“Just as some of those sentenced to death die of terror hours before their execution, my brother Ammar Ali died after being isolated from the outside world due to bullying. His congenital birth defect in his brain had also exacerbated his torment.” With these words, Tahseen Ali summarized his brother’s story.

Tahseen recounts the painful story of his brother, Ammar, who died at the age of 24 due to bullying. He said, “My brother suffered from a congenital defect to his head and hair, especially his hair which did not grow normally and remained light in color. This is what prompted some in his surrounding to bully him. Even some passers-by would call him strange, very offensive and cruel things.” 

With grief and pain, Tahseen asserts that his brother tried every way to overcome bullying without success: “At one point, he started drinking alcohol in an attempt to draw people’s attention to him with something other than his appearance, that is, directing people’s conversations with him towards liquor, but he did not succeed either. He even engaged in immoral behaviors to escape talks about his appearance, but to no avail.”

“Ammar was bullied even by those closest to him, and those whose admiration he sought and liked to talk to. However, the bullying prevailed in the nature of their relationship with him,” Tahseen continued.

“At one point, Ammar got into a very bad psychological phase and was isolated from the outside world. For several months, he remained confined to the house, and relied on family members to buy his personal needs.” He added, “Ammar went to social media and created accounts to communicate with others, but he was unable to post his true image, and this increased his pain and worsened his condition, until he died suddenly.”  

Last year, the Independent Research Group conducted a survey on bullying in Iraq which included 2,000 Iraqis. The results showed that about 15% of Iraqis had been subjected to bullying, and that 10% of it takes the form of sectarian ridicule, and the same percentage due to gender, color and ethnicity.

Scientific Perspective

Psychiatrist Wissam Al-Dhanoun, speaking to The Red Line, confirmed that, “Bullying takes different forms, including physical and psychological (i.e. verbal) and in all its cases it is a type of violence. One of the most prominent causes of bullying is domestic violence that a person transfers with them outside the home, which affects their friends and peers. Another is the lack of communication skills, which pushes a person, whether a child or an adult, to bully others in order to get what they want. The third reason for bullying relates to a number of specific psychological disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

He added, “There is another issue which is that the person who is bullied is basically weak and ill equipped to deal with the issues facing them, which makes them an easy target for others’ bullying, and we even see people who do not normally bully engage in bullying against those perceived as weak targets.”

On whether the bullied person can turn into a bully themselves, the specialist explained that, “A person who is bullied can also become a bully in the future as a reaction. This does not always happen, as the victim of bullying is prone to depression and fear, and has a weak character. However, there are few victims of bullying who, as a reaction, become future bullies themselves.”   

Regarding the effects of bullying on its victims, Al-Dhanoun stated that, “A person who is bullied becomes depressed, and it can cause many illnesses including cardiovascular diseases, and sometimes depression can lead to suicide. Another effect on children who are subjected to bullying is their refusal to go to school.”

The Iraqi High Commission For Human Rights confirmed this October that the United Nations Human Rights Council called on States to take all appropriate measures to prevent and protect children from all forms of discrimination and violence, including in digital contexts. It also called for the establishment of well-resourced bodies tasked with preventing, combating and addressing the negative effects of cyberbullying, among other measures.

The United Nations called upon the government and parliament to “take urgent measures to combat cyberbullying directed at children and legislate a Child Protection Law while setting deterrent penalties for parties and individuals who engage in bullying of children.”

Participatory Role

In this context, Anas Al-Azzawi, the former member of the Human Rights Commission (now dissolved due to the end of its legal term) explained in an interview with The Red Line that bullying has already begun to increase in Iraqi society. “It is now among other dangerous rampant phenomena such as suicide, street begging and drug abuse.”, he noted.

Al-Azzawi believes that these issues require public policy, government programs and a clear participatory role for civil society institutions. “This is needed in order to address them before they escalate and turn into a scourge that eats away society from within.”

The former Commissioner pointed out that bullying leads children to drop out of schools or start using drugs to escape their reality. “It is therefore necessary for all relevant state institutions and civil society to play an active role in educating society about this phenomenon and preventing it from turning into a social pandemic.”, he added, stressing the need to intensify awareness programs and educational courses to buttress against these phenomena, and to focus this type of education in schools, universities and other educational institutions, as they are the places where most bullying occurs.

Impact on Education

Ammar Atiya, an educational supervisor, explained during an interview with The Red Line that the issue of bullying has become alarmingly rampant in Iraqi schools. “It has even reached the stage where teachers are assaulted, beaten, insulted or bullied whether in real life or virtually through social media.”, he claimed.

The supervisor indicated that the absence of security protections has made the teaching staff less willing to continue and fulfill their educational duties: “Iraqi teachers now live in an atmosphere of anxiety and fear, whereas they are supposed to be representatives of the State offering a scientific message.” 

