Girls are being raped and buried alive by Islamic State. Why aren't we talking about it?

Islamic state rape
Kurdish Syrian refugees after crossing the Turkish-Syrian border on September 25, 2014. Many inhabitants of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani have fled to Turkey to escape advancing Islamic State militants. (Note: This article does not specifically refer to the image subject.) (Photo: Getty Images)

TRIGGER WARNING: This article deals with accounts of sexual assault and violence. It may be distressing for some trauma survivors.

Captured women and children from a religious minority in northern Iraq have been enslaved and sold among Islamic State jihadists, the ABC reports.

While reports about the group’s enslavement of women and girls have been circulating for months — as Mamamia reports below — the radical organisation has just admitted to the atrocities for the first time in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, released on Sunday.

Dabiq wrote in an article entitled The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour that by enslaving Yazidis, IS had restored an aspect of sharia law to its original meaning.


“After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the sharia amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations,” the article said.

Previously, Mamamia wrote:

You know the Islamic State is a radical, barbaric militant organisation.

You know it’s capable of beheading men just for doing their jobs, of threatening peace-loving populations with acts of terror, of driving innocent men, woman and children away from their homes.

But the group has another way of terrorising civilians: the rape and sexual enslavement of women, and of girls so young they haven’t even reached adolescence. And while international humanitarian organisations have been reporting the assault of girls in Syria and Iraq for months, chances are you haven’t heard anything more than a few scattered whispers about this horrifying phenomenon.

Amnesty International says “possibly thousands” of women and children have been abducted since the Islamic State took control of northern Iraq  in June. Teenagers and young women in particular have been raped, forced to marry fighters, or sold into sexual slavery, Amnesty reports, while some of the Yezidi and Christian women were buried alive or gang raped, according to grassroots media organisation Your Middle East.

A chilling interview published in Italian newspaper La Repubblica earlier this month also revealed that in northern Iraq, 40 women are kept captive in three barred rooms near the city of Mosul and raped by fighters up to three times a day.

Islamic state rape
A displaced Iraqi Yazidi woman wipes her eyes at the Bajid Kandala after fleeding advances by Islamic State jihadists in Iraq on August 13, 2014. Yazidis say women and even babies have been abducted by militants. (Note: This article does not specifically refer to image subject.) (Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

“(S)ome of our group are not even 13 years old. Some of them will no longer say a word,” the adolescent said in a phone call with the newspaper.

“We’ve asked our jailers to shoot us dead, to kill us, but we are too valuable for them,” she said. “They keep telling us that we are unbelievers because we are non-Muslims and that we are their property, like war booty. They say we are like goats bought at a market.”

While this appalling abuse shocks the conscience, ruins lives, and breaches a very long list of human rights, the rape of women in wartime is far from rare.

“Unfortunately the targeting of women in armed conflicts through rape and sexual assault, as is currently happening in Iraq in Syria, is not a new occurrence,” Amnesty International Spokesperson Amelia Freelander told Mamamia.


In Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s — the “rape camps” of which gained international notoriety — “20,000-50,000 women were raped during five months of conflict in 1992”, Ms Freelander said. 

“In Rwanda between 250,000 and 500,000 women, or about 20% of women, were raped during the 1994 genocide,” she added. “Mass rape is frequently used systematically, as a weapon of war.” 

In Syria and Iraq, rape is certainly being used to intimidate, control, and traumatise the population; journalist and Women Under Siege director Lauren Wolfe argued in The Atlantic that (while her article focuses on abuse by Syrian government forces) the systemic rape of women in Syria is intended to create “a nation of traumatised survivors — everyone from the direct victims of the attacks to their children”.

A report in The New York Post suggests a different motive, claiming Islamic State militants seek to “mass-produce spawn who’ll follow in their vile footsteps”, or to “intertwine themselves within the communities… so they can live on for generations.”

A Yezedi woman and her baby in northern Iraq. (Photo: Amnesty International.)
A Yezedi woman and her baby in northern Iraq. (Note: This article does not specifically refer to the image subject.) (Photo: Amnesty International.)

Another motivation might be the deliberate targeting of women as bearers of their nation’s identity or ‘honour’.

“In the context of the Middle East in general and Iraqi as well as Kurdish communities in particular… women’s bodies and sexuality embody family/collective honour,” Your Middle East reports.

For this reason, rape is often seen as an affront to an entire community and the “desire for revenge it generates can last for generations.”

So why, if this wartime rape and sexual slavery is so prevalent, haven’t we heard more about it?

Why is it the beheadings of brave, innocent men make the front pages of mainstream newspapers, while the sexual torture of brave, innocent women does not?

And why, as Julia Baird asked in a powerful post for Fairfax Media earlier this month, did both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Tony Abbott only briefly mention rape and forced marriage in their speeches about the Islamic State? As Baird asked: “If we’re going to be using dramatic terms such as ‘death cult’, shouldn’t it be deemed a ‘rape cult’ as well?”

Ms Freelander claims the focus on beheadings and killings is down to the fact that military regimes “often prioritise and emphasise masculinity”.

“(M)ilitarism – as an important root cause of sexual and gender-based violence – must be challenged and adequate safeguards put in place if women and girls – during and after war – are to be protected,” Ms Freelander said.

A displaced Iraqi woman at a camp for internally displaced persons. PHOTO/ALI AL-SAADI        (Photo: ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)
A displaced Iraqi woman at a camp for internally displaced persons. (Note: This article does not specifically refer to the image subject.) (Photo: ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)

Another reason? Sexual violence often goes unreported due to stigma; as the teenaged Yazidi victim told La Repubblica: “I beg you not to publish my name because I’m so ashamed of what they are doing to me.”

Your Middle East reports the consequences for women who report abuse can be brutal:  “They risk murder at the hands of male members of their family and the community to preserve the group’s collective honour,” it reports. “If the women fall pregnant, their babies also risk death.”

Whatever the reasons these crimes against women have remained silent for so long, one thing is clear: the international community needs to do more to recognise these atrocities and ensure Islamic State militants don’t continue to assault women with impunity.

As Baird writes, “if we are to be embroiled in any conflict, in any capacity, we need to include the documentation and combat of systemic abuse of women as one of the top priorities of our mission.”

“It is a crucial, core metric of law and order, the protection of fundamental human rights, democracy, and of civilisation,” she writes. “We can do more.”

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