Citing Koranic verses, Islamic State has gone on to reinstate sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria, as it continues to use rape as a recruiting tool for young militants.
Moments before raping a 12-year-old minor, one of the militants took some time to clarify that what he was going to do to her was not sinful. Since the preteen girl adhered to a different religion, the militant insisted that the Koran had not only given him the right to rape her but also encouraged and condoned the act. After offering his pitiful explanation, the militant tied up his victim’s hands and gagged her before kneeling beside the bed to pray. Once he was done praying, he proceeded to rape the child, and when the heinous act was completed, he knelt down to pray again and offer his religious devotion to Allah.
“I kept telling him it hurts — please stop,” said the girl, who managed to escape to a nearby refugee camp after 11 months of captivity. “He told me that according to Islam he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God.”
The methodical rape of girls and women from the Yazidi community has become an essential part of the radical theology that is being propagated by Islamic State since it announced that it would be reviving slavery as an institution late last year. Speaking with a few captives who managed to escape from the caliphate and corroborating their narratives with the militants official announcements, Atheist Republic was able to illustrate how the act of rape has been enshrined in the Islamic State’s core tenets.
The trade of Yazidi girls and women in regions that have been occupied by Islamic State has led to the emergence of a persistent infrastructure constituting a large network of warehouses where victims are held captive, dingy inspection rooms where they are checked and marketed from, and a dedicated fleet of buses that are used to transport them from one place to another. In 2014, a total number of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted with approximately 3,144 still being held against their wishes, explained community leaders. In order to handle them efficiently, Islamic State has established a complete bureaucracy of sex slaves who deal in contracts that have been validated by the caliphate’s Islamic courts. The condemnable practice has also emerged as a recruiting tool for Islamic State to lure militants from highly conservative Muslim societies, where dating is taboo and casual sex is forbidden. In fact, a growing body of theological discussions and internal policies has also led to the publication of guidelines for sex slavery in the region, including a detailed how-to manual that was only recently issued by Islamic State’s Research and Fatwa Department.
Islamic State’s leadership has continually emphasized on a shallow and selective interpretation of the Koran to, not only justify sexual violence, but also celebrate every assault as being spiritually beneficial; perhaps even virtuous.
“Every time that he came to rape me, he would pray,” said, a 15-year-old girl who was captured near Mount Sinjar one year ago and then sold to an Iraqi fighter in his 20s. She eventually managed to escape with the help of smugglers operating in the region, after nearly nine months of captivity. “He kept telling me this is ibadah (term from Islamic scripture meaning worship)… He said that raping me is his prayer to God. I said to him, ‘What you’re doing to me is wrong, and it will not bring you closer to God.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s allowed. It’s halal.’”
The militant organization’s formal introduction of methodical sex slavery dates back a year, to August 3, 2014; when its militia invaded a number of villages near Mount Sinjar, which was home to the Yazidis, a minority religious group that represents under 1.5 percent of Iraq’s estimated 34 million population. The invasion of these villages came only two months after the downfall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. At first, it seemed as though the capture of these villages was just another attempt by Islamic State to extend its geographical territory. However, soon it was evident that the militants’ aim to capture the Yazidis was for a different reason.
Survivors of the offensive say that men and women were separated within the first hour of their capture. Adolescent boys were asked to raise their shirts and if spotted with armpit hair, they were ordered to join their brothers and fathers. Male members of the Yazidis were marched or driven to nearby fields, where they were compelled to lie on the ground before being sprayed with automatic fire. On the other hand, female members of the group 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, who was in Dohuk near Mount Sinjar when the onslaught began last year. He went on to start a foundation that today offers psychological support to over 2,000 survivors, according to community activists.
The 15-year-old, who earlier recalled gory details of her rape, said her nine-member family was trying to escape when their car gave way on the slope and a convoy of heavily armed militants circled them.
“Right away, the fighters separated the men from the women,” she said. “I, my mother and sisters were first taken in trucks to the nearest town on Mount Sinjar. There, they separated me from my mom. The young, unmarried girls were forced to get into buses.”
