For ISIS, Rape Is a Calculated Strategy

The Islamic State sees the abuse of women as a weapon, not only a means of punishment and show of power.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Kurdish women mourn next to a gravestone after burying Kurdish fighters killed during clashes against Islamic State in the Syrian town of Kobani, in the town of Suruc, November 12, 2014.
Kurdish women mourn next to a gravestone after burying Kurdish fighters killed during clashes against Islamic State in the Syrian town of Kobani, in the town of Suruc, November 12, 2014. Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The rape and trafficking of women now has rules, according to a short explanatory pamphlet released recently by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).

According to this publication, which appears in Q&A format, a man may take a woman as a slave and have sexual intercourse with her if she has reached puberty. However, if a man is only part-owner of a woman, he must purchase her fully from his co-owners before he can have intercourse with her. If the slave becomes pregnant, she may not be sold. However, if her owner dies, she goes free.

A man may not have intercourse with his wife’s slave, because the latter is another’s property. One may sexually enjoy a slave without having full intercourse with her if she has not reached puberty. A slave should be treated as property, as long as that property is not damaged. A woman must not be separated from her child when she is bought or sold, except if her children have reached adulthood.

These rules are presented together with quotes from the words of the prophet Mohammed and verses of wisdom from Islamic luminaries. Not only is the abduction of women and selling them as sex slaves an inseparable part of the strategy of terror imposed by ISIS in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria, the butchering of women is also an accepted act.

Islamic State fighters in Syria.Credit: AP

This week, the Human Rights Ministry in the Iraqi government published information about ISIS activist Abu Ans al-Libi, who murdered 150 women in Fallujah because they rejected the principle of “jihad marriage” – where women are obligated to marry the organization’s activists. Libi was arrested about a year ago by U.S. commandos after Palestinian intelligence gave information to the CIA on his whereabouts. It is interesting that some of the tribal leaders in the Fallujah area deny the reports of the murder, saying they would not have allowed it if they knew about it.

The murder and rape of women marked the beginning of ISIS activities last June, when it took the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Later, similar reports emerged from the Al Anbar district in western Iraq and in cities in Syria taken by ISIS. Hair-raising stories of women’s horrific experiences fill the Internet daily and, from time to time, human rights groups release worrisome data about the extent of rape, noting that the price of a woman or child is no more than a few dozen dollars each.

Nevertheless, no practical plan has been devised to prevent this abuse, and any psychological assistance they receive is occasional and not systematic. Most international efforts are devoted to providing food for besieged citizens or attacks on ISIS bases. Within the cities, the trafficking in women goes on, part of ISIS’ income in the areas it controls.

In contrast to Al-Qaida, ISIS does not make do merely with trafficking women; it also drafts them. According to Egyptian researcher Abed al-Rahman al-Qaadeh, who is publishing a book about ISIS’ treatment of women, at first the organization did not call upon women to join, but then changed its policy and invited women doctors, nurses and engineers to join and help manage civilian services.

The dress-code police

ISIS also established a female police force in the Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah, whose role is to enforce modest dress on women. In exchange for their services, these women receive approximately $200 a month, and only women between the ages of 15 and 18 may join. ISIS then started building up a cadre of women volunteers from abroad through social network sites, offering potential female members “a life of morality and economic security, instead of being whores in Western countries.”

One of these women, a Saudi who goes by the name “Umm Jalibib,” is very active on Facebook, along with “Umm Lith” from Scotland, both of whom produce films and interviews with Western women who have volunteered for ISIS, in which they talk about the good life they enjoy.

The organization provides them with a house and furnishings, and they can take items from the houses that ISIS commandeers. All they have to do is marry an ISIS activist.

An ISIS activist said on a website that the import of foreign women and trafficking of local women is intended to provide sexual release for fighters, and thus prevent infighting in the ranks. However, it seems that abduction and rape also have a strategic purpose. As in other countries where minority women have suffered brutal attacks, the humiliation of women in Iraq and Syria is a means also of creating an ethnic and religious boundary between the occupied and the occupiers. Thus, rape becomes a weapon and not only a means of punishment and show of power.

ISIS is not the only organization that uses rape as a weapon. The abduction of more than 200 Nigerian girls this year by Boko Haram militants and the rape of some 200 women in the village of Thabit in Darfur by Sudanese militias in November are only the latest examples.

Doctors Without Borders note the widespread rape of Muslim women in Bosnia in the 1990s by Serbian soldiers, who made clear to their victims that they had been raped “to bear Serbian children” and thus annihilate the Muslim minority. And 20 years earlier, in 1971, some 200,000 women from Bangladesh were raped by Pakistanis to “establish a new race of Punjabis.”

ISIS’ torment of non-Muslim women apparently has another purpose: Like the beheadings and posting of executions on the Internet, it uses terror as a means of control. That is because even if the latest estimates of the number of ISIS fighters, 30,000, is correct, this is still a relatively small number compared to the population it controls.

According to a report this week, ISIS controls about a third of Syria and is expanding its hold on areas of western Iraq. The main threat against it now is not aerial bombings, which have indeed struck a blow against its oil income, but from civilian uprisings of Sunni tribes and Shi’ite militias. Hence its need for mass terror.

The rape of women has a deterrent effect whose magnitude is comparable to beheadings, because rape also threatens men and destabilizes the society of the occupied peoples. It will probably be a long time before the extent and impact of the damage to minority groups in Iraqi society from attacks on women can be assessed.

Meanwhile, Iraqi women have begun to organize in armed groups to protect themselves against ISIS. Last month, an armed women’s militia was established in Ramadi. The goal of the group, according to one of its volunteers, is to fight alongside the state security forces and the men’s militias to stop ISIS. The women’s militia sees Kurdish women fighters as role models, and hopes to establish more branches elsewhere in the country.

However, it seems that the women’s militia is already worrying male tribal members, who worry that the women may have political aspirations and will even export the idea to Syria. The opposition to such organizing may also stem from the men’s sense that their ownership and responsibility toward women in Iraqi tribal society is being threatened. Consequently, the men feel trapped in a narrow place – between the threat of ISIS against women, and concern over their status in society.

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