On a Saturday night in late May, I sat in the back seat of a taxi as it drove through a shantytown in Baghdad. We were not far from Firdos Square, where, in April of 2003, invading American troops famously toppled a large statue of Saddam Hussein. A highway passed overhead, its traffic thudding, and Baghdad’s tallest building, the Cristal Grand Ishtar Hotel—still widely known as the Sheraton, although the hotel chain withdrew from Iraq in 1990—rose in the distance. A forty-year-old woman whom I’ll call Layla sat in the front passenger seat; she wore a black abaya, and strands of dyed-black hair fell out from under her head scarf. Her husband, Mohammad, drove.
We were headed toward a dimly lit cinder-block shack. Children darted in and out of the shadows, and a pregnant woman in a long-sleeved, turquoise ankle-length dress stepped out to see who was approaching. She was a pimp, Layla said. In 2012, Iraq passed its first law specifically against human trafficking, but the law is routinely ignored, and sexual crimes, including rape and forced prostitution, are common, women’s-rights groups say. Statistics are hard to come by, but in 2011, according to the latest Ministry of Planning report, a survey found that more than nine per cent of respondents between the ages of fifteen and fifty-four said they had been subjected to sexual violence. The real number is likely much higher, given the shame attached to reporting such crimes in a society where a family’s honor is often tied to the chastity of its women. The victims of these crimes are often considered outcasts and can be killed for “dishonoring” their family or their community.
Since 2006, Layla, a rape victim and former prostitute, has been secretly mapping Iraq’s underworld of sex trafficking and prostitution. Through her network of contacts in the sex trade, she gathers information about who is selling whom and for how much, where the victims are from, and where they are prostituted and trafficked. She passes the information, through intermediaries, to Iraqi authorities, who usually fail to act on it. Still, her work has helped to convict several pimps, including some who kidnapped children. That Saturday night, I accompanied Layla and Mohammad on a tour of some of the places that she investigates, on the condition that I change her name, minimize details that might identify her, and not name her intermediaries.