In the late summer of 2014, the international community watched helplessly as Islamic State (IS) unleashed widespread human-rights abuses against civilians across Syria and Iraq. Among its actions were various forms of sexual abuse, initially directed against women from the Yazidi community of Sinjar, but rapidly expanded to all women in the areas IS now controls.
These are not isolated outbreaks of bad behaviour: they are part of the sexual politics IS is deliberately implementing in all the regions under its sway. Justified by fatwas and radical theology, and deployed as recruitment tools and theocratic law, the abuses are a stark and sobering example of the use of rape and sexual violence as weapons of war.
IS’ rules on sex and women were first laid out in detail in the October 2014 issues of the group’s official journal, Dabiq, which is disseminated in electronic and hard-copy form across northern Syria and Iraq. IS also circulated an explanatory booklet, 'Questions and Answers on Female Slaves and their Freedom', in the larger cities and towns under its control, particularly Mosul and Raqqa.
First presented during Friday prayers and distributed to the faithful outside mosques, the booklet offers a first-hand insight into IS’ new gender and sex policies. It shows how IS’ leaders and propagandists have reactivated and reinterpreted a grab-bag of old legal rules and fatwas from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. The principles they espouse have an underpinning in their interpretation of the law of war (fiqh al-harb) and laws dealing with non-Muslims living in Muslim territories.
The spoils of war
Under the medieval Islamic law of war, the mainstream position of theologians was to consider captured women as spoils, mere booty to be treated as property. Ancient sources also emphasised the need to distinguish Muslim women from non-Muslim women, as well as differentiating married and unmarried women.
It was not permitted to enslave Muslim women, who were deemed free by definition. The sharia—moral code—requires their consent for sexual relations. Identifying women as Muslim was relatively simple and fast: a commander would ask a 'captured woman' to pronounce the Muslim profession of faith, then to recite at least three chapters (surât) of the Koran.
In the case of IS, which considers Shiites heretics, other tests have been added to establish whether captured women are Sunni or Shiite. A Muslim woman can be deemed a 'concubine' or even a 'slave' by IS simply because she is Shiite; only Sunni women are considered truly Muslim and therefore protected at all from sexual enslavement.
Virgins in paradise
In IS' jihadist mindset, women’s virginity offers obvious advantages to men: in some literalist interpretations, the Koran 'promises houris (virgins) for Muslim men after death, especially if the death occurs on the 'jihad path' to Allah. A 'quest for virginity' has led IS fighters to seek sex with increasingly young girls, sometimes barely at the age of adolescence.
Yazidi women in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq. EPA/STR
Meanwhile, relations with non-Muslim women in IS-controlled territories are managed by giving them a status called dhimma, which literally means protection. Since the beginning of Islam, non-Muslims have been considered dhimmis—literally 'protected residents'—but within IS’ theological system dhimmi women can be used for a man’s sexual pleasure or sold on the female slave market.
Many jihadist groups believe that the more non-Muslim women they capture, the more 'points' they earn for faster passage to paradise; indeed, they see the action of converting a non-Muslim woman to Islam as the best possible guarantee for entry into heaven. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to forced conversions, forced marriage and rape.
Do this, not that
Over the past few months, the 'theologians' of IS have attempted to clarify these practices by issuing fatwas meant to guide fighters' sexual practices in the field. Examples include the pronouncement that a 'captive woman' may be beaten to instil discipline, but that she may not be beaten “for the sake of pleasure” of her master. There are also numerous legal statements and fatwas about the 'types of unions' lawful to contract with a Muslim women and practical arrangements to 'break the union' (divorce, repudiation, abandonment).
IS has issued a number of 'theological innovations', designed to attract and recruit young fighters and supporters. One of its most effective moves was to authorise the 'distance marriage', which involves a young woman and man uniting religiously and remotely over the internet. This has attracted many candidates, male and female, originating mainly from European countries. It has also assisted IS by accelerating conversion of non-Muslim men as, according to Islamic law, it is not permissible for a Muslim woman to marry or to have sex with a non-Muslim man, while the opposite is permissible for a Muslim man.
These new rules have helped IS to attract new candidates and supporters while strictly controlling the sexuality and intimate lives of its fighters and followers. As I have found in my research, many sexually frustrated young men have joined its ranks. The organisation facilitates relations between the sexes and provides an allegedly Islamic frame within which having sex—at least in very specific, theologically-defined circumstances which favour men and enslave almost all women—is not shameful or sinful.
Meanwhile, these practices and theologies are spreading to other continents. Following the example of IS, Nigeria’s Boko Haram has also declared a caliphate, invoking the same theological justifications to subject abducted and captured women to a perverse sexual order. Despite protests around the world from Muslim religious authorities, most of whom consider these practices 'un-Islamic', IS and its ilk continue to thrive—and their abusive, mysogynistic sexual order along with them.