The fall of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, in June marks the rapid territorial expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Iraq has been hurled into a new civil war where women's bodies are one of the battlefields. Yet as a proto-Caliphate descends on Mosul, the violence and repression faced by women are simply a continuation of the attacks against women that have been politically, judicially and socially legitimated in a country breaking along sectarian lines. With ISIS making moves to advance on Baghdad, fear is percolating of the yet-untold violence and repression, in which women will be pawned in this battle for Iraq.
ISIS remains in control in northern and western Iraq; it has managed to hold its turf in these areas due, in large part, to forcing submission of the local population through total and absolute fear. In Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital, the main square has been turned into a space for public executions for those who fail to comply to ISIS' edicts. Within days of Mosul's fall, ISIS released its charter of the city (wathiqat al-madina), which prescribed strict observance of sharia law. Under the harsh realities of ISIS rule, and epitomized in its edicts, women are being pitched as the central embodiment of purity: Women are forced to wear the full-body niqab, cannot walk alone without a male guardian and are banned from working outside the home. Paradoxically, a fatwa was delivered proclaiming a "sexual jihad," legitimized as God's will, forcing girls to be married to militants, to assist apparently sexually frustrated militants so that they can concentrate on the push for Islam in Iraq.
As men receive the sweeping call to arms against ISIS, most notably by Shiite supreme leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, women are increasingly becoming heads of household and more visible in meeting the needs of their family and community. Their emergence has also provided a convenient target for sexual exploitation and violence. Women's rights organizations reported thirteen cases of rape by ISIS militants between June 9 and June 12, of which four resulted in the suicide of the woman. The feared alternative is to marry their rapist so as to escape the threat of honor killings. These deaths are emblematic of what many Iraqi women are facing: lack of comprehensive psychological care for rape victims and survivors of war; poverty; fear and isolation. Shia and especially Christian women have been specifically targeted to drive their families out of ISIS-controlled territory. ISIS is attempting to purge Iraq of Christian connections, in which churches and women are symbolic targets.
Surveying events in Syria, Erika Feller, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is sounding the alarm that sexual violence is being utilized "as a weapon of war." This clearly extends to Iraq with ISIS' increasing operational tactic of inducing widespread fear through rape and kidnapping.
Through the work of counterextremist groups, there is hope. Out of the horrific accounts of sexual violence, women's rights groups in Syria and Iraq have mobilized their advocacy efforts to amplify the voice of previously hidden women onto the international stage. To fill the protection gap, the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq has been working to provide an emergency response to the extreme violence faced by women. Crucial has been community-based intervention by opening up shelters in ISIS-controlled territory, which has helped provide refuge, emergency care and counseling to women who have survived rape, threats of sexual attacks and sex trafficking. Navigating around the social stigma of rape has enabled women to access care and record their testimonies.
As it stands, women are left to defend themselves, pitched between gun-wielding extremists and a government that has politicized their bodies, driving forward sectarian violence. The militarized context of Iraq and Syria, with no viable political solution on the horizon, has enabled a spiraling of torture and rape committed on both fronts of the conflict. With an estimated 20,000 women and girls at risk of sexual violence in northern and western Iraq (according to the UN Population Fund), women have little recourse to safety and security. Containing ISIS will rely on its largely unpopular base amongst Syrians and Iraqi Sunnis who would prefer not to be governed by fanatical extremists and who see sexual violence on the scale perpetrated by ISIS as the zenith of such popular abhorrence. With Iraq witnessing some of the worst sectarian violence caused by ISIS, its own modus operandi may yet be its downfall.
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