It all began last summer. In August, news from Iraq noted that IS had attacked villages inhabited by Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish group with a religion which combines elements of Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions (1):
The gunmen had surrounded the village for more than a week, refusing to let residents leave and saying they had limited time to save themselves by converting to Islam.Later in the same article we learn that though most adult men were killed, the fate of most of the women and children remained unclear:
When that time ran out, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria stormed in, killing the men and rounding up the women and children, a survivor and Iraqi officials said Saturday.
The extent of the killings on Friday in Kocho, a tiny, isolated village in northern Iraq that is home to members of the Yazidi sect, remained unclear on Saturday night. Some officials said they believed that at least 80 people had died, although no one had been able to visit the site to assess the damage.
It remained unclear what had become of the village’s women and children. Mr. Khidr said he did not think they had been killed, but had been rounded up and taken somewhere else.Other news (impossible to independently verify) told of women who were found naked and tied after IS attacks, apparently repeatedly raped by the terrorists.
Mahma Khalil, a Yazidi leader and a former Parliament member, said he had received reports that they were taken as prisoners to the nearby town of Tal Afar.
Soon, however, we learned what happened to all those captured Yazidis:
They were taken into slavery (2). Their expected destiny differed by gender and age. The young boys would be turned into IS jihadis (3) by religious education and brain-washing, the older women would perhaps become general household slaves and the young women and girls would be used to satisfy the sexual needs of the IS fighters.
At the time I'm writing this the total number of Yazidi women and children captured by IS is thought to be in several thousands, though precise numbers are difficult to get. Some of the captured remain in Iraq, some have been taken to Syria (or even further, given the aspect of sexual trafficking in IS-created slave markets).
Some appear to have been given to individual IS fighters right after the killing of the Yazidi men in various villages, as war booty, some have been assigned to the IS movement, to be further distributed among fighters, and some young women seem to have been placed into brothels near Mosul in Iraq. Further trading of the slaves takes place in markets in both Syria and Iraq.
The rest of this post looks deeper into this particular hell.
The first part consists of the stories of women who were captured and enslaved. Some managed to escape and were willing to tell their stories, some stories were told through cell phones which the captives either were given or managed to hide from their captors.
These stories tell us about the devastating effects of slavery and rape on the victims, especially when they were enslaved right after witnessing the killing of their fathers, husbands and brothers, and given the conservatism of the Yazidi society where a raped woman loses her honor.
But the stories also let us understand more about the real motivations of IS in its use of slavery. Nevertheless, that section can be skipped without loss of continuity in this post. There are times when I wish that I would have skipped reading the stories.
After that, the post looks at how IS defends the use of open slavery in its caliphate-building, both as a part of the genocide of non-believers which attempts to create a "pure" Sunni-Wahhabist caliphate and as a way to "reward" its fighters with women and sex (rape). Its plentiful use of religious and pseudo-religious "end-time" justifications of slavery is also addressed.
Though most of the evidence of slavery by IS is about the Yazidis, the online magazine of IS suggests that its treatment of the Yazidis is also applicable (4) to the "People of the Book," Christians and Jews, but not to apostates (those who have left Islam or perhaps those who practice the "wrong" kind of Islam). Thus, it is not the specific aspects of the Yazidi religion which matter here, but rather the specific aspects of how IS sees religion in general. And in that sense what we learn about the Yazidis would apply to the rules in the imaginary future caliphate, too.
The Stories of Yazidi Women
When the first stories told by captured-but-escaped Yazidi women and girls came to light they sounded like possible war propaganda, too horrible to believe. But as one story after another after another told about the same horrors denial became impossible.
IS was using mass sexual violence as a weapon of war. Though raping the women of the vanquished enemies has always been an aspect of actual (as opposed to idealized) warfare, the IS has taken all this to a new level of horrors by the very open treatment of captured women as mere property, as something resembling cattle or goats, to be treated as the owner wishes, to be sold and bought, and to be used for sexual gratification without the need for any kind of consent.
What is novel about these IS atrocities is not only the openness of this treatment but the organized nature of it. The IS regards captured women and children as war booty and has rules about the proper division of these spoils. Some are handed out to fighters right after the battles, others are given to the IS organization, to be either sold or given as gifts to other fighters. Open slave markets are held to redistribute the slaves, with prices set depending on the age and beauty of the women. Many of those visiting the markets are foreign jihadists.
Here are some (4) of the stories of Yazidi girls and women who managed to escape or to contact the outside world:
A 15-year-old girl named Rewshe told investigators she was held for three weeks before being transported to Raqqa, Syria, along with some 200 women and girls. Soon after, 20 of the prisoners were taken away, reportedly after being sold to a group of militants.
