BAGHDAD — At a Shiite shrine in the Iraqi city of Karbala, a young woman turned to a friend and asked the question that was on many people's minds: "Have you found yourself a gun yet?"
The friend asked why she needed one. "One has at least to protect herself," the woman replied. "Because when they get here, you know what they're going to do."
The implication was clear: rape.
As the extremist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) march through northern and western Iraq, fears of their approach run high, and residents in other regions worry about what horrors the militants will inflict if they arrive. Chief among these concerns is sexual violence against women — cited by women who say they fear it and men who list protecting women as a motivation for taking up arms against ISIS.
The threat of sexual violence from ISIS has been promoted heavily by the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, and its media allies, ever since ISIS and other Sunni militants took the northern city of Mosul on June 10.
The government appears to have seized on this threat to rally Iraqis against ISIS — and in particular to rally Shiites, with the suggestion that sexual violence will be turned against them as a form of sectarian aggression. Maliki has been keen to harden support among his Shiite base as he fights to survive politically while inspiring Shiite volunteers and militia to reinforce his reeling military.
Sexual violence is a real problem in times of war, and it could be hastened by the chaos in Mosul, where security forces have melted away. International politicians have also warned of rape at the hand of ISIS — as William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, did in remarks in Baghdad on Thursday: "Anyone glorifying, supporting, or joining [ISIS] should understand that they would be assisting a group responsible for kidnapping, torture, executions, rape, and many other hideous crimes."
Yet leading women's rights activists in Iraq say that the government has seized on the threat of sexual violence as a tool for political manipulation — part of a cynical and sectarian-tinged scramble to maintain power.
"Whether these rumors are correct or not, Maliki has already promoted this narrative," said Azhar al-Shekhly, a politician and former minister of women's affairs. "He is using it to incite his followers and get support for his regime."
On a basic level, this suggests that instead of calming fears in the country, the government is working to inflame them. Sectarian tensions in Baghdad were jolted by the ISIS advance; Shekhly said they were rising steadily. "Now there is something like a nightmare gripping everyone's minds, even in Baghdad," she said in an interview in the capital. "We start to imagine what kind of violence ISIS will do if they enter Baghdad — kidnapping, rape. Or even if ISIS never makes it to Baghdad, people imagine how the situation will be if [Sunni and Shiite residents of Baghdad start] start fighting among themselves."
Shekhly said that she had advised friends with daughters in Baghdad to keep them inside.
It is difficult to establish whether, or how much, sexual violence may be occurring in Mosul. Hannaa Edwar, a leading women's rights advocate in Baghdad who runs an NGO called al-Amal, or Hope, said that as soon as she heard the rumors of sexual violence in Mosul, she scrambled to check them with her contacts there. None could confirm new cases of rape. "I am in daily contact about this with our people in Mosul. Because I hate ISIS, and I am sure that they will do this — the hatred, the sexual violence, everything," she said. "Women are very low for them; women exist only to serve them. But we have to be careful now. The government is using this to scare people and to get people to protect the regime."
On Tuesday evening in Baghdad, Edwar again checked in with a trusted Mosul contact — a window into how Iraqis are bracing for news of the worst. Though her own sources in Mosul had confirmed no cases of sexual violence at the hands of ISIS, that didn't mean it wasn't happening. But the government seemed eager to amplify these fears whatever the facts on the ground. "This was the same during Saddam's time," Edwar said. "When the regime felt threatened, it spoke about defending Iraq and defending the honor of the women of Iraq. As if the honor was only with the women and not with the country as a whole."
Basma al-Khateeb, a veteran women's rights activist in Baghdad, said that a culture of violence exists in Iraq against women generally. "I'm sure it's happening" in Mosul, she said. "Not just by ISIS but by all armed groups."
None of this, she added, was the government's real concern. "They use it for propaganda."