For more than a year, human rights groups and journalists have provided horrific accounts of the rape and sexual enslavement of women and girls by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organization, which has made sexual violence a central part of its “theology”. Now, we’re learning that the group has actually codified their use of sexual slavery into law with the issuance of a new fatwa–a legally binding interpretation of Islamic law–that gives explicit guidance to militants on how and when they should rape female captives.
The disturbing 15-point declaration, which was unearthed by the U.S. military in May and released by Reuters this week, highlights just how thoroughly rape and sexual slavery are normalized, justified, and woven into the operations and belief system of ISIS. In the fatwa, the group’s leaders claim that it is necessary to set out the rules because “one of the inevitable consequences of the jihad of establishment is that women and children of infidels will become captives of Muslims”.
“Consequently, it is necessary to clarify some rules pertaining to captured prisoners to avoid any violations in dealing with them,” the decree states, going on to outline exactly how ISIS militants should sexually violate their female slaves.
According to the United Nations, ISIS has abducted thousands of women and girls as young as 12 years old, selling them as sex slaves or giving them to militants as “rewards”. Many of those enslaved by the terrorists are part of Iraq’s Yazidi community, a Kurdish religious minority group that predates both Christianity and Islam. Nearly 5,300 Yazidi women and girls were abducted by ISIS in 2014 and the majority are still being held captive, according to an August 2015 New York Times investigation.
“To handle them,” the Times reported, “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.”
The extremist group uses theology to justify its brutal acts, claiming that the Quran “condones and encourages” raping women if they are not true believers of Islam, and celebrating rape as “spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.” In an interview with the Times, a 12-year-old escapee–now living with her family in an Iraqi refugee camp–described how an ISIS fighter would pray before and after raping her and explain that the Quran gave him the right to do so. (In reality, the Quran does not actually permit any of these things; as one prominent scholar of Islamic law told CNN, ISIS’ interpretation that sexual slavery is permissible is “an affront to right-thinking Muslims everywhere and a criminal perversion of Islamic law, particularly its primary source, the Glorious Quran.”)
The new fatwa takes this twisted ideology a step further, providing a codified justification for rape and enslavement that carries the force of law in ISIS-controlled territories. In the document, ISIS leaders refer to the group’s systematic practice of rape as “intercourse” or euphemistically as “sexual relations,” never acknowledging that it is forced. The victims of the practice, referred to as captives and infidels, are described by the ISIS leaders as “one of the graces which Allah has bestowed” upon the terrorist group.
Among other things, the ruling states that sexual intercourse (rape) is prohibited during a woman’s menstrual cycle and during pregnancy. The horrifying decree also provides guidelines on how to “properly deal with” pre-pubescent captives, dictating that ISIS militants may rape a young girl once “she has had her [first] menstrual cycle and becomes clean”.
The fatwa also stipulates a whole raft of rules on how family members should avoid having sex with the same women and how fighters should avoid having sex with women from the same family: “The owner of two sisters is not allowed to have intercourse with both of them; rather he may only have intercourse with just one,” one part of the document gives as an example.
It goes on to outline the rules of ownership of the captured women, stating: “If two or more individuals are involved in purchasing a female captive, none of them are permitted to have intercourse with her because she is part of a joint ownership”.
After laying out the group’s systematized philosophy of rape, the fatwa reminds ISIS militants to “show compassion” towards their slaves.
While the deliberateness of ISIS’s system of sexual slavery is unusually horrendous, unfortunately they are not the only militant group in the world today systematically using rape in warfare. It’s not even the only one in Syria: The rape of female prisoners is said to be a rampant problem in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons. Widespread, systemic rape has also been a brutal part of modern conflicts in Africa, Europe, Latin America, and Asia and has been carried out by state and nonstate actors of every nationality and ideology.
And the practice shows no signs of going away anytime soon: according to a 2015 U.N. report, the use of rape in warfare is becoming increasingly routine. The report identified 19 conflict-ridden countries where sexual violence including rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and forced pregnancy occurs, mainly against women and girls but also against boys and men.
The U.N. emphasized that sexual violence is not “only” a consequence or side effect of war and displacement, but a deliberate tool of war used to destabilize and threaten a part of the civilian population, often a particular group. Women and girls are singled out because the harm and humiliation inflicted on them not only hurts them but also deeply harms and humiliates their families and often the entire community. Unfortunately, too often when even the war might have finished, rape hasn’t.
Even after escaping captivity, women and girls face continuing trauma from their experiences, and largely lack the psychosocial support required. According to a recent Amnesty International report, many of the girls held by ISIS as sexual slaves have been driven to suicide as a result of the horrors they faced in captivity.
In addition to the devastating social and psychological consequences, research has shown an unequivocal link between sexual violence in conflict and HIV/AIDS — in one study, 67 percent of rape survivors in Rwanda were subsequently found to be HIV positive. With a lack of medical resources and limited access to health care for many in war torn nations, this proves to be a slow death sentence. Many women who are raped during conflict become pregnant, leading to a rise in unsafe abortions, many of which are fatal. For the women or girls who continue with the pregnancy, their children face abuse, neglect, stigmatization or worse.
Yet, as Foreign Policy pointed out last year, most politicians and military leaders in the U.S. refuse to explicitly address the issue, instead focusing on “harder” security issues like bombings and beheadings, and viewing the weaponization of rape as secondary. But, as Foreign Policy put it, “Sexual violence by terrorist organizations shouldn’t be seen as a ‘women’s issue’ just because most victims are women.”