Two days after she arrived in Raqqa, Rewshe was sold, along with her 14-year-old sister, to a militant. The man, a Palestinian member of IS, told her she had cost him $1,000. He quickly sold her sister to another militant and took Rewshe to his apartment. After attempting to rape her, Rewshe was able to escape as the man dozed.
Narin, a fourteen-year-old Yazidi girl, was given as a gift to an IS commander.
The militants divided us by gender and age: One for young and capable men, another for girls and young women, and a third for older men and women. The jihadists stole cash and jewelry from this last group, and left them alone at the oasis. Then they placed the girls and women in trucks. As they drove us away, we heard gunshots. Later we learned that they were killing the young men, including my 19-year old brother, who had married just six months ago.
D.A. is fifteen years old. She managed to escape. Her story:
The man who chose D. A. “was wearing a beard, though not a long one, and not very long hair,” she recalled. She refused to go at first, holding on to her older sister. But the sight of a dagger at her older sister’s throat convinced her to submit. Her 12-year-old sister looked on in stunned silence.Amsha's story:
“She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t cry,” D. A. said. “It’s like she had no feelings.”
That was the last time she saw her sisters.
They sold Amsha for $12. Other girls and women went for more, much more. But Amsha had a small son and was pregnant with her second child. She had already seen Islamic State (Isis) militants execute her husband in front of her. Now the terror of that crime and the fear of captivity was to be replaced by the indignity and humiliation of being traded like cattle.
“A 50-year-old man with a dark beard came to buy me,” she recalls. “From that day on, I didn’t want to live any more.”
Randa, a 16-year-old girl from a village near Mount Sinjar was abducted with scores of her family members, including her heavily-pregnant mother. Randa was “sold” or given as a “gift” to a man twice her age who raped her. She described the impact of her ordeal to Amnesty International:
“It is so painful what they did to me and to my family. Da’esh (the IS) has ruined our lives… What will happen to my family? I don’t know if I will ever see them again."
The horrors endured in IS captivity have left these women and girls so severely traumatized that some have been driven to end their own lives. Nineteen-year-old Jilan committed suicide while being held captive in Mosul because she feared she would be raped, her brother told Amnesty International.
One of the girls who was held in the same room as Jilan and 20 others, including two girls aged 10 and 12, told Amnesty International: “One day we were given clothes that looked like dance costumes and were told to bathe and wear those clothes. Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful; I think she knew she was going to be taken away by a man and that is why she killed herself.” The girl was among those who later escaped.
A young woman from the Yazidi religious minority captured by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) has described the horror of being kept as a sex slave by the extremist group.
The 17 year-old said she was one of a group of about 40 Yazidi women who were still being held captive and sexually abused on a daily basis by Isil fighters.
She said she was captured on August 3 during a jihadist assault against the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq and is now being held in horrific conditions of sexual servitude in a village south of Mosul.
"Our torturers do not even spare the women who have small children with them. "Nor do they spare the girls - some of our group are not even 13 years old. Some of them will no longer say a word." The woman, given the false name Mayat by La Repubblica, said the women were raped on the top floor of the building, in three rooms. The girls and women were abused up to three times a day by different groups of men.
"They treat us as if we are their slaves. The men hit us and threaten us when we try to resist. Often I wish that they would beat me so severely that I would die."
Some of the men were young fighters fresh from Syria, while others were old men.
"If one day this torture ever ends, my life will always be marked by what I have suffered in these weeks. Even if I survive, I don't know how I'm going to cancel from my mind this horror.
"We've asked our jailers to shoot us dead, to kill us, but we are too valuable for them. They keep telling us that we are unbelievers because we are non-Muslims and that we are their property, like war booty. They say we are like goats bought at a market.
Bolds in that last quote are mine.
What this sexual violence does to its victims is impossible to contemplate. The stories from individual women often refer to others who no longer speak, no longer move, no longer appear to be alive. Several refer to suicides or attempted suicides, several to cases of repeated rapes of one woman by several men. Several note that girls as young as eleven were given or sold to the IS fighters.
And all this may have happened after the captured women and girls witnessed the killing of their close male relatives.
Even those who escaped will be permanently affected. That would be the case anyway, but the cultural norms of the Yazidis make recovery even harder:
Even returning to their families presents yet another risk for female escapees, Tirana Hassan, Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch's Emergencies Division, told VICE News.This may explain why few of the escaped girls and women admit to having been raped themselves, even when admitting to having witnessed rape. But those who return pregnant cannot use the excuse that they successfully defended their virginity or virtue.
