“I Would Rather Be Killed”: Female-On-Male Sexual Humiliation in the War on Terror
Written by Irfan Chowdhury
A very under-discussed form of abuse that has helped to define the War on Terror is the use of forced nudity against male detainees, in the presence of female soldiers. This form of abuse was employed by the US Army in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, and by the British Army in Iraq. As a type of sexual humiliation, this abuse involved female perpetrators and racialised male victims, and as such has been largely neglected from discussions around sexual violence in the US and Britain. In this article, I will examine how this abuse occurred, the Western cultural attitudes that have facilitated it and the lack of seriousness with which it is treated, and the devastating impact it had on the victims, which is largely unrecognised.
The US Army
The most obvious examples of this type of humiliation occurred at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi detainees were photographed naked in front of female American soldiers. One photograph depicts a naked Iraqi man being dragged along the floor on a dog leash by Private Lynndie England; another depicts England smiling and pointing to naked and hooded Iraqi men being forced to masturbate; another depicts naked Iraqi men piled on top of each other, hooded and naked, in a human pyramid, while Specialist Sabrina Harman stands behind them, smiling at the camera. Specialist Megan Ambuhl testified in court that she and other female soldiers were ordered to watch detainees in the shower, “point to the detainees' genitals and laugh”, and stated that this happened “fairly often”. Testimony provided to the US Department of Defense by a former Iraqi detainee, XXX, as part of a collection of testimonies that Major-General Antonio Taguba (who authored the official US Army report on Abu Ghraib) described as “credible based on the clarity of their statements and supporting evidence provided by other witnesses", goes into further detail. XXX describes being beaten and sodomised, while naked, in the presence of female soldiers. The female soldiers then abused him further as he was still naked: “the two American girls that were there when they were beating me, they were hitting me with a ball made of sponge on my [penis]. And when I was tied up in my room, one of the girls, with blond hair, she is white, she was playing with my [penis]. I saw inside this facility a lot of punishment just like what they did to me and more. And they were taking pictures of me during all these instances”.
The same type of humiliation was carried out at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, illustrating the systematic nature of this abuse. The New York Times reported the following in 2004: “Seven Afghan men who had been held at the main detention center in Bagram, where the deaths of two detainees and accusations of abuse are now under investigation, said in recent interviews that during various periods from December 2002 to April 2004, they had been subjected to repeated rectal exams, and forced to change clothes, shower and go to the bathroom in front of female soldiers”. In particular, “[Anonymous Detainee 1], a 20-year-old farmer, and [Anonymous Detainee 2], a 26-year-old farmer and former soldier who, like many Afghans, has only one name, said female soldiers had watched groups of male prisoners take showers at Bagram and undergo rectal exams”. [Anonymous Detainee 1] was quoted as saying: “We don't know if it's medical or if they were very proud of themselves. But if it was medical, why were they taking our clothes off in front of the women? We are Afghans, not American”. [Anonymous Detainee 2] stated that the female soldiers made fun of the size of the detainees’ penises, recalling that “They were laughing a lot”, and that they taunted detainees in the showers, saying things like “You're my dog”. Documents from official US Army investigations, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2005, confirmed that detainees were sexually humiliated and assaulted at Bagram, and that some of the abuse was photographed, like in Abu Ghraib.
In 2006, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and four UN Special Rapporteurs confirmed in a report on Guantanamo Bay that “Interrogators… sexually and culturally humiliate detainees, subjecting them to forced nudity in front of females”. The report also notes that “stripping detainees naked, particularly in the presence of women and taking into account cultural sensitivities, can in individual cases cause extreme psychological pressure and can amount to degrading treatment, or even torture”. The Schmidt-Furlow Report, published by the FBI in 2004 to investigate reports by FBI interrogators that they witnessed detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay, confirmed that “On one occasion in Dec 02, the subject of the first Special Interrogation Plan was forced to stand naked for five minutes with females present. This incident occurred during the course of a strip search”. The report further confirmed that “female military interrogators performed acts designed to take advantage of their gender in relation to Muslim males”. Kristine Huskey, an American lawyer who represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay, reported in 2007 that her clients “have been forced to strip naked in front of female guards; some have had their private parts touched and squeezed”, and that one of her clients “was forced to lie across a table with his legs spread while a female pulled down his pants”. Official military logs from Guantanamo Bay confirm “Invasion of Space by a Female” as an interrogation technique, and sexual humiliation of male detainees by female soldiers has further been confirmed by former Guantanamo interrogator Erik Saar. The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that during the interrogation of a high-profile Guantanamo detainee, he was waterboarded while naked in front of female personnel, “increasing the humiliation aspect”.
