Thursday, December 29, 2005

The story of Raghda and the problem of Bashir Shaker 

I'm most of the way through The Assassins' Gate, George Packer's must-read book on "America in Iraq." It is the most nuanced book on the war that I have yet read. A full review will be forthcoming, but suffice it to say that the discussion of arguments over the war would be a lot more nuanced in both directions if hawks and doves alike read this book.

The Assassins' Gate is from one perspective a study of the collision between bureaucratic imperatives and the lives of actual people, within Washington, between Washington and the various American authorities in Iraq, and most of all between American civilians and soldiers, on the one hand, and Iraqis, on the other hand. But Packer also writes about similar collisions under Saddam's government, and these horror stories obviously go a long way to informing his own relief in the destruction of the Hussein family regime (even as he evinces tremendous criticism of American planning and policy). One of the most revealing is a story about a girl named Raghda and the doctor who examined her.
Down the hall from the morgue, housed within the same Medico-Legal Institute where [Dr. Bashir] Shaker was on staff, was another examination room, with a reclining chair and stirrups. This was where virginity exams on living subjects took place. Before the war, when there was rule of law of a sort, Shaker performed five or six a day -- most of them on suspected prostitutes, but also on runaways, kidnap victims, and girls who had suffered from accident and whose parents, for the sake of marriageability, wanted a medical certificate establishing their chastity. These exams could have explosive consequences, and their results had to be carefully guarded. Women were shot dead by relatives on their way out the institute's front door; in cases when a husband killed his bride on their wedding night and the exam showed that she was one of the 40 percent of Iraqi women with a condition known as "elastic hymen" - that is, she was still a virgin - the danger of reprisal came from her family. An entire subspecialty of forensic medicine in Iraq dealt with virginity. In any criminal case involving a woman, it was the most important piece of information. "It rules our life," Shaker said. The most surprising thing about these details of his profession was their ordinariness.

In March 2003, a week before the start of the war, a sixteen-year-old girl whom the former regime's police had found wandering disoriented through the streets was brought to the Medico-Legal Institute. Upon examining her, Shaker found that her virginity had been recently and violently taken. The girl, named Raghda, was beautiful, with pale skin and large, dark eyes, and she was so miserable she could hardly speak. Raghda seemed nothing like the teenage prostitutes Shaker examined, and he gently persuaded her to tell him what had happened.

Raghda had gone to audition as a television introducer at the studio owned by Saddam's psychopathetic older son Uday. Along with the six other finalists, she was taken to a room where Uday -- crippled from a 1996 assassination attempt -- was seated in a chair, holding a pistol in his lap. He ordered the girls to undress and walk in a circle around his chair. When one girl begged to be excused, Uday raised the pistol and shot her dead. After that, the other girls, including Raghda, did as they were told. In the following days, Uday (who was committing some of his last crimes in power, while an invasion force gathered along Iraq's southern border) raped the girls one after another, then threw them out on the street, drugged, with a wad of cash, which was how Raghda was found by the police. When she told them her story, they gave her a beating and then brought her to the Medico-Legal Institute.

"If you want to help me," Raghda told the doctor, "go tell my parents their daughter was found dead."

On March 18, the day before the war started, Shaker completed Raghda's paperwork. "Notice that there is the appearance of complete hymen rupture from the top to the base. This is the result of an erect penis or a tool of the same quality. It occurred not long ago -- about two weeks or more, and cannot say exactly when. In conclusion, the hymen membrane was ruptured longer ago than two weeks and cannot say how long. End of report." Raghda was returned to the police. Shaker never learned her fate.

Over the course of his career, Shaker served in the Iraqi army and took part in the occupation of Kuwait, a period he would only describe as an existence utterly separate from the rest of his life. His testimony in trials sent homosexuals to execution. At the morgue he handles the nightly traffic of violent death. A bloody Friday that March of 2004 brought thirty-two bodies, including two German and Dutch water engineers gunned down by insurgents on a road south of Baghdad, and two Iraqi journalists shot to death by American soldiers as they drove away from a checkpoint. For Shaker, such cases were purely intellectual matters. The effect of this dispassion showed in the cold, handsome gaze of his blue eyes, in his blunt uninflected manner of speaking, in the way his smile turned almost automatically into a sneer. But he never got over Raghda. (bold emphasis added)


As hideous as rape is, it is even more destructive in a society where medically verifiable virginity is the sine qua non of female virtue. Whatever we would think of a serial rapist in the West, think something worse of Uday Hussein.

Also consider the case of Dr. Bashir Shaker, who is probably not unusual among the Iraqi professional elite in the Ba'athist era. He committed horrible, collaborationist crimes by the standards of the West, yet he was himself in constant jeopardy for his own life if he did not cooperate. His hands are stained with blood that he can never wash away, yet now he needs to build a life in an utterly changed world. Dr. Shaker is Shiite, yet found himself trapped in the totalitarianism of the old regime, and in spite of what he has seen he does not walk away from the moral code that condemned Raghda. Packer again:
I assumed that this forward-looking man of science, with a flat-top haircut and a clean-shaven jaw, wanted a relatively secular, liberal Iraq. I kept waiting for him to catch my eye in the middle of one of his clinical descriptions and shake his head over the backwardness of a society obsessed with virginity and prostitution. It never happened...

While the morgue overflowed, the examination room down the hall, with its reclining couch and stirrups, was usually empty. Before the war it had been the other way around. These two sections of the Medico-Legal Institute didn't just occupy the same floor; they existed in a kind of fragile moral relation, as if the social control of virginity offered the last defense against the anarchy that led to murder. Shaker, a religious Shiite, wondered if the Iranian method of public whippings might be the answer to Baghdad's prostitution epidemic which, he said, was flourishing in the lawlessness of the occupation. "It's strict, it's horrible, but it has good results," he said. "Prostitution now is normal." He blamed Americans, and especially Bremer, who had threatened in February [2004] to veto any interim constitution that declared Islam to be the principal basis of law. Personal freedom ... was a moral disaster to Bashir Shaker. "When they give everybody their rights, it's causing bad things in society, it's corrupting us," he said. "If Islam is the main source of law, none of these things would happen."

