Dec 12 2019

Scores of Iraqi women victim to online sexual blackmail

Emerging cases of online “sextortion” in Iraq reveal a too common and way too unreported practice that exposes women to devastating risks in a very conservative milieu.

Perpetrators are typically former partners or malicious hackers [Getty]

In September of last year, Iraqi model and Instagram celebrity Tara Fares, aged only 22, was shot dead by unknown gunmen while driving her car in Baghdad.

Widely considered as “outrageous” by Iraq’s standards for her bold clothing and relatively liberal lifestyle, Fares enjoyed a large popularity among the youth with 2.8 million Instagram followers. But older people would show contempt and make false claims about her. 

Forced into marriage at the age of 16, she later left her allegedly abusive husband and fled with her son to Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdish region, which was perceived as safer than the capital. But she continued to take risks, visiting Baghdad occasionally.

Before her death, the social media star reportedly received threats and insults on the internet by some who insinuated she lacked decency for her posts.

“There were people sexually intimidating her. Because she fought back, Fares was killed in cold blood,” Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, an Iraqi-Canadian sociologist, criminologist and socio-legal academic, said.

While thinking of other incidents of online harassment and abuse, she recalled that during the campaign for the parliamentary elections in May 2018, at least two among the many female candidates were blackmailed by men into dropping out of the race by threats of sharing their private images to the public.

One of them firmly denied that she appeared in a video that was leaked showing a woman in lingerie with a man. Despite that, the party she was running with removed her from its membership. Both contestants were forced to withdraw from the electoral run regardless of the made-up suggestions, giving in to a politically motivated attempt to push them away from the public arena.

“Whoever extorts these women is very well aware of the things she would have to go through if a picture or video of her goes out, so he takes advantage of that,” noted the scholar whose research interest is focused on Iraq.

Women in Iraq hardly speak out about sextortion or revenge porn, fearing potentially grave consequences going from disavowal in the family and social ostracism to “honour killing” at worst.

Perpetrators are typically former partners or malicious hackers who infiltrate social media accounts of the victim and steal photos she sent in private, whether they be explicit images or simply face pictures.

Some of them want money, some ask for sexual favours in return, others try to get something else out of it.

The lack of statistics from either governmental bodies or local associations does not enable to grasp the size of the phenomenon or identify patterns.

Marwa Abdulridha, a lawyer who has handled dozens of cases in the past few years, explained that one major legal hurdle is that since 2017 the current board of judges is not concerned with online sextortion offences which are currently dealt with by standard courts.

“Judges are not specialised, often old, they have no access to social networks and know little about the internet,” she observed. “They don’t have any experience or awareness of online crimes, so end up minimising this matter.”

A group of lawyers previously attempted to set up a unit with IT specialists that would help address digital sexual blackmail suitably, however the Iraqi judiciary proved uncooperative.

As part of her caseload, the attorney remembered the instance of Nibras al-Mamouri, currently head of the Iraqi Women Journalists’ Forum, who was subjected to a wave of insults and defamatory claims about two years ago with stolen intimate photos of her circulating on Facebook.

The malicious act was presumably intended to damage the reputation of the high-profile journalist. After initially filing her complaint, Al-Mamouri retracted it since the identified culprit was an influential public figure.  

Another instance, she added, involved a female doctor, from a traditional family, whose private pictures were shared on social media three years ago. Her parents nearly killed her. The case was later dropped as the victim disappeared. Her whereabouts are unknown until today, whether she is alive or not.

Abdulridha pointed out that victims face a number of issues in pursuing such cases. Entering a police station is perceived as a taboo for Iraqi women. If they go to report a crime, they may suffer shame or harassment at the hands of policemen.

Most likely, they would have to pay a bribe in order to get help. Many, especially girls, cannot afford a lawyer or don’t have access to free legal aid. As a result, most of them do not file a complaint.

The lawyer stressed that three main factors make a lot of women fall prey to sextortion on the internet. There is no existing legislation in the country that criminalises online sexual harassment. The society can be conservative to the point that for a woman “posting a photo of her face – even wearing the hijab – can get her into trouble,” she said.

Victims don’t protect their Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram accounts through precautionary digital security measures.

Al-Hassani specified that younger women are more tech-savvy and cautious in keeping their accounts hidden, choosing non-personal images on their profiles, and posting visual content carefully, making sure their identity and that of their relatives is protected, well aware that they are likely targets on social networks.

One civil society initiative named Fighters of Digital Blackmail, which Abdulridha says is trying to help women and girls in the community by focusing on prevention, for example through diffusing awareness-raising videos and internet security tips.

Although the Iraqi police force and the judicial apparatus appear little suited or ineffective in responding to the practice of cyber exploitation harming many women’s lives, the country’s community police department is playing a part in addressing the problem.

Supported by the UN Migration Agency (IOM), the department, in coordination with Iraq’s interior ministry, is tackling online sextortion, which was recently identified as a top security risk for women and girls.

Through community policing fora (CPFs), community members and law enforcement actors discuss security concerns at neighbourhood level to encourage cooperation aimed at preventing and solving crimes.

“The benefit of this approach is that members of the community find a path of trust through which they can communicate with the police,” Iraq Community Policing Coordinator Majd Hindi stated, reminding that community police officers (CPs) are appointed at least from the same district where affected citizens reside.

As for women victims, he continued, they would resort to CPs who in turn treat their cases with confidentiality through legal guidance and referral mechanisms.

When explaining the course of action followed, Ghalib Atiya, head of Iraq’s community police department, said that, if there is no official complaint, community police units use reconciliation while informing the culprit of the laws that could be used against him.

CPs manage a database where records of the perpetrator are kept, and his conduct is monitored. If reconciliation fails, the victim is referred to the prosecutor.

When the victim chooses to lodge a complaint, instead, she gets advice from CPs who then refer her to the national security sector, where the incident is investigated, the perpetrator goes to trial and is eventually prosecuted.

“Victims of sextortion trust the community police more than normal police because it is closer to the community, especially when those victims prefer not to make a formal complaint,” Atiya highlighted.

Citing the recent case of an 18-year-old girl in Baghdad who approached female CPs for an online sextortion offence, the force’s national chief reported, she denounced the perpetrator who was arrested days ago and is now waiting for trial.

Community police stations are staffed with female officers to facilitate victims coming forward since women find it difficult talking to their male counterparts about such offences.

There is however a rather weak presence of female CPs in the country, about seven percent in Baghdad and even less in the other governorates, according to Atiya.

Published in The New Arab on 12 December 2019

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