By Farah Bogani, STAND Canada Blog Writer
Gender has played a central strategic role throughout ISIS’ genocidal campaign against the Yazidi people. However, news coverage has often neglected this wider aspect of the destruction of the Yazidi population. If international legal and humanitarian responses are to deal effectively with the ongoing genocide, it is vital to examine the nature of ISIS’ crimes through a gendered context.
The perception of men and boys as leaders and fighters of a community makes them targets for execution in a genocidal campaign. By eradicating the male population, ISIS not only slows/stops reproduction of the Yazidi community but also removes a source of threat and opposition. After attacking the Yazidi people in the Sinjar region in northern Iraq in 2014, men and boys were forced to convert to Islam or be executed. Young boys forcibly converted to Islam provided potential for indoctrination; by separating them from their families, giving them new names, training them in the use of weapons and combat, and desensitizing them to violence, Yazidi boys are not only stripped of their Yazidi identity but become a new source of ISIS recruits that can be controlled through fear.
Yazidi women and girls are treated as ‘the spoils of war’, property of ISIS. This is most obvious in instances of sexual enslavement. Females over the age of nine are sold at markets to ISIS members while those deemed too old to have any useful value are executed. In captivity as sabaya (‘slave’), they are made to serve ISIS fighters both around the home (cooking, cleaning), and as sexual slaves enduring brutal daily rapes and sometimes gang rapes. Some try to resist by escaping however, if caught they risk being severely beaten or killed. The UN Human Rights Commission report released in June 2016 reveals that women were forced to take birth control to prevent pregnancy from rape and enable their captors to continue raping them. Those who did become pregnant either gave birth in captivity, or were forced to get an abortion.
This adds another dimension of violence and shame as the Yazidi faith forbids relations and births outside the community. While some women have returned home to acceptance, others have faced shame, stigmatization, and rejection of their non-Yazidi children (under Iraqi law children must follow their father’s religion, meaning children resulting from rape by ISIS fighters are considered Muslim rather than Yazidi). This ostracism of women further fractures the Yazidi community. The importance of fostering understanding in the community of the gendered nature of this persecution is crucial to better supporting returning victims.
Some women and girls use desperate measures to try to resist or escape. Self-mutilation, self-immolation, and faking disability are tactics used to try and make themselves undesirable. Suicide is also common. Sexual violence not only destroys the individual both physically and psychologically, but also damages the identity and cohesion of a group. ISIS sees the Yazidi people as ‘heretics’, believing they have been given a divine right to rape perceived non-believers as a way of bringing themselves closer to God.
Following a gendered logic, ISIS fighters assert their dominance over women and ‘emasculate’ the men who have failed to protect their communities and the perceived ‘integrity’ of the women. This destroys the sense of community and culture that binds the Yazidis together. For the international community to take action, and it must, it is vital they take into account the highly-gendered nature of the genocidal campaign against the Yazidi people.
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