The British Army
British soldiers also subjected Iraqi male detainees to forced nudity in front of women, as confirmed by the al-Sweady Inquiry (undertaken by Sir John Thayne Forbes into allegations that British soldiers mistreated Iraqi detainees after the Battle of Danny Boy in 2004). The Inquiry was completed in 2014, and was used by the British government and military to argue that British soldiers were being subjected to an unfair witch-hunt (a narrative which has subsequently taken hold in British society). However, while the most extreme allegations of mistreatment were disproven in this one specific case, the Inquiry did conclude that Iraqi detainees had been subjected to various forms of mistreatment by British soldiers at Camp Abu Naji in 2004, including being stripped naked in front of women; something which was barely reported on at the time. The report states the following with regards to the processing of detainees at Camp Abu Naji prior to interrogation:
“The detainees were made to remove their clothes and were medically examined naked in the centre of a 12 foot by 12 foot tent, without any attempt being made to provide them with any form of screening or other means of preserving their modesty. As a result, each of the detainees was rendered completely naked in front of every soldier who happened to be present in the processing tent at the time. This appears to have been up to as many as nine military personnel”.
Forbes discusses the psychological impact that this had on detainees as follows:
“I accept that most, if not all, of the detainees did feel greatly humiliated by being required to strip and/or by being forcibly stripped naked during processing. I suspect that most men, if subjected to such treatment, would experience very similar feelings. However, I heard credible evidence from a number of sources that such an experience would have been particularly humiliating for an Iraqi Muslim man and I have no doubt that such is indeed the case”.
Forbes further confirms that on several occasions in 2004, this forced nudity occurred in the presence of a female interpreter, increasing the humiliation:
“As I have already indicated, there was some, though not consistent, evidence that the military personnel in the processing tent may have included a female interpreter for some, if not all, of the time. Although I am satisfied that such was not the case during the processing of the nine detainees on 14 May 2004, for the reasons already stated, I have no doubt that it did occur on some of the other occasions when a detainee or detainees were processed at Camp Abu Naji during 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment’s (“1PWRR”) tour in 2004. On any such occasion, I have no doubt that the presence of a female interpreter would have greatly increased any feelings of anxiety or humiliation that a detainee was experiencing at the time”.
In his concluding remarks, Forbes confirms that detainees at Camp Abu Naji were afforded no means of privacy while being strip-searched, that this strip-searching occurred in the presence of an unnecessarily large number of military personnel, and that on several occasions in 2004, female soldiers were present while the detainees were stripped naked:
“There were no provisions in place to ensure that screens or some such were provided, so that each detainee was afforded some degree of privacy whilst his clothes were removed and whilst he was wholly and partly naked. Moreover, there were a large number of personnel unnecessarily in the room whilst the detainees were undressed and on occasions other than 14 May 2004, some of those personnel were women”.