She described the buses, which were white in colour with a painted stripe next to the word ‘Hajj’, implying that the militants had seized government buses previously used to transport pilgrims for their yearly pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Once the buses set out, the captives noticed that the windows had been covered with curtains, an accessory that was meant to ‘protect’ the large number of girls and women who were not clad in headscarves or burqas.
Several other survivors echoed the 15-year-old’s account of her abduction even though not all of them were abducted on the same day or from the same location. The preteen girl went on to share her experience about how she was driven for approximately six hours until the bus reached Mosul, where the Yazidi girls and women were herded into Galaxy Wedding Hall. Some others said they were taken to a palace that belonged to Saddam Hussein, the prison compound of Badoosh and the building that used to operate as the Directory of Youth in the city of Mosul. Some slaves were also herded into elementary schools and municipal buildings in the towns of Solah, Ba’aj, Tal Afar and Sinjar City. All the captives were apparently held in confinement until each of them, at some point or the other, was loaded onto a bus and taken to a variety of places across Iraq and Syria where she would eventually be sold and bought for sex.
“It was 100 percent preplanned,” said Khider Domle, a Yazidi community activist who maintains a detailed database of the victims. “I spoke by telephone to the first family who arrived at the Directory of Youth in Mosul, and the hall was already prepared for them. They had mattresses, plates and utensils, food and water for hundreds of people.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published reports carrying the exact same information with regards to the organized nature of sex trade across the caliphate. In each location, militants first carried out a census of their female captives. They walked in holding a register, asking each girl or woman to state her name, age, hometown and marital status. After approximately two months of captivity, the 15-year-old remembers being dragged out by a group of militants. Along with 24 other Yazidis, she was forced into a bus and then taken to an army base in Iraq, where she heard the word ‘sabaya’ (slave) for the first time.
“They laughed and jeered at us, saying ‘You are our sabaya.’ I didn’t know what that word meant,” she said. “A local Islamic leader told us that Taus Malik (one of seven angels to whom the Yazidis pray) is not God. Taus Malik is the devil and because you worship the devil, you belong to us. We can sell you and use you as we see fit.”
Islamic State’s sex slaves seem to hail only from the Yazidi community. To date, there has been no widespread campaign to capture women from other religious groups, said Samer Muscati, author of the report published by Human Rights Watch. Government officials, community leaders and other human rights activists echoed his assertion. Barber speculated that Islamic State might have targeted the Yazidis because they are perceived as polytheists who have no written scripture and only abide by oral traditions. In the militants’ eyes, Yazidis are definite unbelievers, worse than Christians and Jews, who happen to be defined in the Koran as ‘People of the Book’.
Months after first attacking Mount Sinjar, Islamic State announced via its online magazine that its campaign to enslave girls and women from the Yazidi community had been extensively preplanned.
“Prior to the taking of Sinjar, Shariah students in the Islamic State were tasked to research the Yazidis,” said the English-language article, headlined “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which appeared in the October issue of the magazine, Dabiq.
The article also said that Yazidis could not seek freedom by paying a tax called jizya, unlike Christians and Jews.
“After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as spoils,” the article said.
In the same way that certain passages in the Bible have been used centuries later to justify slave trade in the United States, Islamic State has cited certain passages in the Koran to justify their revival of sex slavery in the caliphate. Even though scholars of Islamic theology continue to disagree on the accurate interpretation of these controversial verses and debate over whether the religion actually promotes slavery, some say that slavery has been described in Islamic scriptures just like it has been in Christianity – a reflection of the period in antiquity during which both religions came into being.
“In the milieu in which the Quran arose, there was a widespread practice of men having sexual relationships with unfree women,” said Kecia Ali, associate professor of religion at Boston University and author of a book on slavery in early Islam. “It wasn’t a particular religious institution. It was just how people did things.”
