Religious minority women of Iraq: time to speak up

While the annihilation of religious minorities in Iraq is being systematically enacted, we cannot ignore how the intersection of religious affiliation, gender and geographic location are influencing both the nature of violence perpetrated and its outcomes. Feminists cannot remain silent on the atrocities perpetrated on minority women’s bodies in Iraq.

Mariz Tadros
15 August 2014

Vian Dakheel, the only Yazidi female MP addressed the Iraqi parliament last week while the Speaker told her to “shush” and “stick to the statement that the committee agreed on”. As thousands of members of a tiny ancient religious minority, the Yazidis, faced extermination at the hands of ISIS in Iraq, Vian pleaded : “Mr Speaker until now 500 Yazidi men have been slaughtered...Mr Speaker, our women are being taken as slaves and being sold in the slave market...Please Mr Speaker, my people are being slaughtered like all the people of Iraq have been slaughtered. The Shia’ have been slaughtered…the Sunnis, the Christians, the Turkmen and the Shabak have all been slaughtered. And today the Yazidis are being slaughtered. We want, [to step] away from all the political disputes, to have human solidarity. I speak here in the name of humanity, save us! Save us!”

Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, the Iraqi Human Rights Minister, has recently announced that at least 500 Yazidi women were taken as slaves when ISIS locked them inside a police station in Sinjar. He believes others have been transferred to the town of Tal Afar to be sold into slavery. “We are afraid they will take them outside the country”, he said.

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq has decried the abduction of women and their rape under the ISIS banner of jihad al nikah (sexual intercourse in pursuit of the struggle), and that women have been raped by the advancing troops. As ISIS has taken over cities with large religious minority populations such as Ninevah and Mosul, they have especially targeted women belonging to religious minorities, propped up by their own religious edicts. An unknown number of Yazidi women were sold into sexual slavery. In Mosul Christians were given the option of converting to Islam, paying the jizya ( a poll tax serving as protection money) or dying.  A mother and daughter were raped by ISIS because their family could not pay the jizya, the father who witnessed the assault was so traumatized he committed suicide

The argument here is not about who suffered most at the hands of ISIS, but the fact that these women are being targeted on account of their religious faith, and that the battle to annihilate their communities is gendered in ways we cannot ignore.

Feminists worldwide, including those in the Arab world, have a duty to speak up more vocally than they have done so far. By not acknowledging unambiguously how minority women are part of a process of what a UN official suspects amounts to a genocide, it is not only the Speaker of the Iraqi parliament who is silencing Vian, but all those allegedly committed to gender justice who cherry pick among women's causes.

I have received an impressive stream of petitions, requests for solidarity, and contribution to campaigns to help the women of Gaza in the midst of the humanitarian catastrophe they face - and I applaud and support all these efforts. I have yet to receive a single plea from Arab women’s rights initiatives for solidarity with the Yazidi and Christian women whose communities are facing a genocide. Very few international initiatives - such as the Association for Middle East Women's Studies and the Women's Learning Partnership - have issued strong denunciations and made urgent appeals for an end to this suffering. 

The question is what accounts for lower vigilance on the part of feminists and human rights activists when it comes to the suffering of minority women in Iraq?

For Western feminists and human rights activists, it is not long ago that US used a discourse of “rescuing women” in Afghanistan to justify war and occupation. It is a chilling reminder of the unholy alliance that emerged between some liberal Western feminists and the US administration in the name of emancipating women from totalitarian regimes, only to find new orders being put in place that are highly exclusionary and regressive when it comes to women’s rights.

This puts western feminists and human rights activists in an awkward position: how can you press for external intervention in a context where the U.S. Occupation in a country like Iraq was ultimately responsible for the reconfiguration of political power that led to the further disempowerment of women in their families, communities and national policy making structures? Washing your hands off the whole affair will not put a stop to genocide. There have been some limited international steps to send weapons and humanitarian aid.  However, a new political settlement is needed, and transnational feminist activists will need to be prepared to press for the rights of women of minority religions to be represented at the negotiating table.

The second possible reason for overlooking the predicament facing religious minorities, and the women among them, is the limited media coverage of the extent of devastation and the enactment of genocidal tactics on the ground. In view of the social stigma associated with sexual assault, it is likely that only a small proportion of the full scale of sexual violations against women (and possibly men) will be exposed, unlike other kinds of tortures or even deaths. Yet this begs the question of why feminist transnational networks, who are very well connected to international policy circles and highly influential media outlets are not doing more to link local women leaders with  international fora to address the world?

