The limits of our moral outrage in Kurdistan

kki.pngThe case of a 16-year-old Kurdish refugee from Syria who was gang-raped and dumped on a lone street afterwards in Southern Kurdistan’s Hewler city was widely reported a few weeks ago. It was soon revealed that the teenager was able to identify those who attacked her, and later on it emerged that she was sexually assaulted by the group of men who preyed on a young victim because she was going home alone after her shift finished around 7 PM. The incident led to widespread condemnation online, particularly on Twitter and Facebook where Kurdish people made it a point to express their outrage.

Weeks after this incident, the facts of the case were not made clear. Instead when the case was reported media outlets quickly jumped on the scene, fighting each other to get exclusive access to pictures of the attackers, and an interview with the victim to boost their popularity and ratings. It was unfortunate that the identity of the attackers became known, and circulated online prior to a trial taking place. The media attention given to this case simply made it impossible for justice to prevail through the Kurdish judicial system.

Instead, weak arguments and childish remarks were made publicly by Kurdish ‘commentators’ and self-proclaimed activists online, who expressed their support of a public trial, while others condemned the attackers to death. This all happened despite the fact that a trial did not take place, and a judge did not find the alleged attackers guilty of rape or sexual abuse. The pictures of the alleged attackers were plastered across newspapers and magazines, and investigating police officers were keen to comment on the case.

The puzzling part in this case is not so much that the alleged attackers were put on trial by the media, and condemned by the media as guilty. It was the fact that the attackers confessed to raping the 16-year-old under police custody, while the doctor’s examination showed that she was not raped. The victim herself was not given time to reflect on what had happened to her because immediately after giving testimony she was interviewed by media outlets, instead of being offered counselling and emotional support.

This is not the first instance where rapists and criminals “confess” to their crimes on live television. In fact, there is a show that highlights cases where criminals confess their crimes on television after being interrogated by police. There is no doubt or even question that the Kurdish police forces use coercive means to deduce confessions out of defendants (at least in some instances), who often confess under duress, and the confession is used against them in court (consequently such confessions are unreliable, possibly false, and a Human rights violation).

What is incredibly sad is that the attention given to the 16-year-old victim withered away as the public lost interest and media outlets changed their direction to cover another newsworthy incident. Human rights organisations, women rights campaigners and activists did not utilise the opportunity during that time to raise their concern about cases of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual violence against women. Instead, condemnation of the incident came as fast as it disappeared. This is precisely the problem with Kurdish media outlets and those who genuinely want to enforce positive change within Kurdistan. Their moral outrage is limited by time and the extent of their willingness to be part of an initiative that enforces change is constrained by the amount of media attention a particular case receives.

Now that the case of the 16-year-old is filled with ambiguities and confusion, should we simply forget that it happened and wait for the next case that will espouse our moral outrage before we start investigating the cases of rape through the Kurdish judicial system? It deeply saddens me that our moral outrage on rape did not last longer than a week. It stopped being part of the “news” and people lost interest, the discussion on rape did not last long or gain momentum.

How widespread is rape in Kurdistan? We don’t know and this is a great indicator of how protected women are in Kurdistan. Secondly, how often are rape cases reported? In instances where rape is reported, in what manner is the victim dealt with, and through which centre? There are so many questions, and few answers to them. It is clear that as a society we have not come to terms with talking about sexual crimes against women and children (as well as men). We have neglected to do so, not because our culture is restrictive but simply because as a society we are guilty of negligence.

The only way our judicial system will work is through practice. When the law is upheld and applied equally to rich and poor, then we will blossom as a society. However, if we continue to base our moral outrage on the media span of attention on criminal cases we will surely fail to bring to justice criminals who violate the rights of others in the most undignified and inhumane form. Additionally, in order to discuss the horrific crime of rape in Kurdistan we need to have accurate information in the public domain without censorship because it is not possible to talk about rape in the absence of information about its occurrence in Kurdistan region.

It is necessary for Human rights organisations to lobby the Kurdistan Regional Government to initiative campaigns that raise awareness about sexual assault and abuse of women, children and men in Kurdistan. Secondly, KRG must set out to preserve the rights of its respective citizens by ensuring that they have access to justice through the Kurdish courts in instances where their rights are violated.

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