How Isis has established a bureaucracy of rape

By Nussaibah Younis
Guardian (UK)
August 16, 2015

Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains as they tried to escape from Islamic State forces.

One year on from the summit to end sexual violence in conflict, convened by Angelina Jolie and William Hague in London, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has developed a complex bureaucracy of sex slavery that makes a mockery of the summit’s goal to bring about an end to the use of rape and sexual violence in war.

The systematic use of sexual violence to terrorise, humiliate and subjugate communities during times of war has a dark history, with an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 women raped in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and 20,000 to 50,000 women raped during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

And Isis is not the only party in the Syrian civil war to use rape as a weapon – rape is endemic in detention centres run by the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad. But what makes Isis’s use of rape so horrifying is its attempt to justify, codify and institutionalise the practice using ostensibly religious justifications for this war crime.

In its online magazine, Dabiq, Isis says that, prior to its conquest of the Yazidi-dominated town of Sinjar, it tasked its “sharia students” to determine which “Islamic rulings” should apply to the Yazidi community. It concludes that Yazidi women could be enslaved under Islamic law and establishes that one-fifth of the women should be transferred to the Isis leadership and the remainder divided among the fighters who participated in the conquest of Sinjar. The article goes on to reassure its readership that: “Many well-known [Islamic legal] rulings are observed, including the prohibition of separating a mother from her young children.”

Based on its widely refuted interpretations of Islamic texts, Isis has gone about systematising rape, sexual assault and slavery by embedding the buying, selling and gifting of slaves into a system of rewards for its fighters. Of the estimated 3,500 Yazidi women held by Isis, survivors report being interrogated and in some cases stripped naked for sorting and categorising. They have been rated according to desirability, labelled and transported across Isis-held territory. They have been traded between fighters, and awarded by leadership as prizes.

Although the Jolie-Hague summit reportedly trained more than 100 military peacekeepers and 700 Kurdish Peshmerga in “sexual violence prevention and response”, much more needs to be done to deal with the psychologically and medically traumatised Yazidi victims of the sexual slavery. (Claims also emerged last week that the US hostage Kayla Mueller was repeatedly raped by Isis leader al-Baghdadi.)

Compared to the £5.2m spent on the summit itself, the Foreign Office has allocated £1m to supporting NGOs in a range of countries to tackle this issue.

Beyond healing and reintegrating these Yazidi women into their communities, the global coalition against Islis also needs to begin planning for a system of tribunals to hold perpetrators of this war crime to account after the defeat of Isis.

The Yazidi community is terrified of returning to its territories after witnessing local Sunnis participating in these crimes against them.

A robust system for determining culpability and holding aggressors to account is going to be a crucial part of restoring the Yazidi community to their homes.


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