Horrifying reports continue to pile up about the ways in which the Islamic State is using the rape and sexual slavery of Yazidi women as a tool of war. A new report in the New York Times makes it clear that it’s also become an attractive recruiting tool, a draw for men from conservative Muslim societies where casual sex is taboo. Rape, including the rape of children, is justified by ISIS leadership as permissible because the Yazidi are polytheists.

For over a year, it’s been clearly documented that ISIS is kidnapping and selling Yazidi women—a Kurdish religious and ethnic minority group based mainly in Iraq—as “brides” to their fighters. Increasingly, though, rape and sex slavery appears to have become an actual cornerstone of their theology, with the justification that the rape of unbelievers is a holy act. New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi interviewed 21 women who escaped from ISIS captivity, all of whom had horrifying stories of being kidnapped, raped, and sometimes sold on highly formalized slave markets, often after watching their male relatives slaughtered en masse.

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The systematization of rape and sexual slavery, Callimachi reports, seems to have begun with an attack in August 2014 on a group of Yazidi villages on Mount Sinjar, in southern Iraq:

Survivors say that men and women were separated within the first hour of their capture. Adolescent boys were told to lift up their shirts, and if they had armpit hair, were directed to join their older brothers and fathers. In village after village, the men and older boys were driven or marched to nearby fields, where they were forced to lie down in the dirt and sprayed with automatic fire.

The women, girls, and children, however, were hauled off in open-bed trucks.

“The offensive on the mountain was as much a sexual conquest as it was for territorial gain,” said Matthew Barber, a University of Chicago expert on the Yazidi minority.

Since then, hundreds of women have told reporters, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International the same story: of being driven to the city of Mosul or nearby towns, held, then parceled out again over Iraq and Syria to be bought by fighters as well as local businessmen friendly with ISIS.

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The practice is justified in part because the Yazidi worship seven angels, not a monotheistic God. ISIS uses medieval interpretations of the Quran and Sunna to justify the rapes, interpretations that have been long-abandoned by any other Muslim group. The only rule seems to be that women who are pregnant can’t be raped.

Even if ISIS were defeated tomorrow, the effects on such a tiny religious group are incalculable and devastating. Those lucky enough to escape are ending up in refugee camps in Kurdistan, where there’s some counseling and medical treatment available; Yazidi religious leader Baba Sheikh has also instructed Yazidis to disregard the typical stress placed on female virginity and welcome the women and girls back without censure or shame.

But as Human Rights Watch detailed in April, there’s a need for better counseling services for survivors, physicians who understand how to get informed consent before examining rape victims, as well as educational services for girls and job training for women.

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Rothna Begum, a Human Rights Watch researcher in their Women’s Division, said at the time that, of the roughly 300 women and girls who survived capture by ISIS and had made it to the camps, “only 100 have been identified by health authorities. The other 200 or so, their families likely don’t know these services are available. People need to get the word out.”


Contact the author at anna.merlan@jezebel.com.
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Yazidi Kurds at a protest marking one year since the invasion by ISIS of Yazidi communities in Northern Iraq August 3, 2015. Image via AP.