Cole Bunzel, scholar of Islamic theology at Princeton University, disagrees with that explanation though, pointing to the numerous references of one particular phrase - “Those your right hand possesses” - in the Quran, which for eons has been interpreted as female slaves. He also cited the vast text of Islamic jurisprudence, which continues to detail how slaves should be treated.
“There is a great deal of scripture that sanctions slavery,” said Bunzel, author of a research paper published by the Brookings Institution on the ideology of the Islamic State. “You can argue that it is no longer relevant and has fallen into abeyance. ISIS would argue that these institutions need to be revived, because that is what the Prophet and his companions did.”
According to those captives who have managed to escape, the youngest and prettiest girls were bought off within the first few weeks of their capture while the older, not as attractive, married women were transported from location to location, for months on end, until some buyer or the other, with not as much money, decided to settle for them. The captors seemed to have a stringent system in place, complete with their own methodology of categorizing women as well as their own jargon. Each of the slaves was referred to as sabaya with her name following only after. Many of them were purchased by brokers, who photographed them and identified them with numbers, so as to pitch them even more easily to potential buyers.
Osman Hassan Ali, a Yazidi entrepreneur who successfully smuggled several women from Islamic State’s captivity and helped set them free, said he was able to do so by posing as a buyer. He was apparently sent dozens of images, each one featuring one girl or woman sitting on a couch in an empty room with a blank expression on her face. On the corner of each photograph was written in Arabic, Sabaya no. 1, Sabaya no. 2 and so on.
Buildings where these slaves were held captive often had a viewing room.
“When they put us in the building, they said we had arrived at the ‘Sabaya Market,’” said one 19-year-old victim. “I understood we were now in a slave market.”
When the potential buyers arrived at the marketplace, each girl was taken into the viewing room, one at a time.
“The emirs sat against the wall and called us by name. We had to sit in a chair facing them. You had to look at them, and before you went in, they took away our scarves and anything we could have used to cover ourselves,” she said. “When it was my turn, they made me stand four times. They made me turn around.”
The captives were also asked intimate questions about the exact date of their last menstrual cycle or the tentative timeframe since they last had sex. The girls and women gradually learnt that such humiliating questions were meant to determine whether they were pregnant, since Shariah Law forbids a man from having sex with his slave if she happens to be pregnant.
The revival of sex slavery by Islamic State initially shocked even the most ardent supporters of the organization. For some bizarre reason, the militants in question continued to seek approval by justifying the practice to its internal audiences. In a pamphlet published online, the caliphate’s Research and Fatwa Department listed the best practices of slavery, including an explanation for how a slave happens to be the property of a fighter who has bought her and therefore subject to being willed to another man or disposed of just like any other part of his estate, after his death.
Survivors went on to describe the complex bureaucracy surrounding their captivity, with their status of a sabaya being registered in a contract. Upon being sold to another buyer, a new contract would be drafted for the sabaya. Moreover, sabayas can also be set free, as fighters are promised a hefty reward for doing so. Though highly unlikely, this provision has emerged as one of the ways in which slaves can hope to escape captivity.
A 25-year-old woman, who recently escaped captivity, described how her Libyan master handed her a laminated document one day while explaining how he had completed his training as a suicide bomber and was planning to carry out jihad and thus wanted to set her free. Titled ‘Certificate of Emancipation’, the document was authorized by a judge of Islamic State and when the woman presented the document at a number of security checkpoints, she was able to leave Syria and return to Iraq where she eventually rejoined her family.
Islamic State recently made it clear in a 34-page manual, which was issued by Research and Fatwa Department, that sex with Christian and Jewish women captured in battle is permissible. The only prohibition in the caliphate’s sex slave industry concerns a pregnant woman, as the manual advises a master to wait for his captive to have her period to ‘make sure that there is nothing in her womb’ before having sex with her.
Of all the girls and women who have managed to escape Islamic State’s captivity, the only ones that have not been raped are those who were already pregnant at the time of their capture or those who were already past their menopause.
Photo Credits: Khaama Press