ZURICH – It is telling that women feature heavily in the Islamic State’s rise and fall. While ISIS’s craven massacre of Yazidi women in Iraq and Syria helped put it on the map, its gradual downfall is coming partly at the hands of Kurdish women fighting against it on the front lines.
It is easy to see a simple revenge story in this progression, but a deeper reading points to the fundamental role of women in ISIS’s ideology, and their future role in its denouement.
When ISIS captured territory in 2014 to establish its self-proclaimed caliphate, it wanted to stage a spectacle that the world would be unable to ignore. So it resorted to the mass abduction, murder, rape, and enslavement of women, especially among the minority Yazidis. ISIS’s brutality against its female captives was intended to humiliate the enemy and send a warning to anyone who did not adhere to its extremist, radical interpretation of Islam.
In January and February 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 Yazidi women and girls and 21 Sunni Muslim Arab women who managed to escape from ISIS. Most of them spent more than a year in captivity, and say they were forced to convert to Islam (if they weren’t Muslims), enslaved, systematically raped – sometimes by multiple jihadist militants – and bought and sold.