Lost Leaders: ISIL’s Sex Slavery and its Targets
Warning: Some of the hyperlinks in this article can be triggering. Viewer discretion is advised.
About a month ago, I read a New York Times article that has lingered in my mind since. It tells the story of a 12-year-old girl whom an ISIL militant raped. ISIL, also known as the so-called Islamic State, seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that would serve as a paradise for all believers. Their militants continue to engage in violent tactics, such as rape of women and young girls, to further their mission. Before attacking her, the militant prayed and paused to explain to her what he was doing: he was punishing her for not being Muslim and, through his actions, would bring her closer to God. After committing the act, he prayed again and left.
ISIL, a rapidly growing Islamic extremist group gaining ground in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, claims to find support for the mass rape of “non-believing” women and girls in the Qur’an. Militants equate it to ibadah, or worship. As a result, ISIL has created a fully functioning sex market in its camps; over 3000 women are currently held by the organization, and transactions involving women must pass through the Islamic court system. In addition to seeing it as a holy act, ISIL uses sex slavery as a means of fighter recruitment. Many of ISIL’s recruits are men from conservative Muslim backgrounds where extra- or premarital sex is forbidden; ISIL therefore incentivizes young, radical Muslim men by offering them to pick from the captives.
The targets of this sexual violence are almost always young women from minority communities. Yazidi women are a key demographic targeted for sex slavery, but Christians, including Christian Assyrian and Catholic women in the region have been taken and made ISIL’s property. The international community has seen these groups suffer at the hands of ISIL before: from the mass genocide of Yazidis, Assyrians, and other Christians to the rampant cultural genocide of minority groups seen most prominently in something that I have previously written about, the destruction of thousands of ancient Assyrian artifacts in Mosul, Iraq, ISIL is on a campaign to destroy the remaining vestiges of these minority societies.
Having grown up in an Assyrian-American household, I can say with confidence that the world I come from is a paradox. It is a patriarchal world because women are expected first and foremost to marry, have children, and be a support to their husbands even if they do have careers of their own. At the same time, women are the ultimate leaders of family units. My grandmother is my family’s undisputed matriarch, the oldest of nine siblings. She leads my family with not only unconditional love, but also unconditional honor and virtue.
ISIL knows what it is doing by codifying rape and sex slavery into the folds of its growing society. In many of these minority communities, a woman’s individual and social value is based on her honor and virtue [read: her virginity]. As a result, when women are the victims of sex crimes at the hands of ISIL, not only do they suffer violent trauma with little support, it is easy for them to believe that they have been stripped of their potential to be matriarchs and leaders in their communities. In a part of the world where women are often denied basic rights, rape and sex slavery is the complete denial of the leadership potential and often little agency these women have. Furthermore, the trauma they are subject to severely limits their capability to fulfill their leadership potential and contribute to the fight against their oppressors. Through its systemic attack on women, ISIL is destroying a critical half of the potential leadership of its opposition.
News sources have recently revealed that the impact of ISIL’s sex market on its victims does not stop with demoralization alone. Women enslaved by ISIL have begun taking their own lives; they would rather die than continue to fall victim to the atrocities militants are committing against them.
ISIL has destroyed cities, torn apart families, and shaken the conscience of the international community with its violence. Governments and international bodies alike have taken steps to bring down this extremist group. Many agree that without strong local opposition against ISIL in the region, the international community cannot topple it. But, without a diversity of voices—both men’s and women’s—at the leadership level in these movements, that strong local opposition is unlikely to exist any time soon. Unfortunately, the victims of ISIL’s sex market have fallen through the cracks with the vast majority of the solutions already put forth; they have neither been rescued nor has their agency or confidence been restored. It’s time for the international community to turn its gaze to the less visible victims of ISIL’s violence, to save both these women’s lives and the lives of so many impacted by ISIL.
- Nika Arzoumanian