"The biggest taboo is not being captured, it is being [sexually] assaulted," said Hassan. "The Yezidis are a small, conservative community and women will go great lengths to ensure this is private, to make sure they are not ostracized by the community. Virginity is a very important concept."
The horrors I have described above are not completely unrelenting. Some slave owners were kind, and at least one freed his slaves. Sunni Muslims sometimes helped the Yazidi women who managed to escape. It is also possible that only the worst cases have come to the attention of the world and that not all treatment of the enslaved Yazidis is that bad. Still, what is taking place in Iraq and Syria is an extreme attack on the human rights of the Yazidis, both in terms of having a right to exist and in the specific terms of the right to be treated as human beings and not as voiceless property.
IS Defends Its Use of Sexual Slavery And Rape
Asking why IS is carrying out these atrocities is in some sense as pointless as asking why it publicly beheads journalists and aid workers and why it has executed hundreds of Yazidi men and boys (and some women, too). If there is a point, on that level, it is to glory in the fear that IS radiates, and perhaps to appeal to those potential recruits who relish violence and who like the idea of free sexual access to women who cannot deny that access. For IS needs more recruits, if it is to keep hold of the "caliphate" it has invaded, and the promise of as much "sex" as one wishes as the reward for violence may well entice the "right" kind of militants to join the "caliphate."
But on a different level the question can be asked and even answered. Clearly IS wishes to "cleanse" the area it governs from all "non-believers." The attempted genocide of the Yazidis is part of that pattern, and the pattern is old. It is not uncommon in history for the women of the vanquished populations to become the slaves of the victors, while the destiny of the vanquished men has varied from being killed to also being enslaved.
What makes the case of IS different is that a) it is a long time since wars followed that pattern of open slavery of the vanquished and b) that the IS organization itself condones, organizes and manages the trading of slaves it has captured. Slavery is legal inside the "caliphate."
Now to how IS defends its own use of slavery: We learn about that in its propaganda online magazine, Dabiq,(6) in an article with the title "The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour." The "hour" in the title refers to end-times thinking. The article justifies the enslaving of Yazidi women and girls as required by the kind of sharia law IS favors. Thus, from the Dabiq article:
Before Shaytān reveals his doubts to the weak-minded and weak hearted, one should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffār and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharī’ah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Qur’ān and the narrations of the Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sal- lam), and thereby apostatizing from Islam.To put that into perspective, consider the many verses in the Bible which do not exactly condemn slavery, in particular Deuteronomy 21: 10-14:
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.
and Numbers 31: 17--18:
13 Moses and Eleazar the priest and all the chiefs of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. 14 And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. 15 Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? 16 Behold, these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. 17 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. 18 But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.
It's possible to imagine that some extremist Christian sect could regard those Bible verses and others similar to them as a defense of slavery and the enslaving of the women of the enemy (7).
That is pretty much the take of IS on the Koran and its many similar verses about slavery. IS also regards them as a guide to the life in end-times (presumably taking place now), and from that angle argues that the enslavement of non-believers is legal and even necessary.
More than 120 scholars of Islam disagree in their open letter to IS:
The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.
Those scholars also argue that the Yazidis are like People of the Book (which includes Christians and Jews) and therefore could at most be treated as dhimmis, not to be enslaved but to be made to pay a specific tax (jizyah) in exchange for being allowed to live in peace inside a Muslim caliphate (8).
But the IS clerics care not a jot about those Islamic scholars and their interpretations, perhaps because they themselves are extreme Wahhabists and refuse to give any recent interpretations of sharia credit. Such an insular religious view of the world naturally makes it impossible for outsiders to argue with IS clerics or to convince them of their errors. It also results in a medieval world view.
That world view is oddly combined with the use of modern technology and modern vocabulary, even to the extent that the IS terrorists are given careful advice on the proper treatment and use of their female slaves. Some excerpts from it (9):
"Question 3: Can all unbelieving women be taken captive?
"There is no dispute among the scholars that it is permissible to capture unbelieving women [who are characterized by] original unbelief [kufr asli], such as the kitabiyat [women from among the People of the Book, i.e. Jews and Christians] and polytheists.
"Question 4: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female captive?
"It is permissible to have sexual intercourse with the female captive. Allah the almighty said: '[Successful are the believers] who guard their chastity, except from their wives or (the captives and slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are free from blame [Koran 23:5-6]'..."
"Question 5: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female captive immediately after taking possession [of her]?
"If she is a virgin, he [her master] can have intercourse with her immediately after taking possession of her. However, is she isn't, her uterus must be purified [first]…"
"Question 6: Is it permissible to sell a female captive?
"It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of [as long as that doesn't cause [the Muslim ummah] any harm or damage.
"Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty?
