audience while the MC bellowed into the microphone the names of the benefactors, many from well-known families and powerful tribes in Iraq’s south.

“The people who visit these places, they all have money. They are the ruling class, they are the class that is in charge,” explained Janat, the women’s rights activist. “Poor people don’t have money to go and sit in these nightclubs.”

All the tables in Yaqoot club were occupied by men, except for one in the middle of the room, where a woman sat alone smoking a shisha pipe. She wore a loose robe and a kaffiyeh wrapped around her head in a style typical for madams. Her eyes constantly darted around the room to keep tabs on the comings and goings. Occasionally, she joined a table for brief conservations with clients, who could request a special performance or ask a girl to join them. When some of the dancers passed our table, my male colleagues struck up a conversation. One young girl, dressed in a blue skirt and white cropped top, said she was 18 and still a virgin, but was available for private dancing sessions. Another woman said she was available for sex work, but the price had to be agreed upon with her "mother".

The Masaya hotel, Iraq's Kurdish regional government, as well as its anti-trafficking unit, all declined to comment. But several individuals familiar with the sex trade in Erbil, most of whom did not want to speak on the record for fear of retribution from authorities, said that in a city where one governing party has a monopoly over the government, security and the economy, prostitution could take place only with the backing of powerful government officials. “Of course, not just anybody opens a nightclub or bar unless he has connections, someone who is in the government with a high rank,” said Husham, the trafficker arrested by Wissam’s unit when Al Jazeera interviewed him at the police station. He was bitter that he had to face justice, while the more powerful individuals in the sex trade appeared untouchable. “Even here in Baghdad, those establishments are run by the parties.”

An armed guard stands on the street in Bataween, Baghdad's red-light district
An armed guard stands on the street in Bataween, Baghdad's red-light district [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

While much of the sex trade in Erbil was tucked away in hotels, the epicentre in Baghdad was a downtown neighbourhood called Bataween, a shanty town where human trafficking coalesced with the drug trade and organised crime. Bataween used to be home to some of Baghdad’s most beautiful architecture back in the mid-20th century, when two-storey villas with arched doorways and ornate balconies lined Abu Nawas, the leafy avenue that hugged the eastern shore of the Tigris. Now, most of those houses had long been torn down or lay abandoned alongside brothels, nightclubs and alcohol shops, all of which paid protection money to armed groups who had carved up control of the area.

“We’re in the middle of Baghdad. On the other side of the river is the government, you just have to cross that bridge. This is not a hidden place. There are tens of girls, hundreds of girls, who are young, who are being trafficked every day,” Janat said. It was almost midnight on a Saturday when we set out on a night drive through Bataween’s underworld. “We’ll conduct a reconnaissance mission from the outside,” she explained as we drove down Abu Nawas Street. “If we entered, we wouldn’t get out in one piece.”

Janat has worked with victims of human trafficking for more than a decade and has penetrated the scene like few others. From survivors’ testimonies, she knew where the brothels were and who ran them. “We know that the majority of prostitution networks are run or managed by influential people. I cannot say more than that,” she said. “More than once, I get phone calls and threats, ‘You better distance yourself from this matter, it’s better for your life.’ Even the government is turning a blind eye.”

As we drove through Bataween, we passed through a gauntlet of police checkpoints set up to secure the troubled neighbourhood at night, but the patrols seemed to not interfere with the sex trade. The establishments where sex was sold weren’t difficult to spot. They were advertised as entertainment halls or restaurants in bright-red neon signs, with a handful of beefy men standing guard at the door. Early morning, girls could be seen standing on the sidewalk, Janat told me, but even at midnight, the trade was well under way. “You see, those girls just walked out,” Janat pointed to a couple of young women who stepped out of a “restaurant” and quickly got into the back seat of a car waiting outside. “We always hear in the news that some pimps are arrested. But most likely they are released after a week. Why? Because they have supporters from inside the state,” she said.

