Since the US-led 2003 invasion, Iraq has been plagued with corruption on all levels of government, sabotaging the democratization process, which Iraqis had hoped would lead them from a dark age of dictatorship to a future of self-determination.

This corruption has been analyzed at length for sixteen years, albeit at an economic and political level. With government corruption as its primary target, the 2019 Iraqi October Revolution has demanded the dissolution of certain institutions and the reformation of others through the expulsion of all current parties from the political process and through legislative and constitutional amendments.

Discourse about corruption in published analysis has been missing a crucial component—the gendered roots and impacts of corruption in Iraq, which gave women and girls every reason to participate in protests.

In the meantime, discourse about corruption in published analysis has been missing a crucial component—the gendered roots and impacts of corruption, which gave women and girls every reason to participate in protests. Such conversation can no longer be limited to academic literature; it must be expanded to public policy and analysis.

In both theory and essence, corruption relies on exploitation, and should be explored accordingly. Corruption’s roots of exploitation are based on mechanisms in which a party establishes privilege and power through the “hoarding of opportunities.” Social, political, and economic exchanges are therefore tilted to the benefit of one party at the expense of the other.

In turn, corruption deepens inequality. Prejudice-based exploitation deepens inequality as one exploits that which they see as an object. Therefore, objectified and dehumanized members of society – such as racial minorities as well as women and girls – are exploited. As such, where there is corruption there is exploitation . . . and where there is exploitation there is corruption.

In a country like Iraq, rich in oil and gas, among other natural resources, corruption is primarily discussed in terms of economic exploitation and fraud at a massive scale. Kleptocratic government administrations have been robbing the country of its riches, leaving its people in poverty and without basic services such as sustainable healthcare, consistent electricity, and clean water.

Meanwhile, exploitation of social capital warrants greater attention. This exploitation usually is of those living below the poverty line, primarily women and girls. In fact, poverty is gendered, meaning women and girls make up a majority of those living under the poverty line. This is a global phenomenon, prompting much research and discussion on how to enter women into the workforce and empower them to be active contributors to, and beneficiaries of, their societies’ economies.

However, systemic corruption prevents this from taking place, deepening gender-based inequalities which often intersect with racial, ethnic, intellectual, and economic inequalities. Corruption sustains itself and maintains social and political inequalities through both legal and illegal means.

One instance of gendered, illegal means is sextortion.

While women are generally as vocal as men about corruption, they are more inclined to be silent when it manifests in the form of sextortion.

Transparency International reports that while women are generally as vocal as men about corruption, they are more inclined to be silent when it manifests in the form of sextortion. The International Association of Women Judges coined the term “sextortion,” defining it as “the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage.” Here, sex rather than money is the currency of bribery. The narrative around sextortion is shrouded in silence due to a pervasive culture of shaming and victim-blaming.

In Iraq, a study last year indicated that 80 percent of sampled women have witnessed instances of sexual harassment at the workplace, while 42 percent were directly subjected to it, and 19 percent succumbed in desperation. Ninety-eight percent of those subjected to sexual harassment did not report perpetrators in fear of exposure and losing employment.  In a more recent study that focused on women working in media, 68 percent of respondents reported harassment in their workplace.

It is unclear whether these studies examined sextortion, but while sexual harassment is most likely underreported, as is the case everywhere, so is sextortion. This lack of data makes it difficult to determine the exact nature and scope of sextortion in Iraq. It keeps women from pushing the conversation forward and reduces their stories to baseless claims.

The UN Convention Against Corruption and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women explicitly prohibit sextortion. However, some countries’ domestic laws do not recognize sexploitation as a form of corruption, and where they do, misogynistic judges and lawyers prevent enforcement.

In Iraq, cases where sextortion is propositioned as “temporary marriage” are difficult to prosecute because temporary marriage is sanctioned in Islamic law.

In Iraq, cases where sextortion is propositioned as “temporary marriage” are difficult to prosecute because temporary marriage is sanctioned in Islamic law. Nevertheless, its underlying sexual intent is evident.

A 2019 BBC report discussed great neglect by Iraq’s courts and seminaries in addressing a crisis of temporary marriage sexually exploiting underage girls and poor women. The sexploitation here plays out in the false sense of safety in marriage, that is later discovered to be temporary, for sexual exploitation. While Najaf’s seminary and the Iraqi legal system have explicitly condemned this malicious abuse of women and girls, they are yet to run a transparent investigation and enforce measures to prevent further abuses.

Sexual blackmail is another form of exploitation that has also grown in prevalence over the past few years.

In Iraq’s 2018 election cycle, unidentified individuals targeted women candidates with sexual blackmail. While some of the candidates denied that the private images and videos released were theirs, they were still shamed and forced to drop out of the electoral race. The online harassment targeted prominent women activists and philanthropists in 2018 and has prevented some women from gaining an equal footing in Iraqi politics in the future.

The nature of such exploitative situations is that the privilege of exploiters imposes shame onto the exploited, making it their problem while forcing them to feel complicit in their own powerlessness. This ensures the women’s silence and protects the corrupt status quo.

The following part in this series discusses how the corrupt state maintains a system of exploitation through legislation and willful neglect.

Author’s Note: This is the first installment of a three-part series. The first discusses the gendered roots of Iraqi corruption; the second focuses on the deepening of corruption in gender-based inequalities in Iraq; and the third highlights the Feminist Spring of Iraq’s October Revolution and the challenges it faces.