Last summer, the Islamic State captured Yazidi women and girls from Mount Sinjar — and captured the world’s horrified attention at the same time. As some recall, in August 2014, ISIS forces broke through Kurdish defenses in Northern Iraq, leaving the Yazidi community — which ISIS considers heretical — vulnerable. One hundred thousand Yazidi climbed up the mountain to escape, prompting international humanitarian assistance — but in the end, more than 3,500 Yazidi women were abducted and subjected to torture, rape and other sexual atrocities, as documented by Amnesty International. Girls as young as 9 were gang-raped, and women were sold at slave markets for as little as 1,500 Iraqi dinar ($13 dollars). Here are six things you need to know about the way ISIS treats women — in ways that make perhaps the world’s most brutal perpetrator of gendered violence.
- How does ISIS justify its brutality towards women? In its magazine Dabiq, ISIS claims that there is a long tradition of war booty, concubinage and religious sanction for taking women as slaves. ISIS even coerces local Sunni women into forced marriages.
- ISIS has a protocol for dealing with women after capturing a village. After attacking a village, ISIS separates the women from men, and executes males ages 14 and up. The older women and mothers are separated from the younger girls, who are considered more valuable. The latter are stripped naked, tested for virginity and examined for breast size and prettiness. Religious Muslim women are forced to remove their hijabs or headscarves during this selection. Women who refuse are dragged out by their hair. The youngest and those considered the prettiest virgins fetch the highest prices. Most women are distributed among the commanders and foreign fighters. Others are (re)sold at slave markets in Syria for as little as $13.
- A hierarchy within ISIS determines who gets which women. Once ISIS ranks the women, they allocate them to men based on hierarchies and status. Commanders and foreign fighters are first allocated women as spoils of war. According to Zainab Bangura, head of the United Nations team investigating sex crimes in war zones, “Sheikhs get first choice, then emirs (princes), then foreign fighters, then local fighters. They often take three or four girls each and keep them for a month or so, until they grow tired of a girl.” At this point the women are passed onto other ISIS members or sold at auction. ISIS has used women to attract foreign fighters, guaranteeing them wives and Yazidi sex slaves. How the groups have distributed the women as “war booty” has exacerbated rifts within the organization between the foreigners (mujahideen) and the locals (ansar). In March, The Washington Post described rising tensions between foreign and local fighters:
“Most striking are the growing signs of friction between the foreigners lured by its state-building experiment and local recruits, who have grown resentful of the preferential treatment meted out to the expatriates, including higher salaries and better living conditions … and better women.”
- Women captured and enslaved by ISIS report being passed around to 20, 30, or as many as 100 men. One woman who escaped ISIS reported being “married” and “divorced” 22 times in a single weekend. These reports come from women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including a dozen Sunni women from Tunisia.
- ISIS is violating Islamic rules of war through these gang rapes, multiple temporary “marriages” and refusal to free women who give birth. According to the rules laid out in the Hadith, a collection of the teachings, sayings, and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. If a female slave is not a virgin, a man must wait till she completes her menses, or roughly 30 days, before he can touch her to ensure she is not already pregnant. If she becomes pregnant by him, she is supposed to be freed, following the practice (or sunnah) of the prophet, who freed his enslaved concubine Mariyyah after she bore his son Ibrahim. Even within the Shi’a tradition of temporary marriage, or muta, there is a 30-day waiting period before a woman is permitted to remarry. This is to establish paternity, so that the father must take responsibility for the child, who has inherited his religion and ethnicity. In other words, there is no Muslim authorization for multiple marriages and divorces of the same woman without the requisite waiting period. What ISIS is doing is thinly veiled gang rape.
- Most Muslim authorities reject slavery altogether. In other words, not only does ISIS abuse women, but it does not even follow the religious rules it purports to uphold regarding women.