Skip to main content

Think Reports of How ISIS Treats Women Are Too Awful to Be True? Think Again

Amid reports of unrest, the stories of the women must be told.
ISIS women children Syria Iraq Islamic extremism Yazidi rape slavery Sunni jihad

Getty Images

I have always been interested in the Middle East, specifically the Syrian conflict. In early summer 2014, as part of my master’s dissertation, I went to Lebanon to work with the United Nations. I was still there when the Islamic State group, commonly known as ISIS, struck Iraq. 

As many in the United States now know, ISIS is an extremist group. Its roots are in a small group of Jordanian jihadis who went to Taliban Afghanistan in 1999 and who were in Iraq waiting for the Americans when the invasion came in 2003. ISIS has been through numerous mutations both in structure and name, and it was nearly destroyed by the U.S. “surge” in Iraq after 2007. But since the U.S. pullout of Iraq and the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, ISIS has found a fertile environment for expansion and has set up a proto-state in areas of eastern and northern Syria and western and central Iraq. ISIS adheres to a version of Islamism that marks even other Islamists as unbelievers who can be killed. It claims to be restoring Islam to the time of its advent with the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. In ISIS’ telling, it is Islam, and all other versions are defective and impure. 

My job at the time was to assess health-care facilities for Syrian refugees. The focus of my project was whether vulnerable groups—namely women, children, and the elderly—were being given adequate care.

Alongside my formal mandate, I was able to witness the conditions and difficulties of the Syrian refugees by visiting the informal tent settlements. Lebanon will not allow camps on its territory, as it sees this as granting refugees a right of residence that will make the Syrians’ presence permanent. Many Syrians had been displaced from their homes with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Speaking to the aid workers who had spent time with refugees, I became aware that many of the women had been exposed to sexual and other forms of violence in Syria. And, unlike many others, their ordeal had not ended in exile.

Since that time, I have continued to watch the Syrian conflict from afar, working as an analyst of the war and its various developments. But I’ve always kept one eye on the women caught in the midst of a fight that is largely being prosecuted by men.

The women victimized by ISIS have faced unimaginable horror, and they need our acknowledgement and our help. This is their story—the story that I and others have witnessed firsthand.

Hell on Earth

After ISIS invaded Iraq from Syria and conquered the central and western areas of the country in the summer of 2014, it massacred the men and enslaved the women of the Yazidis, an ancient non-Islamic sect that ISIS refers to as “devil-worshippers.”

One Yazidi woman who escaped from ISIS’ captivity recalled pleading with an Islamic State fighter to cease raping a child. “He destroyed her body,” the woman said. “I said to him, ‘She’s just a little girl,’ and he answered, ‘No. She’s not a little girl. She’s a slave. . . . And having sex with her pleases God.’” In the theology of ISIS, raping a “female slave who hasn’t reached puberty" is specifically condoned. ISIS has also clearly stated that raping Christian and Jewish women captured in battle is perfectly legitimate.

In August 2014, ISIS moved into the Yazidi areas in Sinjar. When, almost immediately after, stories began circulating on social media and from other sources in ISIS-held districts of Iraq that Yazidis were being enslaved and sold at open markets with a religious license for rape, speculation prevailed. Could this really be true? Previous stories, such as ISIS subjecting every woman in Mosul to genital mutilation, had proven false; it seemed that this fantastical report would also be disproven. Even some of ISIS’ online supporters were taken aback by this. Pro-ISIS commentators argued that nothing so ridiculous as the restoration of slavery could possibly have happened; it was obviously black propaganda from their enemies.

Then came the October 2014 issue of Dabiq, ISIS’ English-language magazine. In an article entitled “The Revival of Slavery: Before The Hour” (“the hour” referring to the apocalypse), Dabiq states: “The Islamic State dealt with this group [Yazidis] . . . how mushrikeen [polytheists] should be dealt with.”

“Their women could be enslaved,” Dabiq continued. “The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the mushrikeen were sold by the Companions [of Muhammad]. . . . Many well-known rulings are observed, including the prohibition of separating a mother from her young children.”

ISIS has used the enslavement of Yazidi women to recruit more foreign fighters. Casual sex, Western-style, does not exist in the Islamic world, and even prostitution isn’t easily accessible. With the youth unemployment rates of the Muslim world, many men do not have the money for a brothel. But ISIS promises young men guaranteed access to sex and religious permission to do exactly as they wish.

Slavery in Modern Times

Sex slavery has been completely normalized in ISIS-held areas. According to an investigative report in the New York Times“the trade in Yazidi women and girls has created a persistent infrastructure, with a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them.”

Individual Yazidi slaves are held in homes. When the U.S. struck down an Islamic State commander during a raid in eastern Syria in May, they found his wife and a Yazidi slave in his home. Other slaves are kept in public brothels.

“Men would come to buy girls [at slave markets] to rape them. . . . Once they took the girls out, they would rape them and bring them back to exchange for new girls. The girls’ ages ranged from 8 to 30 years,” a Yazidi girl who managed to escape ISIS is recorded as saying in an intensely detailed report by Human Rights Watch.

ISIS’ conviction that what it is doing is permitted by God is corroborated by all those who have managed to escape. One 12-year-old Yazidi girl who escaped from ISIS described being bound and repeatedly raped by an Islamic State fighter. He prayed before and after he sexually attacked her. “He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God,” she said.

The mass rape of Yazidi women affects even those captives who were not raped. While still in captivity, Yazidi women are under constant terror that they will be raped. If they manage to get released, they then live under the suspicion by others that they have been raped, which in an honor culture can get them killed by friends and relatives. Yazidi clerics have spoken against honor killings, and this seems to have had some effect in halting the practice, but the stigma and its social consequences remain.