An illustration of a building with a woman looking looking outside on a second floor window.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Part IV – Treacherous road to justice

The government safe house was a drab, two-storey building protected by high walls and a couple of security guards. Upstairs was a homeless shelter, while the ground floor housed victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. Although there was no other official shelter for women fleeing abuse, only a few of the two dozen rooms on the ground floor were occupied at any given time. In 2021, the safe house had admitted 26 victims. The only way to gain entry was to report to the police, an insurmountable hurdle for many women who feared reprisal from their abusers and the embarrassment associated with walking into an all-male police station. Victims like Noor and Shahad were dropped off based on a judge’s order and were to remain for the duration of their investigation, a process that often dragged on for months. They had no access to phones, visitors, schooling or vocational activities and spent their days vacillating between boredom and anxiety over their forthcoming trial.

Noor and Shahad worried they might be charged with prostitution. Iraq passed an anti-trafficking law in 2012, which is supposed to protect victims from prosecution. But many in the judicial system continue to apply a 2001 Saddam-era law that punishes sex work with up to a lifetime in prison, a practice underpinned by a widespread belief that women who end up in the sex trade choose the path of their own free will.

“There are very few human trafficking cases. We get maybe one or two per month, whereas we receive 10 or more prostitution cases per month,” explained judge Ahmed al-Jawari, a bespectacled man with a clean-shaven face, unyielding gaze and piercing voice. He had handled many prostitution cases in the past and was to preside over Noor and Shahad’s trial. Unless there was proof that prostitutes were sold into the sex trade, he explained, they would likely be served with a lengthy prison sentence. “If the woman was forced, she should have turned to the authorities and reported that there are some people who forced me to practice prostitution. But they are accustomed to this profession. They find it easy to get material benefit out of it, so she stays in the business for months and years,” he said.

A judge in Iraq
Judge Ahmed al-Jawari in his office at Karkh Criminal Court, Baghdad [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

Noor’s and Shahad’s trial was delayed because the investigation involved government officials in the Ministry of Interior who had facilitated the sex trade through forgery of identification documents. General Wissam would have to arrest his own colleagues. Obtaining the warrant wasn’t difficult given the evidence at hand, but executing it could result in a political backlash and undermine his standing in a system where personal relations were vital to secure and retain government appointments. Wissam waited for a nod from the ministry’s leadership before he sent his men to carry out the warrant.

“It’s a very sensitive matter,” Wissam explained when Al Jazeera asked, in vain, if we could come along for the arrest operation. He later showed us a video of the arrest, in which his deputy, accompanied by a dozen other police, walked into the ministry to apprehend the three suspects, all of whom were mid-level bureaucrats. The mission may have been completed but the political pressure didn’t stop there. A few weeks later, a member of parliament walked into Wissam's office with his entourage. After the two men exchanged greetings and platitudes, the legislator turned to Wissam with a personal request: “Tell me, how can we help my friend?” He was a childhood friend of one of the jailed government officials and tried to lobby Wissam for his release.

Although Wissam didn’t seem to cave, the scene epitomised why those responsible for the sex trade rarely faced accountability.

An activist in Iraq

All too often, the powerful patrons of low-level operatives intervened in the judicial process to sway investigators and judges. “The girls are convicted, while pimps walk free because someone with influence will get them out,” explained Janat, the women’s rights activist.

Janat introduced me to a survivor whose story painted a grim picture of a system that, despite protections enshrined in the 2012 anti-trafficking law, still criminalised trafficking victims while granting leniency to traffickers.

Zahraa, now 24, was forced into sex work after she ran away from home in her early teens, fleeing an abusive father who repeatedly raped her. But when she escaped her madam and approached authorities, she was convicted of prostitution and sentenced to 15 years in prison, according to court documents seen by Al Jazeera. “The judge took the madam’s side. The whole thing was unjust,” Zahraa said with disdain, speaking at a secret shelter run by Janat’s organisation where she has stayed since her pardon last year.

