A wrenching look by The New York Times into the Islamic State’s enslavement and rape of women from the Yazidi minority group has shed light on one of the most disturbing aspects of its rule in Syria and Iraq.
The practice, according to reporter Rukmini Callimachi, was formalized a year ago, when IS announced it was bringing institutionalized slavery back. Since then an entire “infrastructure” – warehouses, buses, viewing rooms – has emerged to facilitate the trade of women and girls.
A total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted last year, and at least 3,144 are still being held, according to community leaders. To handle them, the Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by the ISIS-run Islamic courts. And the practice has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.
A growing body of internal policy memos and theological discussions has established guidelines for slavery, including a lengthy how-to manual issued by the Islamic State Research and Fatwa Department just last month. Repeatedly, the ISIS leadership has emphasized a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.
Even if captives are released or manage to escape, the trauma doesn’t end, given the stigma that is associated with rape victims in conservative societies. So far, the Yazidi community has said all the right things. Baba Sheikh, a prominent religious leader, has at least twice reassured women they will be welcomed back to the community, according to a Human Rights Watch report in April.
“These survivors remain pure Yazidis and no one may injure their Yazidi faith because they were subjected to a matter outside their control.… We therefore call on everyone to cooperate with and support these victims so that they may again live their normal lives and integrate into society,” Baba Sheikh said in February, according to HRW.
The rights group says his pronouncement has helped prevent harm to Yazidi women and girls returning after Islamic State enslavement and “encouraged their families to seek treatment for them.”
The Christian Science Monitor reported in November from northern Iraq that the stance adopted by Sheikh and other Yazidi leaders appears to have eased re-entry for those who were either bought back, escaped, or released.
“We would never allow anything to happen to them,” a Yazidi man in Zakho told the Monitor. “If anything, they are more deserving of our respect because of all they have endured for our religion.”
But pronouncements of support are only the beginning. Building up an infrastructure – health care and legislation, for example – that can provide logistical support for returning women is much harder. NPR reported in November that while the community talked openly about the horror IS inflicted on women and girls, many of them – in numbers that suggest they may have been trying to cover up what really happened – tell stories of “fighting off” captors. Public acknowledgement of pregnancy is “rare.” Al Jazeera reports that women often request hymen reconstructive surgery to disguise the fact that they were raped.
Khalida Khalid, a Yazidi adviser to the Kurdish parliament in Iraq, tells NPR that activists are carefully watching how the families treat the woman as they return. The issue has raised the possibility of a law in Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region, that would make abortion legal in cases of rape by IS.
"It's very difficult to have the babies of terrorists," Khalid says. "People can't accept that."
Nayef al-Mandekan agrees. He is a leader of a tribe that has suffered greatly: In one village, 420 members of his tribe were killed, including his four sons and his brother.
He is now displaced, living in Dohuk in a home that he has opened to survivors from his tribe, including seven young women and girls who escaped ISIS.
He speaks to us in his formal living room with the seven young women nearby. They look down and say very little but do say they were able to fight off attempts at rape by their captors.
"The women who come back are innocent. They did nothing wrong; they were raped," Mandekan says. "We will accept them."
But when it comes to pregnancy, that's something he and his tribe cannot accept, he says.