Forbes concludes that “it seems to me that the manner and circumstances, in which this requirement [to strip-search detainees] was actually put into effect, did amount to a form of ill-treatment, when the various unsatisfactory features of the procedure actually adopted to achieve that end, as set out above, are considered as a whole”. It is worth noting again that in 2006, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and four UN Special Rapporteurs concluded that “stripping detainees naked, particularly in the presence of women and taking into account cultural sensitivities, can in individual cases cause extreme psychological pressure and can amount to degrading treatment, or even torture”. The British Army also subjected at least one other Iraqi male detainee to forced nudity in front of women in 2006. The following testimony was provided by an anonymised former detainee to the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and Public Interest Lawyers in 2014, and was included in their first communication to the International Criminal Court regarding British war crimes in Iraq; the testimony relates to mistreatment suffered at the Divisional Temporary Detention Facility in 2006, where detainee abuse is confirmed to have occurred:
“My clothes were extremely dirty by then [upon arrival]. I refused to strip naked as it is against our culture. They said that I must because that was the rules. They said that a doctor needed to see me naked. I said that I didn’t mind stripping naked in front of the doctor only but not everyone. I tried hard to convince them but they wouldn’t listen. A soldier came and started trying to pull my trousers off with force. I kept refusing but in the end they pulled my trousers off. I was covering my private parts with my hands and they were laughing at me and turning me around. They kept trying to hit my hands away so that my genitals were exposed. The female soldiers were still in the room. It was deeply humiliating. The interpreter told me to cooperate or else I would get hurt”.
It is further worth noting here that the International Criminal Court includes “enforced nakedness” in the category of “sexual assault and humiliation”.
Zero Dark Thirty
There are clearly identifiable patterns of abuse here, wherein Muslim male detainees were subjected to forced nudity in front of female US/British soldiers; a form of abuse which was deeply humiliating and degrading for the victims. The female soldier’s role in viewing the detainee’s nakedness was integral to the abuse. I will now discuss how this form of abuse has been normalised and endorsed within mainstream US culture, as demonstrated by Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 blockbuster film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. This film’s positive depiction of female-on-male sexual humiliation in the context of the War on Terror, and the enthusiastic praise that the film received within ‘progressive’ circles, provides an insight how Western societies have come to tolerate such abusive practices, facilitated by popular cultural trends.
‘Zero Dark Thirty’, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, follows a female CIA agent named Maya (played by actress Jessica Chastain) as she tries to track down Osama bin Laden after 9/11. Torture is unambiguously glorified in the film; as Glenn Greenwald wrote at the time, “This film has only one perspective of the world - the CIA's - and it uncritically presents it for its entire 2 1/2 hour duration”; it portrays the CIA and US Army as “heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists”; and it depicts torture “exactly as its supporters like to see it: as an ugly though necessary tactic used by brave and patriotic CIA agents in stopping hateful, violent terrorists”. Greenwald notes that the film “immediately goes from its emotionally exploitative start - harrowing audio tapes of 9/11 victims crying for help - into CIA torture sessions of Muslim terrorists that take up a good portion of the film's first forty-five minutes”, and he further notes that Maya – depicted as a brave and heroic patriot, who we are meant to root for – directly participates in this torture:
“And worst of all, the film's pure, saintly heroine - a dogged CIA agent who sacrifices her entire life and career to find bin Laden - herself presides over multiple torture sessions, including a waterboarding scene and an interrogation session where she repeatedly encourages some US agent to slap the face of the detainee when he refuses to answer. "You do realize, this is not a normal prison: you determine how you are treated", our noble heroine tells an abused detainee”.
There is a scene in the film in which a male detainee whose hands are tied to the ceiling has his pants pulled down by one of Maya’s colleagues, Dan, in front of her. As he exposes the detainee’s genitals and buttocks, Dan says: “You don’t mind if my female colleague sees your junk?”. He then leaves the detainee alone with Maya, who continues to interrogate him as he is naked from the waist down. As Gabrielle Sims states, “In this scene it is Maya’s (passive) presence, rather than her initiation of an action that constitutes gender coercion. She chooses not to exercise her agency to walk away or to intervene to stop the torture”. This scene depicts the type of female-on-male sexual humiliation that I discussed earlier, except we as the audience are meant to side with the female abuser over the male victim. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was given numerous awards by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and Jessica Chastain won their Award For Humanitarian Activism (Female Icon Award), which is reserved for “portrayal of the most positive female role model, or for a role in which she takes personal and/or career risks to plumb the female psyche and therefore gives us courage to plumb our own, and/or for putting forth the image of a woman who is heroic, accomplished, persistent, demands her rights and/or the rights of others”.