It was a measure of America's inability to achieve its goals in Iraq that a man like Bashir Shaker, who had everything to gain from the overthrow of Saddam and the opportunities it opened up, now felt himself pulled toward a harsher brand of Islam in reaction to the pervasive insecurity of the occupation. The doctor said that he belonged to "the middle level of mind" in Iraqi society, between the strictly religious masses below him and the secular elite above. "There are many Iraqis like me," he said. In Iraq, there was nothing unusual about a doctor who loved Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant, advocated the public whipping of prostitutes, and believed that executed homosexuals got what they deserved. But the middle level of mind meant inner conflict. Shaker feared the effects of living outside Iraq, and of the images transmitted into his house by the satellite dish that he installed on the roof when it was still illegal and highly dangerous under Saddam. He had fallen in love with an independent-minded Iraqi who grew up in Holland and wore low-cut shirts; if she came to Baghdad, he wanted her to start covering her hair and acting like a more traditional Muslim woman. His work fascinating him, but he worried that his daily immersion in death would coursen his soul. "The doctor of forensic medicine deals only with bodies," he said. So maybe in the end I will become like you -- an existentialist."

Packer weaves between attributing Shaker's new religiousity to the "insecurity of the occupation" and his own "inner conflict." But, whatever might be blamed on the mistakes of the occupation (elsewhere, Packer describes the deleterious consequences of the small occupation force very persuasively and in great detail), increased prostitution is not one of them. Surely many more foreign soldiers, however disciplined and however much they would have otherwise reduced crime and deterred terrorism, would have led to even more prostitution, not less. No, it is much more plausible to believe that Dr. Shaker's "inner conflict," including particularly his own guilt, or at least anguish, over his collaboration, drove him to intensify his commitment to his faith. Dr. Shaker's religion served the dual purpose of justifying his own crimes theologically and soothing the nightmares that probably still haunt his memories.

One of Packer's most important themes is that the United States grossly underestimated the massive psychological damage that many, if not most, Iraqis had suffered during the Ba'athist era, which damage rendered ordinary Iraqis incapable of reacting in many situations the way less traumatized people might. This psychological damage has, along with other factors, neutralized all of the Bush administration's optimistic assumptions about the speed with which Iraq would be able to function without the American crutch. This begs a question: Does the story of Dr. Shaker and Raghda strengthen, or diminish, the justice in America's intervention there?


By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Thu Dec 29, 06:52:00 PM:

Enhances, without question. Cannot get worse. Even Iran is better. Leaving Saddam in power in 1991 was the atrocity. Removing him in 2003 was a blessedly moral act. We must always strive for better.  

By Blogger Dymphna, at Thu Dec 29, 10:23:00 PM:

Cardinalpark is right: Our presence there, warts and all, is good. A good (to paraphrase Wallace Stevens).

Islam is burdened with the tyranny of perfection. Virginity is one of its subsets. There is no way to make a whole moral person out of the four pillars -- you end up instead with the realities of legal marriages designed to last no longer than lunch, thin-skinned honor, and an over-blown sense of victimhood.

America made mistakes. So what? We will continue to do so.

But the provocations went on and on. They didn't believe we'd ever fight back so they took four airplanes for a hideous ride. They may hate us now, but we're not a joke anymore.

OTOH, Colin Powell has much to answer for in his refusal -- and Bush I's collusion -- to go on to Baghdad. As John Boyd could have told him: get inside your enemy's OODA loop and he's yours. Powell got there and then he blinked.
History will not treat him kindly, nor should it.

America learned a lot in this war and accomplished amazing things with minimal casualities. And I do consider 2,000+ in almost three years "minimal." As any soldier would tell you. Look up how many men we lose in accidents unrelated to war. It's even higher.

We did the right thing. Not the perfect thing, maybe not the best thing. But it was the right thing to do and we will be judged accordingly. As we will be judged for walking away on the first go-'round. If we hadn't turned tail, Raghda and thousands like her would still be alive.

More important to me is not Dr. Shaker's moral dilemma (not to mention his muddled theology) but the safety of our people. We are safer now. Not safe, just *safer.*

Read Dr. Bostum. Or "Carnage and Culture." Or even our own beginnings. We are on the right track.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Dec 30, 07:35:00 AM:

As you can see (above), my response was too long to put here :)

You managed to derail my morning. Punk.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Dec 30, 07:44:00 AM:

It isn't, apparently, too difficult to do that! :)  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Dec 30, 08:13:00 AM:

Yes, I know but I really despise being that predictable...  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Dec 30, 08:16:00 AM:

Actually, it's probably just as well. I wiped out a much more worthless post to do it :)  

By Anonymous Cricket, at Tue Jan 03, 10:13:00 AM:

Fascinating read. I still have mixed feelings about this war, but I cannot back down from the morality of our intervention.

IF the politics of a theocracy like Islam is to change, there needs to be a huge shift in the burden of morality...from punishing the girls who are coerced
to the men who prey on them, as a matter of the right of the girls to be free from that fear of rape and death being the punishment. Their lives are valuable too, despite the forced despoliation. (did I spell that right?)

The other interesting thing I noticed was that girls are killed if they are no longer virgins, but one was shot to death for protecting it.

Do the parents of that girl know her fate? Are they glad she resisted and paid the ultimate price for it?  

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