Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Little Action against Sexual Slavery by the Islamic State

Islamic State and sexual slavery
Fatima, 33 years old (L), and Dina, 13 years old (R), both from the Iraqi Yazidi community, were held captives by the Islamic State, the Khanke refugee camp, Dohuk, Kurdistan, Iraq, 12 November 2014. Photo Alfred Yaghobzadeh/Polaris

Sexual slavery is the exploitation of women (and children) for the purposes of forced sex. This practice was condemned and criminalized by international law following the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In spite of this criminalization, sexual slavery is increasing, in the form of commercial sexual exploitation, which includes pornography, forced prostitution, and sex trafficking. This type of exploitation has recently reached a peak, with the practices of the Islamic State (IS), which target women and girls.

IS not only acknowledges sexual slavery but justifies it on religious grounds. The media have reported the horrific facts of women’s sexual enslavement by the extremist state, but very little has been done to condemn and counter this practice, especially by credible religious scholars around the world.

The most widely covered example of sexual enslavement is the case of women and girls belonging to the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq, in which as many as 5,270 Yazidi girls and women were abducted in 2014 and at least 3,144 are still being held in September 2015, according to Yazidi community leaders.

The main reason advanced by IS for its actions is that these girls and women were unbelievers and their enslavement is thus sanctioned by the Quran. Other such practices have been attested in Syria, Libya, and Nigeria (the latter by the so-called Boko Haram group, an IS affiliate that is enslaving Christian women). There is thus a pattern of sexual slavery that constitutes part of what IS believes to be right behaviour towards women. This pattern is reinforced by the imposition of total covering of the body, the prohibition of mixing of the sexes, and the exclusion of women from the public sphere, which IS itself considers an expression of respect for women. Although such practices have been condemned by most Muslim women around the world, they are apparently accepted by most IS women.

The IS has developed a radical theology and announced that it was reviving the institution of slavery (saby). Deemed “authentic Islamic practice,” this sanctions the abduction and sexual enslavement of women and girls captured in war or women whose husbands have been executed. Based on this theological authorization, the trade in Yazidi women and girls has created a lasting infrastructure, with a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed (auctioned like cattle), and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them.

The IS enslavement procedure is a well planned and structured one that uses, among other things, makeshift detention facilities and sales contracts re notarized by IS-operated Islamic courts. Enslaved women are sold and may be forcibly impregnated, in order that they give birth to Muslim children, and forced to marry IS fighters and convert to Islam. These acts are perpetrated amidst mass executions of entire communities. Indeed IS has developed a formidable and sophisticated bureaucracy of sex, which, in addition to “punishing” unbelievers and gaining “proximity to God,” is also used to recruit men from conservative backgrounds where casual sex is regarded as taboo.

The justification given by IS is based on a narrow and selective reading of the Quran that sanctions violence and celebrates rape as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous. This is nourished by the prevalent underlying patriarchal view in which a woman’s love is dangerous because it “prevents” man from “reaching God.” What IS is doing is institutionalizing slavery through selected compiled Quranic scripture that can easily be absorbed by a literal interpretation of decontextualized Quranic verses.

One wonders what significance international human-rights law or Islamic law have, when women are systematically raped and enslaved by IS in the 21st century, in the name of Islam and under international observation. Apart from sensational accounts and images on the web, little is being done to stop the rape and sexual slavery that obliterate women’s identities and humanity. The lack of global outrage is significant: it is trivializing and sanctioning the trade in sex slaves.

There have been no tangible steps taken by the United Nations to rescue the abducted Yazidi women and girls. Local activists, such as the Iraqi Yanar Mohamed, risk their lives to organize escape routes and shelters for women. Religious leaders, however, have thus far produced minimal condemnation and no coordinated efforts, mainly because these leaders are still reluctant to touch the sacred texts. Reform of the Quranic verses that deal with saby is badly needed.

There is a great urgency: women are daily victims of IS’s system of sexual slavery. The urgency of eliminating the scourge of IS by all reasonable means is real and needs to be emphasized. No human logic can accept the rape of girls and women solely because they practice a different religion and because carrying it out brings the extremists “closer to God.” At the same time, the systematic heinous and unpunished crimes of IS are likely to inspire more disgruntled youths to adopt IS’s fanatical extremist values.

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