Published in Athens Views (print – no longer in circulation) on 12 September 2014
Although the Islamic State’s (IS) call for a female genital mutilation fatwa has probably been a hoax, with the organisation denying such claims, more and more reports are reaching the media about violence against women used in the crisis in Iraq. A UN report published in July noted that “ISIL and associated armed groups have also continued to… perpetrate targeted assassinations (community, political, and religious leaders, government employees, education professionals, health workers, etc.), sexual assault, rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls, forced recruitment of children, kidnappings, executions, robberies.” IS has been vastly criticised for its brutality which includes beheadings of journalists and foreign soldiers but not much attention has been given to their use of rape and sexual violence against women. According to the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq women are being kidnapped and sold as sexual slaves to IS at “affordable” prices for their foreign fighters.
Those targeted the most are Yazidi, Christian, Shiite Shebek, and Turkomen women. In June 13 cases of women who were raped by IS militants were documented, yet this number might vary as documenting rape is not an easy task. In a joint statement, two UN officials said that some 1500 Yazidis and Christians have been forced into sexual slavery. Most women do not report their rapes because they are afraid and ashamed; in some cases they may even face consequences from their families.
But why is rape used in conflict? Women Under Siege, a project focused on documenting violence against women in conflict situations identifies four reasons: to humiliate, for ethnic cleansing, to terrorise, and to gain information. Although this project is focused on the reasons soldiers rape, the same can be said for terrorist organisations. Violence against women has been used as a mechanism of subordination. In many cases it is orchestrated to intimidate a community so that they can advance to a specific location like they did in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan; to boost their fighters’ morale by forcing women to perform jihad al-nikah (sexual jihad).
As of August, 1265 people have been killed and 1198 injured. Additionally over 1.7 million people have been displaced. The numbers of women who have been raped are yet to be found and will most probably be estimates. William Hague, the UK’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict hosted a discussion on women’s participation in conflict negotiations welcomed NATO’s commitment to women, peace, and security agendas.
NATO has recently stepped up the issue of gender-based violence with the establishment of a permanent position of NATO Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security. Annick TR Wibben, a feminist security studies scholar, said that when it comes to sexualised violence, there is a continuum of violence, before, during and after wartime; this should become very clear to those who have stepped up to manage the crisis in Iraq.
Gender-based sexual violence hits the Iraqi community in its foundations and unless this is not moved to the top of NATO’s International coalition plans to tackle the IS, we will become witnesses of yet another western failure in the Middle East.