Zahraa’s madam was also briefly taken into custody, but later released for lack of evidence, according to the judiciary. Zahraa, however, believed her acquittal was the result of close relations with police and various armed groups who provided protection in return for a cut from her proceeds and free access to girls. “The government was aware of her. They were in on the business,” Zahraa said. “They would come as customers, but they were the police, armed people.”

An illustration of a courtroom with a man and a woman standing next to each other and a judge in front.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Part V – The Trial

Six months after Noor and Shahad were rescued, the case finally went to trial. Judge Ahmed al-Jawari, wearing a long black robe with a distinctive white trim, took his seat at the bench. To his right sat the prosecutor, distinguishable by a red-trimmed robe, to his left a government-appointed defence lawyer wearing emerald green. Facing the bench was a wooden cage and a witness stand with a lectern and a Quran placed on top.

Judge Ahmed began flicking through the case file and ordered the bailiff to bring in the accused. Husham, clad in an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back, was led into the wooden cage. It was a public trial, attended by a few dozen onlookers.

Noor was first to take the witness stand. “Put your hand on the Quran,” the judge said. “Repeat after me – I swear by God to tell the truth.” Through a barrage of rapid-fire questions, the judge questioned her on why she ran away from home and how she ended up in prostitution.

“How did you meet the accused, Husham?” the judge asked.
“He bought me from a man he knows,” Noor replied.
“Was he pimping you?”
“Did he have sex with you?”
“Why did he marry you?”
“To facilitate the travel.”
“He provided you with a forged ID card?”

Two women in court in Iraq
Noor and Shahad in court, while Husham stands before the judge [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

The prosecutor, who appeared inclined to charge Noor with prostitution, interjected.

“She said that she didn’t collect any money from the prostitution, while there is evidence to the contrary.”
“I escaped from him twice,” Noor tried to argue her case.
“How much was he paying you?” the prosecutor persisted.
“He gave me nothing,” Noor insisted.

The prosecutor went on to challenge Noor’s account of her forced child marriage.

“She claimed in front of the investigation judge that she was forced to marry her cousin, but then her father backed off and married her off to her lover, so why run away?”
“No, [we] were just friends, not lovers,” Noor explained. “But they forced us to marry because the tribes feared for their reputation.”
“Which tribes? You wanted to marry him,” the prosecutor replied.
“This is not relevant to the case,” the judge interrupted.
“She is pretending to be a victim!” the prosecutor argued.

Shahad was up next, clumsily stepping on her abaya as she climbed up on the witness stand. Throughout the cross-examination, she nervously fiddled with her fingers, her voice trembling as she braved probing questions about her abuse.

“Did your father assault you?” the judge wanted to know.
“Did he practise sex with you?”
“Were you a virgin?”
“Yes, I was a virgin.”
“How many times?”
“Many times, not just once.”
“Didn’t you tell him that this is ‘haram’ (forbidden)?”
“Yes, I told him,” Shahad replied, somewhat confused. “We went to my aunt, he told me not to tell her. He threatened to kill me if I talk.”
“Did he deflower you?”
“No, I was a virgin.”
“Yes, so he deflowered your virginity?”
“No, no.”
“So, he started pimping you first?”
“And after that, he started to have sex with you?”

People protest in Iraq
Employees and activists from the Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq protest outside the court house [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

After the two girls completed their testimonies, the judge proceeded to read the results of a medical report examining their virginity. “The conclusion of this report is that the female organs of the victims have been ruptured for a long time, but no evidence was found proving that they were pregnant. No traces of sperm were found.”

Virginity tests, a procedure the UN has said lacks scientific evidence and is considered humiliating for the victims, were required for all victims of human trafficking, including women who were pregnant or had already born children. “She will be obliged to go through the virginity test as it is one of the investigation procedures,” Judge Ahmed later explained. “Prostitution requires a sexual act which means the loss of virginity. How can you prove sexual act without testing the virginity?”

At last, the judge turned to Husham. “You heard her statement, she said that you assaulted her,” the judge said.

“I swear to God, I did no such thing,” Husham replied, instead accusing Noor and Shahad of willingly engaging in prostitution.

