If you are looking for a good reason to reject the title of this article, you will find plenty. Why religious minority women? All women in Iraq have suffered, in particular since the American invasion, irrespective of whether they belong to a religious minority or not. Why label them “religious minority women”? They may not identify themselves as such, and such categorization creates harmful silos that victimize people anyway. Why should we single them out for solidarity? There are many between-the-lines basis for discomfort in focusing our attention on Iraq’s “religious minority women”: the media’s focus on women who belong to religious minorities in Iraq only serves to accentuate a reductionist singling out of ISIS as the big evil as opposed to examining the complex set of actors and forces at play. Finally, while the plight of religious minority women in Iraq is quite dreadful, there are other women who are also suffering globally, but may perhaps not be receiving the kind of media attention that is given to this current geostrategic hotspot. And the very final finally, what if the reports of atrocities suffered by religious minority women are exaggerated/inaccurate/biased/made up?
Some unpacking is needed here. That Iraqi women have suffered some of the worst atrocities and violations of their basic rights in particular since the US invasion and the assumption of power of a highly authoritarian and sectarian regime has now been well documented in particular through the pioneering work of Nadje Al Ali. It is also possible that if you collect the narratives of women who belong to religious and ethnic minorities such as the Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, Shia Turkmen, many would feel uncomfortable with being called “minority” and they would argue they have lived there for at least two millennia, and for the Yazidis, their ancient heritage goes back to 4000BC. They would also not necessarily identify themselves by their gender identity, other identifiers may take precedence in relation to the context and the moment.
However, national Iraqi women’s organizations, international human rights organizations as well as UN sources are all coming back with the same evidence: women members of religious minorities’ suffering has reached proportions greater than that of the general female population on account of their systematic targeting. It is distinct from the assault on Iraqi women on account of the politics of the intersection of gender with religious identity. According to a recently published report by Minority Rights Group and a number of rights-based organizations, drawing on local accounts, there are more than 5,000 Yezidi women who have been abducted, raped and sold as slaves. The forced conversion of many Christian, Yazidi and other non-Sunni women and their forced marriage to ISIS fighters as well as the thriving slave trade in these women is beyond counting. ISIS has justified these act on ideological grounds: the right to take women who are not of the Muslim Sunni faith as war booty. The corroboration of evidence from widely different sources, both indigenous as well as external suggests that these are not mere fabrications or exaggerations.
The political economy of sexual violence is sustained through a web of actors driven not only by ideology. The sex trafficking of these women is not confined to a closed ISIS club in Iraq: sex slave markets have been set up beyond the Iraqi borders and “catering” to non-Isis clients as well, as an economic enterprise. The report notes that “recently, the US-led airstrikes on ISIS’s oil network has significantly diminished a vital source of funding, reportedly causing the group to intensify its trade in women as an alternative source of income”. Many of these women have also been trafficked and sold as sex slaves in the Arabian peninsula, making prospects of their re-capture extremely slim, states the report.
We may choose to see the sexual enslavement of women belonging to religious minorities, whether sold as slaves, detained for ISIS fighters’ sexual exploitation, or in forced marriages as part of a broader spectrum of gender based violence. True, it is. But it also needs to be seen as targeted genocide. The Minority Rights Group report argues that the evidence does point to a pre-meditated intent to cleanse communities on account of their religious identity. In this sense, the sexual violence is part and parcel of this political project: “Summary executions, forced conversion, rape, sexual enslavement, the destruction of places of worship, the abduction of children, the looting of property and other severe human rights abuses and crimes under international law have been committed repeatedly by ISIS. While minorities have long been vulnerable to attacks by extremists, this violence appears to be part of a systematic strategy to remove these communities permanently from areas where they have lived for centuries”
The visibility of religious minority women of the Arab world in transnational policy spaces leaves much to be desired. A march is organized in London in solidarity but so much more is needed. Transnational solidarity work needs to stem from partnerships with local and regional actors, so they speak with, rather than on behalf of, local organized activisms. However, against a backdrop of almost complete silence on the part of organized regional feminist actors on the genocide in Iraq, perhaps sidestepping the regional and engaging with organizations working with Iraqi women is needed. Transnational solidarity is needed on several levels. First, the need to recognize their particular hardships on account of the intersection of their religious and gender identities while also recognizing their full agency in resistance and endurance and that of their communities. Second, the need for international transnational feminist activists to press to not only have the perpetrators accountable but the accomplices and bystanders too. According to the report by Minority rights group and others, accounts of abductees who managed to escape for instance makes reference to a Saudi prince collecting the money from the sale of the women slaves. The accomplices who organize the slave markets, those who smuggle them, those who purchase the women and the bystanders must all be held to account. Analysts also point to US American foreign policy: after all who enabled the arming of these groups in the first place? There are also countries like neighbouring Turkey who have refused to take in Christian refugees who have escaped ISIS from Iraq and Syria. A prominent Syrian bishop has accused Turkey of allowing all to pass through its borders (including stolen oil from Syria) except Christian refugees.
Yes, all Iraqi women have suffered, and many others around the world are suffering too, but the women belonging to religious minorities in Iraq are facing an existential threat of massive proportions, and a transnational feminist response of equal proportions is needed. It starts with reaching out to organizations on the ground in Iraq and surrounding countries where they have been displaced, so as amplify their voices in the international media, support their mobilizational efforts for recognition internationally and build international alliances to hold all those who should be held to account, the perpetrators, the accomplices and the bystanders.