This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the conflict
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL / ISIS carried out a genocide against the Yazidis in the region of Sinjar, in Iraq, from 2014 onward. As a monotheist community that believes in a benevolent peacock angel, the community was targeted by the ISIS as followers of what they perceived as a malevolent creature they equated to the devil. However, the persecution of the Yazidis goes back to as early on as in the Ottoman Era. Under the Ottoman era, in 1640, Yazidis were killed, their houses and villages were set on fire, and several thousands of them that were displaced were also murdered. They were forced to choose between forced mass conscription or death under Sultan Abdulhamid II’s regime, as part of his campaign to Islamize the OttomanEmpire. In 2007, the Yazidi community was targeted with co-ordinated bombings, whose perpetrators have not been identified yet.
On August 3, 2014, the ISIS attacked and took over Sinjar, a Kurdish-controlled town predominantly inhabited by Yazidis. A series of summary executions, mass killings, and sexual violence targeted the Yazidi community (Zoonen and Wirya, 2007). According to the UN, a around 5,000 Yazidis were killed (GFBV, 2020), and 4,200 to 10,800 were kidnapped or held captive. As of 2015, the ISIS’ actions had resulted in approximately 500,000 refugees (Tachibana & Cobiella 2015). The mass violence caused a massive displacement of the Yazidi population into Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria (Zoonen and Wirya, 2007). This structural violence manifested in the form of sexual slavery, rape, and other forms of sexual violence against Yazidi women (El-Masri 2018).
Prevalence of sexual violence
Crimes targeting Yazidi women people under the ISIS regime are grounded in a long history of structural violence (Zoonen and Wirya, 2017).
Since their first attack, the ISIS continued to abduct women and girls from the regions they began to occupy, and sent these women by the hundreds at a time to other parts. Hundreds of these women were taken as slaves into different parts of northern Iraq. Once abducted, these women were sold into slave markets. ISIS also had gynaecologists to examine the women to see if they were virgins, or were pregnant. Those who were found pregnant were forced to undergo abortions (Shubert & Naik, 2015). The women were then placed on the market - forced to bear price tags and displayed as sex slaves. They were auctioned and sold, while some were enslaved to ISIS fighters.
A list carrying the names and prices of several women was also released online (Defend International, 2015). The women were sold on encrypted smartphone apps via Telegram and Facebook, and to some extent, even via WhatsApp (Hinnant et al., 2016). Several women and girls were killed or even jumped to their death to avoid a life under the ISIS’ control (Ahmed, 2014). Once sold, the women were raped and subjected to sexual violence regularly – either at the hands of the one who bought them, or they were sold or passed on to other men (Brekke, 2014).
In addition, hundreds of women and girls aged between 16 and 24 years from all over the world were radicalized into joining the ISIS’ ranks. Many of these girls abandoned their families and homes, and countries, even, just to join the ISIS (Sherwood et al., 2014). These young women were also subject to rape and sexual violence, and were held hostage.
Strategic use of sexual violence
The ISIS grounded its campaign of sexual violence in a religious justification, arguing that the Yazidi were idol worshippers, and relied on what they interpreted as the shariah practice of the spoils of war (Reuters, 2014). It claimed that particular Hadith and Qur’anic verses supported their right to enslave and rape captive non-Muslim women and girls. For these extremist interpretations, the ISIS has been strongly criticized by Muslim scholars, especially as they chose to read provisions in isolation to their advantage (Kumar 2014). Sexual violence was clearly used as part of a campaign of genocide and ethnic erasure as the aim was to ensure that the women would be forced to bear the children of those who raped them. The forced abortions they were made to undergo also reflect a systemic campaign of genocide and ethnic erasure. Sexual violence was also used as a means to intimidate and terrorize women from a community that was structurally and culturally targeted in the history of the region. It was also systemically used to humiliate and dehumanize women, such as by putting them up for sale as sex slaves in auctions, and even selling them just to make money.
Cetorelli, V., Sasson, I., Shabila, N., & Burnham, G. (2017). Mortality and kidnapping estimates for the Yazidi population in the area of Mount Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014: A retrospective household survey. PLoS medicine, 14(5), e1002297.
GFBV (2020). “4 years ago: the genocide against the Yazidis in northern Iraq.” August 3, 2014. https://www.gfbv.de/en/news/4-years-ago-the-genocide-against-the-yazidis-in-northern-iraq-august-3-2014-9323/
Kumar, A. (2014). "ISIS Claims Islam Justifies Making 'Infidel' Women Sex Slaves." https://www.christianpost.com/news/isis-claims-islam-justifies-making-infidel-women-sex-slaves-128004
Reuters (2014). "Islamic State Seeks to Justify Enslaving Yazidi Women and Girls in Iraq." https://www.newsweek.com/islamic-state-seeks-justify-enslaving-yazidi-women-and-girls-iraq-277100
Sherwood, H., Laville, S., Knight, B., French, M., and Gambino, L. (2014). "Schoolgirl jihadis: the female Islamists leaving home to join Isis fighters." https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/29/schoolgirl-jihadis-female-islamists-leaving-home-join-isis-iraq-syria
Brekke, Kira. (2014). "ISIS is attacking women and nobody is talking about it." https://www.huffpost.com/entry/isis-attacks-on-women_n_5775106?cps=gravity
Ahmed, Hevidar (2014). "The Yezidi Exodus, Girls Raped by ISIS Jump to their Death on Mount Shingal." https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/140820142
Hinnant, L., Alleruzzo, M., & Szlanko, B. (5 July 2016). "Islamic State tightens grip on captives held as sex slaves." https:/www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/islamic-state-tightens-grip-on-captives-held-as-sex-slaves/2016/07/05/a30c0942-42df-11e6-a76d-3550dba926ac_story.html
Defend International (2015). "UN OFFICIAL VERIFIED IS “PRICE LIST” FOR ENSLAVED FEMALES" https://defendinternational.org/is-price-list-for-yazidi-and-christian-females-verified-by-un-official/
Shubert, A., and Naik, B. (2015). "ISIS 'forced pregnant Yazidi women to have abortions'." https://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/06/middleeast/pregnant-yazidis-forced-abortions-isis/
Tachibana, Y., & Cobiella, K. (2015). "ISIS Terror: One Yazidi's Battle to Chronicle the Death of a People." https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-uncovered/isis-terror-one-yazidis-battle-chronicle-death-people-n461566