After a two-hour hearing and two recesses, the bailiff ordered the courtroom to rise for the verdict. “The court has reached the full conviction regarding this crime, and as a result, the court has decided, in line with the relevant articles, to sentence you to life imprisonment,” Judge Ahmed proclaimed. “I swear I’m innocent,” Husham sobbed as the bailiff led him out of the court.

Noor and Shahad, too, broke down in tears, the deeply buried toll of their trauma soaring to the surface following the searing, public scrutiny of their past. In claiming they had willingly sold their bodies, Husham had tried to further stain their reputation and undermine their credibility. Though the verdict came as a relief, their future remained shrouded in uncertainty.

An illustration of two men arresting a man by holding the back of his neck in a car.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Part VI – Reunion

A black and white picture of Noor’s three-year-old son, a dark-haired boy with plump cheeks, was placed on the windowsill next to her bed in the government safe house. At the time of her rescue by General Wissam’s unit, the boy had been in Erbil, where he remained in the hands of Husham’s associates and risked being sold or exploited for begging at the city’s traffic intersections. “I’m afraid she will sell him,” Noor said, referring to the woman in whose custody Husham had left her son before he took her to work in Baghdad. “I don’t want him to become a victim like me. He’s all I have left.”

Noor was determined to raise her son despite the stigma associated with children born out of wedlock. When she brought the issue up with a social worker, he rebuked her. “Why do you want him back, he’s a bastard,” she recalled him saying.

General Wissam knew where the child was. But his unit had no jurisdiction in Erbil and there was limited collaboration between the federal government in Baghdad and Iraq's Kurdish regional government, two entities that were constantly embroiled in bitter disputes over borders, oil revenues and power sharing. Wissam often complained that arrest warrants sent to Kurdish authorities were rarely acted upon, allowing traffickers to use the region as a haven.

A victim of trafficking, with her son
Noor holds her son after he was rescued from the hands of traffickers [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

In the absence of official channels, it took six months to find a way to recover Noor’s son. “Finding him was easy, but getting him here was hard,” Wissam said the morning the boy had finally arrived at his office. Wissam had promised the traffickers immunity if they agreed to bring the child to Baghdad, a trip that entailed a 380km (236-mile) drive along a route controlled by various security forces.

The boy waddled around exploring the police station parking lot as Wissam’s men set out across town to pick Noor up from the safe house. She had not been told the reason for the surprise summons. After the police officers filled her in, the excitement over the impending reunion was quickly overtaken by concern: Would her son recognise her after eight months of separation? The car had barely rolled to a stop at the police station when Noor jumped out and hurried towards the intelligence officer who was holding her son.

“My darling,” Noor said as she reached for the startled boy, burying her face in his neck and pressing him tightly against her as Wissam and his men looked on with a sense of accomplishment. Even the intelligence officer’s stern features softened into a smile. But after a few moments, the boy began resisting Noor’s embrace. “He doesn’t know me,” she said as tears welled up in her eyes. “It’s been a long time. It’s normal,” Wissam tried to comfort her.

An illegitimate child with an unknown father, the boy had no identification documents proving that Noor was in fact his mother. Wissam had to take them to see a judge, who would, in the absence of readily available DNA results, decide whether she could take immediate custody of the child. In his office at the Kadhimiya court, the judge flipped through the paperwork as he listened to Wissam’s deposition while the boy sat on a sofa rummaging through a bag of cookies. Noor trembled under the judge’s gaze, evidently distraught by the boy’s refusal to acknowledge her presence.

People at a court in Iraq
Shahad, Noor and Noor's son on their way to court [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

After a few minutes, the judge stood up, walked around his desk and squatted down to face the boy. “My son, tell me, who is your mother?” The boy ignored the question and instead gave the judge a cookie. Noor tried to muster a smile. “What is your mother’s name,” the judge tried again. But the boy stubbornly kept his focus on the cookies. “Why don’t give your mother a cookie,” the judge finally asked. There was a brief pause. Then the boy reached into the bag and handed Noor a cookie. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

In the car on the way back to the police station, the boy finally settled into his mother’s lap and fell asleep, while Noor beamed with newly found determination to charter her own course. “I will start a new page. I will be his mother and his father and I won’t need anyone anymore,” she said. General Wissam glanced at her through the back mirror. “You mean you don’t need me anymore?” he teased. “I will do any kind of work, even as a maid,” she insisted. “We can’t accept that,” Wissam replied. “We got you out of this situation to give you a dignified life.”