In ISIS’ Path, Muslim Women Don’t Fare Much Better

While disparities between men and women remain in much of the third world, nowhere has a governing authority undertaken such a systematic and flagrant attempt to abolish the very notion of women’s rights as ISIS has.

For Sunni women, ISIS still greatly restricts their rights and social mobility. Its ideal is for them to be covered with the hijab, kept behind closed doors, and sedentary, according to a leaked document from an ISIS ideologue translated by Charlie Winter, a researcher with the Quilliam Foundation. An ISIS propagandist in Libya encouraged women to immigrate to ISIS-held zones by writing: “Come to the land where no man will ever see your face.” Female emancipation, according to this outlook, means being erased from public view, assuming the role of mother and obedient wife, and supporting the men fighting a violent jihad by attending to the domestic scene.

ISIS seeks to construct an ideal society of carefully stratified, hypertraditional male–female dynamics that it believes will lead to the protection of women. No longer will women be commodities. In an ISIS dystopia, women are safe from the danger of “tempting” men into raping them.

The reality, of course, is very different.

Fear under ISIS’ rule is pervasive and causes stress and anxiety to all living there. This is especially acute for women, who risk kidnapping, rape, and murder—sometimes under a pseudo-legal process, sometimes not. For non-Muslim women, ISIS rule means persecution and no legal protection at best. For Yazidi women, it means enslavement and mass rape. For all women under ISIS rule, sexual violence is a major risk across the board.

Women have been stoned to death in ISIS-held areas. As with ISIS’ lurid murders of men that it claims are homosexual, politics and personal score–settling can cost a woman her life, as under any system of arbitrary government. There is often no legal recourse for women in such a situation. Moreover, in cases of adultery and other “crimes,” a woman’s testimony in court is worth less than a man’s. And the standard of evidence is not exactly forensic.

Another serious problem other women face is the exploitation of desperate Syrian refugees in camps and informal tent settlements. Wealthy foreigners, especially from the Gulf, essentially purchase wives. Some of them are minors and are kept, often very temporarily, in arrangements that can hardly be called consensual.

ISIS is not the only actor using sexual violence against Syrians: The Assad regime has used rape as a weapon of war on a scale that at the very least matches, but probably exceeds, what ISIS has done. Sexual torture, such as the insertion of rats into the vaginas of captives, has been reported from regime prisons. The regime was also using rape against male children, usually in front of their families, in the earliest months of a peaceful uprising.

‘ISIS Can Roll Back Decades of Advances in Women’s Rights Almost Instantaneously’

A lot of strategies for countering ISIS’ message focus on showing how aberrant it is within the world of Islam. But the fact that ISIS is practically alone in saying that the Islamic warrant for slavery should be executed in the present day is not a point against it; it revels in the fact that it is alone in its interpretation of the faith. The ISIS interpretation is one that often relies on dredging up obscure and ancient pieces of jurisprudence that Islamic practice, if not exactly Islamic theory, has abandoned.

Despite its horrifying treatment of women, some Sunni women, many of them Westerners, have joined ISIS’ media and propaganda departments and acted as recruiters. The most notorious is Sally Ann Jones, a British woman now calling herself Umm Hussain al-Britani, whose husband, Junaid Hussain, another Brit, was ISIS’ most important hacker and one of its main recruiters until he was killed in a drone strike.

Western women have also been important in al-Khansa Brigade. The exact nature of al-Khansa is unclear; it is not a formal agency of “the State” but rather “a sort of jihadist Women’s Institute, engaging in a broad range of activities,” Winter writes. At least one of these activities is running a network of informants to help ISIS neutralize threats to its rule. Women are thus not only victims but also enforcers of the ISIS doctrine.

In theory, Christians and even Jews—despite ISIS’ furious anti-Semitism—have a level of protection as Ahl al-Kitāb (“People of the Book”). ISIS says that Christian and Jewish women have the option, which the Yazidis do not, of avoiding enslavement by paying the jizya. This is the poll tax traditionally levied on non-Muslim monotheists by a Muslim government to guarantee their protection. Even so, Christian communities under ISIS rule have found themselves subject to extreme persecution and attempts at forcible conversion.

Supporters and those exempt from slavery are not the primary concern, though. For the vast majority of women—those victimized, threatened by, and cruelly demeaned by ISIS—the need for change is urgent.

For the women able to flee ISIS-held areas, the primary needs are medical services, especially treatment of injuries caused by sexual violence, testing for disease, and psychosocial support to deal with stress and trauma. Over the longer term, these women need to be reintegrated into society and will need help to regain their independence through training and employment. It is fair to say that both efforts are presently underdeveloped.

In the West, the movement for female legal equality has succeeded. Progress toward practical equality in opportunity, employment, and other matters is steady, even with remaining problems and occasional setbacks. What ISIS has shown is that this is not inevitable; those who are motivated and determined—and there is no motivation like the mandate of heaven—can roll back decades of advances in women’s rights almost instantaneously.

What can be done? Western women can offer solidarity to ISIS’ female victims by keeping their struggle in the public eye. There have been efforts to purchase the freedom of Yazidi women kept as slaves by ISIS; an organized program along these lines might prove fruitful. People can donate; the groups providing services for the refugees are chronically short of funding and any effort to shore up their financial stability would help Syria’s and Iraq’s women. Ultimately, however, the only certain way to liberate the women held captive by ISIS is to incur the downfall of its pseudo-government—and Western women can play a large part in making the case for Western action on that front.


Wondering where to donate?
International Organization for Migration is the main health-care provider and lead coordinating body for the relief effort in Lebanon. UN Human Rights Commission runs Zaatari camp in Jordan and is the main coordinator region-wide. UNHRC Women Alone specifically aids women who have been left to run their families alone. Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders are always of great assistance as well.