Islamic State : what about the mass sexual crimes ?

Juliette Lyons
29 Septembre 2014

The Islamic State (IS) has taken centre stage worldwide in the past few months with its increased influence in the Middle East and threat to the rest of the world. The media has incessantly notified us of the beheadings of western journalists, of the torture, of the foreign recruitment and the advanced propaganda but history’s wealthiest terrorist group has also been committing terrifying sexual crimes against women. And it has been happening in obscene amounts, yet we don’t really hear that part of the story.

Crédit DR
Crédit DR
The IS has its roots in Iraq, forming in 2004 following the US invasion, and was established a Caliphate in June 2014. Though their name suggests otherwise, the group is far from being a state; rejecting the notion of borders and institutions. Its Sunni extremist ideology closely followed that of al-Qaeda’s and, to a lesser extent, that of the Muslim Brotherhood, adhering to global jihadist principles.  However they have become so radical that their reputation of extreme brutality led to them being disavowed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, earlier this year; and that tells us something. The rapidly expanding group has been gaining control across Iraq and Syria – and has promised to “break the borders of Jordan and Lebanon and to free Palestine” - by taking advantage of the situation of decomposing states in the area and annexing territory, callously killing thousands along the way.

The news reports have continuously shed light on the disturbing crimes of the IS : burning bibles, destruction of non-Sunni shrines, places of worship and ancient scriptures; stealing money from banks; capturing military supplies; and promoting religious violence though crucifying, decapitating, amputating and torturing countless amounts of minorities in the Middle East. But the media has failed to give more attention to the thousands of woman and children who the IS have kidnapped, raped, trafficked and forced into marriage in the last few months.

An estimate from the UN reveals that the IS has forced 1500 women (other sources suggest this figure has increased), young girls and young boys into sexual slavery. They are given as “rewards” to the militants and they are being sold as slaves. What’s more, reports have revealed that British women who are part of the IS 'police force' have become heavily involved in the running of brothels of captured Iraqi women created for the use of the fighters; similarly to the Comfort Women of the Second World War. Melanie Smith, a research associate at King’s College’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation says that “they use these women as they please” because “to the men of ISIS, women are of an inferior race, to be enjoyed for sex.”

Call me a feminist, but this story is just as sickening as the on-going murders carried out by the group and it makes no sense for it to have not received as much coverage and made the headlines. The level of ruthlessness towards these women should not be regarded as a side issue or a ‘women’s issue’ simply because it does not fit in with the more “mainstream” war tactics. It is a terror tactic. It is a time of conflict. It should thus be given as much attention as the other tactics of fear used by the IS and not just be labelled as a humanitarian consequence of the Middle Eastern chaos.

Crédit AFP
Crédit AFP
Due to the conflict conditions, it is of course hard for international organisations and other governments to collect information about these sexual crimes but that doesn’t excuse that they knew something was going on and failed to make it a media priority. The governments of the region have kept quiet on the issue despite being vocal on the other threats that the IS poses to regional stability. Even if we put aside the media coverage part of the story, the governments of Syria and Iraq as well as NGOs have been accused of not doing enough to protect these women in the first place and provide those who have been left abandoned and scarred with assistance. Why ?

According to former CIA military analyst, Tara Maller, threats towards women and children in these situations are considered as “softer humanitarian concerns” in comparison to beheadings, bombings and airstrikes that are viewed as “hard security issues”. But rape is used as a weapon of war too. Another interesting point made by Maller highlighting why this issue hasn't received as much media coverage is that as political science students we are taught about sexual violence in feminism or gender studies classes rather than in terrorism and warfare classes. This means that we won’t necessarily directly associate wartime sexual violence as a key element of war and conflict, when in fact, it is. This means that policymakers will not address enough attention to these issues or investigate further because combatting sexual violence isn’t considered useful to show the Intelligence’s progress in fighting the enemy.

The most shocking part of these sexual crimes, in my eyes, is that they are carried out by men and women who have joined or are collaborating with the IS from abroad; from Western countries; from countries where progress has been made to reach universal values that bind civilisations; from countries where gender inequalities have evolved and I would like to believe it were unthinkable to treat a woman in this way. And I highly doubt that this crime against humanity reflects the enforcement of codes of modesty and behaviour from the time of Muhammad and his followers, as the Islamic State claims to be doing.