Why aren’t more platforms being offered to highly articulate women such as Vian Dakheel and former Minister Pascale Warda (an Iraqi Christian) so their voices can be amplified?

The negation of the experiences of women belonging to religious minorities is also partly due to ignorance. The term “Arab world” is sometimes used almost interchangeably with “the Muslim world”. The religious diversity in the region is negated, voices of women belonging to religious minorities sidelined.

At a time when the rhetoric on diversity among women is so popular in academic feminist circles and in policy-making, why has there been such limited research on women of the Yazidi, Sabean, Shabak and Christian communities in the region? Sadly, they are on nobody’s agenda; their voices feature neither in the research or policy work on religious minorities (which tends to focus on men), nor on the agenda of women activists - be they local or transnational (which tend to assume all women are Muslim). Once (and if) the humanitarian situation improves, it will be imperative to support women in these communities so that they can record their histories and  their narratives, on their own terms.

There is also a moral responsibility on the part of feminist researchers, activists, policy-makers to document the genocide perpetrated by ISIS in a gender sensitive manner. As people die, become displaced, and go into hiding, unless their experiences are quickly documented, the evidence of what they have been subjected to will be lost and before you know it, powerful actors will be denying that the events happened in the first place.

The variety of Islamist political movements that have systematically targeted religious minorities in the Middle East (and indeed Africa) and the manner in which both targeting and its impact are gendered, needs to be more on the radar of Arab and international feminist scholars and activists.

The political ascendency of Islamist groups – those who wish to impose a political order premised on their version of the Shariah- has meant bad news even for their co-religionists. No one, man or woman, is spared if they fail to conform to their prescriptions, and their political project. This is an important message that is critical for unifying the ranks among a population  - as Vian said in her appeal to the Iraqi parliament -  insisting that none of Iraq’s many religious denominations have been spared the wrath of ISIS. However, researchers, human rights monitors and feminists cannot afford to negate the selective and targeted manner in which the Islamists have dealt with religious minorities .

No doubt, the sectarian policies of Maliki created a highly exclusionary political situation in which all kinds of groups, including the Sunnis, became political minorities. However, the process has been differentiated both in terms of power dynamics and its outcomes.

First, the Shia and Sunna have been political contenders for state power, while non-Muslim religious minorities such as the Christians, Sabeans and Yazidis have not. Second, when subject to Shia’ assaults and militancy, the Sunnis had their own militia groups to contest, resist and oppose. In that sense, the fact that they had their own organized forces could occasionally act as a deterrent to all kinds of encroachments (on their economic and cultural resources for example), yet the Christian minority did not have its own organized militias or influential tribal structures that could prevent their lands being confiscated, their property looted or their women kidnapped.

In terms of outcome, the way in which Shariah law has been interpreted by ISIS with respect to the status of different religious minorities has meant that groups have been treated differently. As the Christians are considered “People of the Book” they fall under the contract of dhimmitude which basically designates that in Dar el Islam (people living under Islamist rule) their lives will be spared on condition that they pay the jizya (a heavy tax poll). They will not be considered full citizens and will be ineligible for conscription in the army. However, the status of the Yazidis is more dubious, they are not considered "People of the Book" and their existence is not to be tolerated in Dar el Islam (for the debates on the differentiated status of different minorities see chapter 6 of The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy Redefined or Confined? ). However, certain edicts that ISIS took - such as taking women belonging to religious minorities as war booty -  applies to both Yazidis and Christians. 

The case being made here is not one of who is a greater victim or who is worthy of more limelight, nor is the intention behind examining the predicament of women belonging to religious minorities to drive greater divisiveness and sectarianism, rather it is one of recognition.

It is time we recognize the many voices and multiple expressions of agency of women in minority religions in the Arab world, and also recognize ways in which they have been “otherized”, negated, instrumentalized -  and for Iraq, the way in which the annihilation of their communities is, in a variety of ways, being enacted on their bodies. As the situation gets significantly worse, it is not too late to engage, mobilize, build solidarities and partnerships, expose, name and shame, and hold to account.


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