To leave the government safe house, Noor needed the permission of the judge and would be handed over to a male guardian. Her relatives would be summoned and asked to sign a pledge to refrain from retribution. “I promised you that you will not be harmed, OK?” Wissam tried to reassure her. But Noor knew her tribe was unforgiving. They had killed runaway girls before. “How can I go back to them after five years with an illegitimate child?” she said. “They will definitely kill me.”

An illustration of a woman looking through a window.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Part VII – An uncertain future

Five months after Zahraa walked out of prison, she was still bound by the shackles of her past. She knew that her family was looking for her. They had visited while she was in detention and threatened to kill her for the perceived shame she had brought upon the community. The day she was released on pardon, Janat drove her and her four-year-old son to a secret shelter run by the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), where she would be safe from revenge attacks and begin the tortuous process towards recovery.

The infrastructure and services available to trafficking survivors were extremely limited. The government offered no path to rehabilitation except for a return to their families, pushing women back to the same environment that had laid fertile ground for their exploitation. The few organisations that worked with trafficking survivors risked near-constant run-ins with authorities. Private shelters like Janat’s were illegal under Iraqi law and had to be kept secret lest the police shut them down. A domestic violence bill that would officially allow NGOs to operate safe houses has faced staunch opposition in parliament, controlled by conservative legislators who saw shelters as a Western concept that risked tearing apart traditional family structures.

For years, OWFI has grappled with several lawsuits. The most recent case was filed earlier this year by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs after Janat obtained a judge’s order to take custody of three trafficking survivors who had stayed at the ministry’s safe house. “They say we are not allowed to shelter women. Imagine, a government institution saying that you’re not allowed to protect a human life,” Janat said. “They’d rather release a woman back onto the street instead of handing her to an organisation that believes in women’s rights.”

A trafficking victim in Iraq
Zahraa and her son eat lunch at a safe house run by the Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq [People & Power/Al Jazeera]

For Zahraa, Janat’s shelter was the only place to go. Neither she nor her son had the necessary paperwork to start a new life. Without an ID, it was impossible to obtain government services, let alone an education or job. “In her current situation, if she went out on the street, within two hours she’d go back to prostitution,” Janat said.

Zahraa’s son was conceived while she was working as a prostitute and knew nothing but life in prison. While she battled depression, he tried to catch up on years of lost development. “I suffered psychologically while in prison. I became violent and nervous. We are both afraid of the outside world,” Zahraa said. She saw marriage as the only way to reintegrate into a society that offered little protection and respect to single women, let alone single mothers with illegitimate children. “My son has no father, no birth certificate, he has nothing,” she said. “My future is to marry, for the sake of my son.”

Janat tried to instil the idea that marriage alone wasn’t a solution. As part of her rehabilitation, Zahraa had to unlearn the behaviour, language and beliefs she had internalised as a result of years of abuse and forced sex work. She received guidance on how to dress, how to do her hair and makeup and how to interact with strangers. Most difficult of all, she had to reclaim her sense of self-worth, a process that would require years of counselling in a country where mental health was still a nascent and widely misunderstood field.

The chances of success were slim. “A victim of human trafficking needs at least one and half years to become self-sufficient,” Janat explained. “But let me tell you, it’s exhausting, sometimes we expend all our energy, and we fail. She might decide to go back to the environment she came from. She’ll say, ‘I’m accustomed to that life, I can’t any other way.'”

Watch the documentary:

Videography/Photography by Simona Foltyn and Alexander Tahaov
Inas Razak Ibrahim and Barzan Salam Mohammed contributed reporting

Source: Al Jazeera