American Interest

The Islamic State's Christian and Yizidi Sex Slaves

Nina Shea
Nina Shea
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Religious Freedom
Iraqi Yazidis protest outside the United Nations office in Arbil, Iraq, on August 2, 2015 in support of women from their community who were kidnapped by ISIS. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Yazidis protest outside the United Nations office in Arbil, Iraq, on August 2, 2015 in support of women from their community who were kidnapped by ISIS. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Unlike Muslims, who can conform and wait out ISIS until the day it is defeated, Christians, along with “polytheist” Yizidis, can don veils and give up cigarettes and alcohol, but, as non-Muslims, their very presence is an intolerable offense to the year-old “caliphate.” These minority religious groups in Iraq and Syria, lacking protecting armies or militias of their own, find themselves in unique peril. During his Bolivian trip this month, Pope Francis called it “genocide.”

ISIS demands nothing less than the conversion of all Christians and Yizidis to Islam under penalty of death for men and enslavement for women and children. (Another frequently cited option for Christian “People of the Book”, the payment of jizya, is a ruse, for the tax is raised until it becomes unpayable and property and lives are taken after all. Hence, last summer, Mosul’s bishops chose exile for their communities, rather than attend an ISIS meeting to learn of its jizya terms.)

The beheadings, crucifixions, and other means ISIS uses to slaughter unarmed Christian and Yizidi men—from priests and bishops to destitute migrant workers—have been proudly displayed by the ultra violent group on social media and have drawn condemnations worldwide. But the Islamic State’s “revival” of the institution of chattel slavery—sex slavery of Christian and Yizidi women and girls no less—has faded from public attention.

Over the past decade, thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians—including, in 2013, an entire convent of Syrian Orthodox nuns—have been taken captive for ransom. Last August, shortly after ISIS established its caliphate, it began something new. After capturing non-Sunni women and girls, ISIS began awarding and selling them as sex slaves. The vast majority were Yizidis but some, according to UN reports, were Christians.

On August 5, 2014, two days after ISIS invaded Sinjar, Yizidi MP Vian Dakhil made a riveting emotional speech about the genocide facing Yizidis on the floor of the Iraqi Parliament. She choked out before collapsing, “Our women are taken as slaves and sold in a slave market.” A week later, two prominent UN experts expressed grave concern about “sexual violence against women and teenage girls and boys belonging to Iraqi minorities.” Their report stated that “some 1,500 Yazidi and Christian persons may have been forced into sexual slavery,” which they condemned as “barbaric.”

Throughout the fall, lurid reports emerged of the enslaved Yizidis, up to 4,000 in all. As ISIS boasted in its propaganda magazine Dabiq: “This large-scale enslavement of polytheist families is probably the first since the abandonment of Sharia law.”

The Fatwa Department of the Islamic State made clear that the females of the “People of the Book,” including Christians, can be enslaved for sex as well, though Muslim “apostates” cannot. The number of Christian sex slaves is unknown. Three—Rana, Rita, and Christina—are publicly known. In March, 135 women and children were among those taken captive, from 35 Christian villages along Syria’s Khabour River. Their families, unable to afford the $23 million ransom demand, were told by ISIS, “They belong to us now.” The older women were released; the younger ones may be enslaved, though this has not been confirmed.

Cell phone calls from still enslaved girls last September and October disclosed the shocking details of their captivity. A young Yizidi woman in a phone call with activists from Compassion4Kurdistan pleaded: “I’ve been raped thirty times and it’s not even lunchtime. I can’t go to the toilet. Please bomb us.”

On September 7, a 17 year-old, with the pseudonym Mayat, told a journalist that she was being held with forty others females and that everyone, including a 12 year-old and other young girls, some of whom had stopped talking, were sexually abused daily. She told Italy’s La Republica:

They treat us as if we are their slaves. The men hit us and threaten us when we try to resist…. We’ve asked our jailers to shoot us dead, to kill us, but we are too valuable for them. They keep telling us that we are unbelievers because we are non-Muslims and that we are their property, like war booty. They say we are like goats bought at a market.

A 14-year-old Yizidi girl who had escaped said that she and her close friend Shayma were beaten and kicked after being given away as gifts: “Shayma was awarded to Abu Hussein, who was a cleric. I was given to an overweight, dark-bearded man about fifty years-old who seemed to have some high rank. He went by the nickname Abu Ahmed.”

In May 2015, a Yizidi girl was found enslaved by ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf and freed when the U.S. Delta Force invaded his Syrian home and killed him. Nothing further has been reported on her.

After their initial capture by jihadis, the women and girls are held in detention centers. Mosul’s Badoush prison is one “makeshift prison” for “the sexual enslavement of children,” according to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. A Yazidi teenager Du’a told former Congressman Frank Wolf, who interviewed refugees in Kurdistan last January, that she was held in Mosul with 700 other Yizidi girls. She related that the girls were separated by eye color, and members of ISIS were allowed to choose for themselves among the young women. The rest, she said, were then separated into “pretty” and “ugly” groups, with the most beautiful given away to high ranking ISIS members.

This month, an ISIS flyer was discovered on Twitter by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremists’ online postings. It announced that girls captured in battle were to be the top three prizes in Quran recitation contests held in two Syrian mosques during the month of Ramadan. Accounts that the flyers said these were Yizidi slaves were erroneous; the girls’ religion was not specified and could have included Christians. Coverage of this was limited to Internet postings.