Also ironic is that Chastain has become a celebrated feminist voice against sexual violence; her tweet criticising the HBO show ‘Game of Thrones’ for its portrayal of rape, stating: “Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn't need to be victimised in order to become a butterfly”, received over 100,000 likes. The Guardian also reported that following the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where Chastain passionately called out misogyny in the film industry, “she became a kind of spokesperson for women in film, a role that became more pronounced following the revelations of widespread sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood”. In a deeply revealing remark to The Guardian, Chastain stated:
“I really wish that focus would also be on men. I think there’s a lot of focus on women, and I’m so happy that Time magazine’s Person of the Year was the #MeToo movement. But when you’re talking about statistics, and they say, this percentage of women are sexually harassed or raped, they don’t actually put those percentages for men – this percentage of men sexually harass. I think we need to take that focus of victimisation off of the victims and actually look at the problem. Where does it stem from?”.
Chastain neatly delineates between women as victims of sexual violence, and men as perpetrators of sexual violence (“I really wish that focus would also be on men… I think we need to take that focus of victimisation off of the victims and actually look at the problem”). The underlying belief implicitly expressed here – that men cannot be victims of sexual violence (certainly not at the hands of women) – helps to explain the cognitive dissonance in Chastain standing up for female victims of sexual violence while proudly starring in a film that glorifies sexual violence against Muslim men; it would seem that she does not even regard what happened to the detainee in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ as sexual violence. In terms of Chastain’s attitude towards Arab and Muslim men, whom her #girlboss protagonist callously victimises in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, here is what she said about them after the film was released:
“We filmed [the torture scenes] in an active Jordanian prison, and kind of in the middle of nowhere [on the outskirts of Amman]. There’s a very strange relationship they have with women over there. One time, I went to lunch with three other guys, we sat down at a table at the restaurant of a really nice hotel in Jordan, and the waiter brought menus for the men, but not for me… So Jason Clarke ordered for me. Another time, we went to a mosque, and it was completely empty, and we were going to look at the building and stuff. It was Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison, myself, and a lot of men, including the cinematographer [Greig Fraser], Mark, and Jason, and they pulled Kathryn, Megan, and myself aside and made us put black robes on. And there was a cameraman filming the whole thing, and every time he turned to me, I kept turning away, and I finally went up to him and said, “Don’t film me like this!” I was shocked, and it really made me feel invisible. I’ve seen pictures where you see a couple, and the man is wearing swim trunks, and the woman is wearing a full burka. I’ve seen that many times, and it’s like, “Are you kidding me?” I find the covering up to be a very strange thing. It’s like saying, “We’re all animals,” and I don’t agree. I think men are strong enough and capable enough to control themselves and not attack a woman if she’s not wearing a robe, you know?”.
Chastain’s characterisation of gender dynamics in Jordan is highly simplistic and generalised, and her vantage point of Western superiority is undisguised (“There’s a very strange relationship they have with women over there”). She is absolutely shocked that she was required to cover up while entering a mosque; it is unclear what is so scandalous about this, or why she felt too embarrassed to be filmed wearing robes. Women wear headscarves in many traditional Anabaptist churches in the West, and in Britain it is common for women to wear headcoverings while attending formal Christian services; thus, female modesty in religious buildings is hardly the preserve of the ‘primitive’ Arab world. Furthermore, popular Jordanian Netflix shows such as ‘Jinn’ and ‘AlRawabi School for Girls’ feature young Jordanian women in much more Westernised clothing and speaking their minds to men, so Chastain’s relation of her own narrow experiences is certainly not representative of the entire country. She also implies that the only reason a woman would want to cover up is if she is being controlled by men – “I find the covering up to be a very strange thing. It’s like saying, “We’re all animals,” and I don’t agree” – which patronises all the women (Muslim and non-Muslim, religious and secular) who choose to dress modestly for their own reasons.