Mr. Atiyah explained that, “The bullying of students has prompted many of them to leave education for good. When we contact the parents of some students to inquire about the reason for their children’s absence, they tell us that they have been threatened or bullied and even sexually assaulted,” noting that, “Bullying has caused a significant decline in the students’ levels and led to a noticeable increase in failure rates. We have not yet devised realistic deterrent solutions to this issue.”, he added, before admitting that he held several meetings with parents to put an end to such behaviors, but have not reached a decisive solution. Rather, what is even more severe is that some parents raise their voices against teachers, enabling the students to imitate this unbecoming behavior.

As a measure of comparison, it is noteworthy to note that the National Bullying Prevention Center in the United States published a study showing that more than one out of every five American students is exposed to bullying in school. Furthermore, a research paper published this year in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry indicated that a woman who was bullied as a child is 27 times more likely to develop panic disorders in her youth, while with men, bullying in childhood leads to an 18-fold increase in suicidal ideation.

Bullying in the Media

Journalist and presenter Hussam al-Hajj, in an interview with The Red Line, said, “Any person who opposes a public service is exposed to bullying or systematic insult campaigns by electronic armies. On more than one occasion, I have personally been subjected to organized and paid-for attacks by parties on social media.”

He asserted that criticizing a particular party opens the door to bullying by its supporters. Also, talking about the positives of one party pushes other parties towards bullying, transgression and abuse. Mr. Al-Hajj revealed that there are media professionals who took a step back because of bullying against them, while others withstood the electronic armies. “This situation is the result of the conflict in society between concepts, identities and ideologies, so there is a need to educate in this regard despite the difficulty of eliminating this phenomenon.”, he stressed.

Iraqi social media is teeming with pages that bully and incite against media professionals. They circulate videos of them with a slip or a spontaneous movement, and use this footage to attack those journalists and media personalities.  

There are also content makers who recently emerged in Iraq whose mission is to bully other content creators, who show videos from other channels and bully them. Social media has helped detractors to launch different epithets and nicknames used against media professionals and artists, names that have become more prevalent than their real names. Often, these words and phrases fall within the category of bullying, as some of these public personalities are publicly nicknamed after animals or certain foul words.

The role of Organizations

According to Nidal Al-Abadi, an academic and social researcher, and head of Eyes Organization for Human Culture and UNESCO representative, international organizations and civil society organizations have not played a serious role in addressing the rampant bullying in society: “International organizations withdraw their involvement when they see that a project requires large sums of money to implement, so projects remain mere ink on paper,” she explained, 

These organizations did not offer awareness programs anywhere near the levels required. However, there are modest attempts to address these issues through individual initiative. “People with Down syndrome have become easy prey for bullies, which affects their psychological state, growth and health condition. They have also become a way for some organizations to earn money by taking advantage of their condition.”, noticed the social researcher.

One of the most widely tested programs is Olweus Bullying Prevention, which was developed by the late Swedish-Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus who led much of the early academic research on child abuse.

The program is based on the idea that individual cases of bullying are often the product of a broader culture that tolerates victimization and, as a result, attempts to remediate the entire school ecosystem such that bad behaviors do not thrive.

Specialized research indicates that stress caused by bullying can negatively affect the body for decades after the event. By analyzing data from a long-term 50 year study, it was found that repeated bullying between the ages of 7 and 11 years is associated with higher levels of various infections, and obesity, by the age of 45.

Legal Matters

In her interview for The Red Line, legal expert Adnan Al-Sharifi argued that in regards to Law, bullying is equivalent to an assault, which is strictly regulated by the Iraqi Penal Code through several articles. “However, there are no specific articles in the law where the word ‘bullying’ is mentioned as such.”, he remarked.

The protective articles for those affected by bullying in the Penal Code are 413, 414, 430 and 431, as a person who is proven to have been harmed from bullying can file a complaint with the court to take the necessary measures. “These procedures include subjecting the complainant to medical examinations, and if it is proven that he has been subjected to an assault that causes disability, the assault is considered a felony according to Article 412. However, if it does not result in a disability, it is considered a misdemeanor as per Article 414.”

It is worth noting that all 50 states in the United States have passed legislation to prevent bullying in schools, the first of which is Georgia in 1999, and most recently Montana which adopted anti-bullying legislation in April 2015. The watchdog Bully Police USA advocates and reports on anti-bullying legislation.

In Canada, a law was adopted in 2012 in the Quebec provincial government to combat bullying, which came into force in the same year. Austria also imposed laws on teachers with a legal duty of care to ensure the safety and well-being of their students, and therefore, teachers must comply professionally and ethically by intervening in incidents of bullying.

The Philippines also passed the Anti-Bullying Act of 2013, requiring all primary and secondary schools in the country to adopt an anti-bullying policy. Chile’s Congress passed the School Violence Law, which amended the Public Education Act to establish clear definitions, procedures, and penalties for school violence and bullying.

In Iraq, such specific legislative measures are missing. While studies have shown that the issue is widespread and can cause catastrophic psychological effects on young and fragile individuals, much remains to be done to deter assaulters from harassing their victims.