Sexual violence against the Yezidis is part of IS’s genocide campaign

Yezidi refugees. EPA/TSIRONIS

Among the many atrocities Islamic State (IS) has committed, their violence against the Yezidis, a small religious minority in Iraq and Syria, can be classed as genocide. They have subjected the Yezidis to killing, serious bodily or mental harm, and the infliction of conditions calculated to bring about their physical destruction.

Our research examined the evidence for genocide, which included reports of the horrific acts of gender violence carried out against the Yezidis. In its online propaganda magazine Dabiq, IS detailed its “religious justification” for a policy of rape, sexual violence and slavery. IS specifically singled out Yezidi females for persecution and differentiated them from other religions. Whereas Muslims, Christians and Jews are considered to be “people of the book”, the Yezidis are considered pagans and labelled as “devil worshippers”.

A United Nations report found evidence of “widespread and systematic enslavement, including selling of women, rape, and sexual slavery, forced transfer of women and children and inhuman and degrading treatment”. IS are known to have attacked villages and then divided the inhabitants by gender, executing any males aged 14 and above.

The report by the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict goes on: “The women and mothers are separated; girls are stripped naked, tested for virginity and examined for breast size and prettiness. The youngest, and those considered the prettiest virgins fetch higher prices and are sent to Raqqa, the IS stronghold.”

Sheikhs get first choice, then emirs, then fighters. They often take three or four girls each and keep them for a month or so, until they grow tired of a girl, when she goes back to market. At slave auctions, buyers haggle fiercely, driving down prices by disparaging girls as flat chested or unattractive.

Many of the women and girls were regarded as chattels, imprisoned in houses and held in sexual slavery. Human Rights Watch documented a system of organised rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery and forced marriage by IS forces. As with enslavement, there was evidence that religious “justifications” had been accepted and followed by IS members to dehumanize Yezidi victims and rape them.

In one case before he raped a 12-year-old girl, an Islamic State fighter explained to her that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the girl practised a religion other than Islam, he insisted, the Qur'an not only gave him the right to rape her – it condoned and encouraged it. He bound her hands and gagged her, then prostrated himself in prayer before and after the rape.

Another victim, a 15-year-old girl who was captured on Mount Sinjar and sold to an Iraqi fighter in his 20s said:

Every time that he came to rape me, he would pray. He kept telling me this is ibadah [worship]. He said that raping me is his prayer to God.

It also appears that many of the women and girls held in captivity were repeatedly transferred to different locations in IS-controlled territory – some to as many as ten different locations in a four-month period. This regular movement was apparently aimed at reinforcing IS control over the victims by instilling feelings of fear, insecurity and disorientation.

Protesting in northern Iraq. EPA/JALIL

The Yezidis were particularly vulnerable to such treatment because of the strong value they place on their home environment. According to a Yezidi scholar: “For the Yezidis in particular, whose whole way of life is integrated into their religion, past and present events are closely linked to each other and to their environment.

"Locations are not only associated with past events, but also imbued with strong religious meanings.”

While these acts primarily constitute bodily or mental harm, they could also be described as deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of the group. The United Nations has previously declared that these conditions of life include rape.

Crimes against communities

International law expert Cherif Bassiouni notes that under Islamic law, women who have had sexual relations outside of marriage – including ones that are forced upon them – are not “marriageable”. Enslavement, rape and sexual violence should be viewed not only as crimes against the individual. They should also be viewed as intended to desecrate the ways that members of communities – male and female – are bound together. There is no end to the nightmare.

Although the Yezidi community have tried to reintegrate women victims who have escaped, the stigma attached to such women is far reaching. Relatives of abducted Yezidi women and girls interviewed by Amnesty International expressed deep concerns not just about the suffering inflicted on their captured relatives, but also about the negative social consequences of the abductions for the future of these women and girls.

Some said that it would be difficult to find suitable husbands for those who had been abducted, even if they had not been victims of sexual violence, because it was assumed that all those abducted had been raped.

These crimes have the potential to permanently destroy a population’s capacity to rebuild itself as a stable and active group. Familial relationships break down and the victims of these crimes become ostracised, and are unable to marry or have children.

It is something that the perpetrators of genocide have known for centuries. A group can be destroyed – if you also destroy their ability to reproduce.