Chastain portrays Arab and Muslim men as misogynistic, patriarchal, and backwards, after playing a character who tortures and sexually humiliates Arab and Muslim men; a character whom Chastain lauds as “capable and strong and independent”, adding: “I think she really represents this generation of women and I’m really honoured to be in a film that shows women like this”. This is a perfect distillation of the racialised misandry and feminist rhetoric that have been used to facilitate War on Terror abuses; the idea that Western women smash the patriarchy and demonstrate how empowered they are by brutalising brown men.
The Feminist Spectator, run by Jill Dolan (a prominent feminist professor and the Dean of the College at Princeton University), gave ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ a glowing review, praising it because it “honors the real female CIA operative on whom Maya’s character is based by giving her a steely resolve and an unshakable determination”, and describing Maya as “a 21st century feminist hero”. Apparently, 21st century feminist heroes participate in egregious human rights violations against Arab and Muslim men. The review also gushes over “Chastain’s stark, pale white beauty”, which causes her to stand out as “a Western white woman in the patriarchal Middle Eastern culture”. The brazen racism here is shocking; not to mention the misogyny against non-white women. And yet, this passes for ‘progressivism’.
The Victims’ Trauma
A former detainee at Bagram Air Base told the Human Rights Center and the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley: “The greatest violence I suffered was nudity. After that, if they killed us, it wouldn’t have been any sorrow for me”. Another stated: “The worst experience for me was being forced to take off my clothes and then having my picture taken. You know, we are Afghans and Muslims… I would rather be killed than to be treated in that way”. Another former detainee described the experience of female American soldiers watching the detainees bathing as follows: “Some women soldiers were there… They were looking at us and laughing while we were naked. We were just like monkeys inside the bathrooms”. It is clear from these statements that the experience of being stripped naked, especially in front of women, felt like the ultimate form of humiliation and dehumanisation for these men. The following testimony from a former Guantanamo Bay detainee of his ordeal on the rendition flight to Guantanamo sheds further light on this:
“At one point I asked to go to the bathroom. I can remember a female escorting me. It was two soldiers – a male and a female. And the doors were open. They left the doors open and they took your trousers down for you. So this woman was taking my pants down for me. And I needed to take a pee basically. And I was standing there for maybe 10 minutes. And I couldn’t relieve myself at all, I just couldn’t. She was watching me from behind, and I knew that she was watching me. And for that reason, my body kind of just like, it was not, nothing was happening. And the thing was, I needed to go to the toilet for a long time. And now my bladder, my stomach, was really hurting. And, you know, I was in such pain that I couldn’t relieve myself… So I went and sat back down, and after a couple more hours I asked to go again. And this time it took me like about 10, 20 minutes again… But by the time I relieved myself, it was all over the place. It was all over me because I couldn’t see what I was doing… The plane was moving, so it went all over me. So I sat back down… It was really humiliating… Just imagine a woman being there, and she had to go to the toilet in front of all men”.
The last sentence – imploring the reader to imagine if a woman had to undergo the same experience – is important, as it speaks to the lack of empathy within Western societies for men who are subjected to this kind of humiliation. The kind of trauma that these victims must still be living with is rarely, if ever, discussed nowadays in the US and Britain, despite the fact that they have received no compensation, and are undoubtedly having to live with a great deal of psychological pressure, including that which comes from the stigma around male victims of this kind of abuse. It is well past time that the US and Britain seriously reckoned with the havoc that they wreaked on the lives of these men, and attempted to make amends for it, instead of either totally brushing it under the carpet (as in Britain), or outright glorifying it under some warped definition of ‘female empowerment’ (as in the US).
Irfan Chowdhury is a freelance writer who primarily focuses on Western imperialism in the Middle East. He has been published in The Iranian, Mondoweiss, Peace News, Hastings In Focus, The Palestine Chronicle, Roar News and Bella Caledonia, and is now at Substack. His Twitter handle is @irfan_c98.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Iraq Now.