"It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn't reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however if she is not fit for intercourse, then it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse."
Bolds are mine, though everything in that quote really requires disgusted emphasis. What's worth noting is the theologically unusual view that even Christian and Jewish women could be legally enslaved and that a girl doesn't have to have reached puberty to be rapable. Because the term "intercourse" has that specific meaning when we are talking about women and girls who are taken without their will.
The final justification IS has given for the practice of slavery is that it saves the IS militants from committing the sin of adultery:
An article in the latest edition of the terrorist group’s propaganda publication, Dabiq, also attempts to justify its widespread enslavement of Yazidi women by saying it was needed to prevent Muslim men from being tempted into sinful sexual conduct.Put together, all this suggests that the IS clerics view the sin of adultery by Sunni Muslim men as more serious than the view of "non-believing" women as property rather than as human beings. Rape is less sinful than willing, albeit extramarital relationships!
Keeping a slave woman is “the shari’a alternative to marriage,” and when slavery is not available, then “a man who cannot afford marriage to a free woman finds himself surrounded by temptation towards sin,” it says.
Further, a Muslim man who employs a maid at home may be tempted to have sex with her, “whereas if she were his concubine, this relationship would be legal.”
The article concludes that the abandonment of sexual slavery gave rise to an increase in fornication and adultery, as Muslims pursued worldly pleasures rather than jihad. It praises “the Islamic State” for restoring this and all aspects of the correct Islamic order.
Writing this particular post has been extremely difficult for me, because of the despair and suffering I have had to witness, however distantly. I have often asked whether the work even has any point to it. After all, the way IS has treated Yazidi women is widely and generally deplored by almost everyone outside the terrorist organization, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Why would anything more need to be said about the atrocities IS has committed?
And given the religious or quasi-religious interpretations IS gives to its atrocities, isn't writing about them giving more fodder to those who identify this particular (and quite small) extremist terrorist movement with all believers in Islam? And to those who are just seeking a reason for yet another unending war between the US and various countries in the Middle East?
But I persevered for two reasons. First, the Yazidi women deserve to have their stories heard clearly and those stories deserve to be put into one place. Second, delving deeper into IS arguments serves to show their inane nature, the way they use the Koran to defend whatever they wish to do in the first place and the way they ignore the Koran when it conflicts with their desires.
It is also useful to stress the dangers of extreme religious movements in general and to place their treatment of women in a clearer focus. Similar atrocities are taking place in Nigeria. Not to write about them throws a veil of uncaring over the female victims of radical extremist religious movements.
At the same time, writing about the fate of women in the hands of extremists does not mean that the outright butchering of male (and female) victims isn't as crucial to write about. But the way women are treated by IS or Boko Haram tells us much about the sort of societies those movements would like to create if they could. And those are not good societies.
Why, then do some women freely join IS, including Western women? That is the topic of my next post in this series.
Introduction to this series can be found here, Part 1 here and Part 3 here.
(1) Other sources suggest that the Yazidi religion also has aspects of Islam and Judaism. The Wikipedia states that the religion is monotheistic, whereas the IS clerics argue that the Yazidis are polytheist. This matters, because the IS defense for the genocidal treatment of Yazidis is based on the verses in Koran which describe Mohammed's views on how polytheists should be treated in his era.
The Yazidis are not the only minority religious groups directly attacked by IS, but reports suggest that Christians, say, have not been abducted. On the other hand, members of the Shabak group may have been.
(2) At least if they would not convert to Islam. Some sources suggest at least some of the captured Yazidi women were offered the "choice" to convert and then to be married to the IS fighters or to be enslaved.
(3) There are some indications that young boys have also been raped in some cases.
(4) This is in direct contradiction to the text of the Koran, however literally it is interpreted.
(5) In most cases it is impossible to independently verify individual stories. But the sheer number of them and the similarity of the stories suggests that what is described is actually happening. For many more stories from individual women and girls, see here, here, here (with a reference to jihadists with Western passports) and especially here. Other more recent (unverified) stories suggest that IS has executed large numbers of Yazidi women who refused to convert and marry IS militants. Whether this is a change of policy (or even true) is unclear.
(6) I'm avoiding direct links to Dabiq. But I have read the relevant issues and you can Google for the direct links if you wish.
(7) The Bible was used to defend slavery in the United States during the nineteenth century, too.
(8) This is where explaining current dilemmas by using 1500-year old rules ceases to make sense, in my humble opinion. Though the scholars also argue that jizyah was levied because the Muslims were religiously required to give money to charity and the jizyah made things equal between the religious groups.
(9) I have been unable to completely verify the source of this particular pamphlet, but references to it appear in several places and suggest that it indeed comes from IS.