Sex slaves are also sold. Under rules for “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour [of Judgment],” Dabiq gives a theological justification for selling women as war booty: “The enslaved Yizidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the polytheists were sold by the [Prophet’s] companions.” It also cites more recent precedents: namely, the “enslavement of Christian women and children in the Philippines and Nigeria by the Mujahidin there.”

The article argues that sex slavery benefits both the Muslim community, by enlarging it, and the slave by “making heaven accessible.” The formerly enslaved girls report being consistently pressured, including by beatings, to convert to Islam. (Rules for proper beatings are included.) If they become Muslim, they can then be sold as brides to jihadis.

On October 15, ISIS published pricing guidelines for slaves based on age. Under the heading “Merchandise,” the listing starts with “200,000 dinars for a woman aged 1-9 / Yizidi/Christian” and ends with “75,000 dinars for a woman aged 30-40 / Yizidi/Christian.”

In practice, the pricing appears to be market driven. An Australian jihadist for the Islamic State, Mohamed Elomar, tweeted that he was selling seven Yizidi sex slaves for $2,500 each and posted a photo of one. In June 2015, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that ISIS militants were selling slaves for $500 to $2,000. The UN representative Bangura said that captured women and girls are often forced to strip naked and are judged by ISIS militants who gauge how much they are to be sold for in a slave auction.

A father listened helplessly as his distraught enslaved daughter told him in a cell phone call that she was being sold for $10 that same afternoon. Du’a told Wolf she was sold for $2 after being put in the “ugly” group.

Theology aside, Bangura reported that in order for ISIS to recruit more foreign fighters to join its military ranks, the caliphate continues to capture more girls and women in each newly conquered territory and then sells them for “as little as a pack of cigarettes.” The Islamic State’s goal is to make them affordable to men of all means, especially the young jihadis on whom the caliphate depends for its military success. Bangura observes, “This is a war that is being fought on the bodies of women.”

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reports that, in the Mosul markets where ISIS sells abducted children and women, “attaching price tags to them,” it found that the buyers were local youths who were being recruited as jihadis. Amnesty International’s December report confirms that buyers are largely local Iraqi and Syrian men. The involvement of their former neighbors is a factor driving many Iraqi Christians and Yizidis to emigrate from the region.

No female is considered too young; only women over forty are let go or released for ransom. Amnesty reported that some slaves were “just babies.” Du’a said one of the girls penned up with her was seven months-old. Another 21-year-old escaped slave said that, while detained for sale, a guard took another younger captive into the bathroom and raped her; she was nine years-old. ISIS guidelines price Christian and Yizidi 9 year-olds at $172.

A toddler brings equal value. A Christian woman, whose family could not flee Qaraqosh when ISIS invaded because her husband is blind, told Wolf that they came to her house, shouting, “Convert or we will kill you.” An ISIS militant snatched from her lap Christina, her three-year-old daughter. The mother later learned during a furtive cell phone call from Rana, an enslaved Christian woman, that she had cared for Christiana while they were detained with other enslaved women until the baby was taken away.

A Dabiq article asserts that from Sinjar in Iraq “one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority.” ISIS uses the slaves in caliphate bordellos run by British women—members of the al Khanssaa Brigade, an all-women religious police. Farah Ispahani, a Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy and a former Member of Parliament in Pakistan, studies ISIS women volunteers. One of the few of these to mention the sex slavery is “Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah,” who argues that taking slaves through war is a “great prophetic Sunnah containing many divine wisdoms and religious benefits.” Dabiq identifies one such benefit: it saves men “who cannot afford marriage to a free woman [who] finds himself surrounded by temptation towards sin.” It explains that “the desertion of slavery had led to an increase in adultery/fornication because the sharia alternative to marriage is not available.”

Over 600 Yizidi girls, one by one, have been redeemed by private efforts with KRG help, according to a July 7 interview with Vian Dakhil. Two more Yizidi girls were freed from enslavement in Mosul, on July 14. Conspicuously absent in the rescue operation, Dakhil notes, was the Iraqi government.

After a spate of reporting on the Yizidis last fall, the Islamic State’s slave practice has received scant attention. The Wilson Center’s Middle East director Halleh Isfandiari observes that “Arab and Muslim governments, though loud in their condemnation of ISIS as a terrorist organization, have been silent on its treatment of women.” The reaction of the White House and Congress has been muted as well. The State Department’s 2015 Sex Trafficking report, released on July 27, devotes barely two paragraphs out of 380 pages to the Islamic State’s institutionalization of sex slavery in the past year.

Uncharacteristically, ISIS, too, seems a bit self-restrained about broadcasting this particular abomination, which may account for some of the world’s silence. ISIS issued rules last December regulating—though not banning—sexual relations with another’s slaves, with slaves who are sisters, and with pre-pubescent slave girls. It hasn’t produced any slick videos of its slave auctions or bordellos. After YouTube showed jihadis joking about trading their Glocks for sex slaves, and of a British schoolboy-turned-ISIS-militant leering about the hundreds of women slaves in Syria, ISIS ordered a stop to tweeting slave photos.

Once legal, chattel slavery has been abolished worldwide as a matter of law. To the extent that it exists in the world’s darkest corners, it does so as a criminal activity and, as such, is condemned by society at large. As the tribute vice pays to virtue, that remains true even where governments allow slavery to continue with impunity. The Islamic State’s revival of what it purports to be state-institutionalized slavery against Yizidi and Christian women needs to be vigorously condemned, both as a component of religious genocide every bit as horrifying as beheadings, and in its own right.