ISIS’s “Science” of Slavery: How ISIS Justifies Enslavement of Yezidi Women with Islam
By Johanna Higgs and Amal Ben Hadda
Slavery, possibly one of the worst human horrors occurring on this earth at this time. In 2014, ISIS invaded the small town of Sinjar in Northern Iraq and began to carry out what has now been described as genocide against the Yezidi people. Thousands of young women and girls were dragged off to be sold as sex slaves in markets.
Yezidi women who have returned from captivity have described a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery and forced marriage. Guidelines for slavery have been established and they have repeatedly used a narrow and selective interpretation of the Quran to justify their barbarous acts of sexual violence.
According to Amnesty International, it is estimated that there are still as many as 3 800 girls being held as slaves by ISIS.
In a small makeshift IDP camp in the centre of Erbil Bese Qawal, Hana Xwededa and Fayza Haji, three Yezidi women who fled their homes in Sinjar when the violence with ISIS began to unfold. They had spent over a year living with another small group of Yezidi’s in a few ramshackle buildings with little certainty as to what the future would hold. As they sat in their small home they quietly described the horror that forced them to flee,
‘When the first assaults started, ISIS tried to stop us from fleeing. They wanted to kill the men and take the women. They tried to capture us but we managed to escape into the mountains. They burned our home, we came here with nothing,’ said Qawal as she leaned back against the wall. All three women sat somberly in the room as small children darted in and out.
‘They wanted to take the women as slaves. Our family is safe but we know some of the girls who were captured. They are selling girls as young as 8 or 9 years old in markets.’
When asked why they believed that ISIS was targeting the Yezidis, Qawal looked at the ground and replied quietly, ‘by god I don’t know. We are poor people.’
The Yezidi’s have been persecuted by the surrounding Muslim communities for many centuries. A minority in the region the Yezidis constitute only 1.5 percent of Iraq’s estimated population of 34 million. Of Kurdish descent, the Yezidis are generally considered to be a pre Islamic sect with an oral tradition as opposed to written scripture, though there are several ideas as to where the Yezidi culture originated.
For ISIS this makes them unbelievers of the worst kind, more so than Christians and Jews who are considered to have some limited protections according to their descriptions in Quran as ‘people of the book.’
It is for this reason, that ISIS has proclaimed their right to enslave Yezidi women.
ISIS considers their rules of enslavement as a ‘science that has been almost absent in modern Islamic jurisprudence,’ or what is known as fiqh. The word figh is an Arabic term meaning ‘full understanding’ and refers to the body of Islamic law extracted from detailed Islamic sources.
In a pamphlet released by ISIS, they highlight the need to practice this ‘science’ throughout the Islamic Caliphate, which they seek to establish throughout the world.
This pamphlet, through its questions and answers, uses interpretations of the Quran, as defined by various Sunni Islamic scholars to justify their acts of slavery. These scholars, using interpretations as defined by the exegesis, use the term ‘right hand possession’ as meaning ‘female slave’.
Some of the questions and answers of the pamphlet are as follows,
Question 3: Can all unbelieving women be taken captive?
There is no dispute among the scholars that it is permissible to take such women who are characterized by original unbelief such as the women from among People of the Book ie Jews and Christians.
Question 4: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female captive?
Allah the almighty said, ‘successful are the believers who guard their chastity, except from their wives or the captives and slaves, that their right hands posses for then they are free from blame (Koran 23:5-6).
Note: the words “captives and slaves” don’t exist in the original version of Quran
Question 6: Is it permissible to sell a female captive?
It is permissible to buy, sell or give as a gift female captives and slaves for they are merely property.
The literal interpretation in Arabic of the term ‘right hand’ means any promise or commitment that must be observed and respected. So the term, ‘right hands possession’ semantically means the obligation to fulfill promises. This could be relevant to different contexts, particularly those regarding social commitments such as caring for orphans, marriage, and recently, this term was referred to in relation to surrogacy. In the Quran, both men and women are called to respect what their right hands possess.
However, when the word ‘possession’ is added, ISIS interprets this as female slave.
Through this traditional interpretation of Quran, ISIS has publically and officially sanctioned their use of slavery and rape. The ‘right hands possession,’ means for them that ‘religiously’ they can have sex with ‘unbelieving’ women, virgins and young girls, captured during war even if it is outside the institution of marriage. They consider this as a reward for their war efforts and is a motivator for soldiers to fight.
According to Human Rights Watch, ISIS policy of slavery disregards almost every universal law against slavery and rape.
For Hazna Qary, a young Yezidi woman who managed to escape ISIS’s invading forces and is now living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Erbil, life is difficult knowing what has happened to other Yezidi women. ‘We know that they are being raped everyday, that they are being given as gifts to each other,’ she says quietly.
‘I pray to god every day to get justice, they could burn our houses and take everything but they should not take our daughters,’ says Sari Ali, another Yezidi woman living within the camp.
In Lalish, the spiritual centre for the Yazidi people not far from Mosul, Luckman, a Yezidi man explained how young girls had also been victims of ISIS policy of slavery,
‘One 11 year old girl said that 20 men had sex with her in one night,’ he told us quietly.
It is believed in the Islamic tradition that the Prophet Mohammed married Aicha when she was 9 years old. There are a number of Islamic scholars who have argued that Aisha would have been at least 18 years old when she married the prophet. However, within the Islamic world there are still those who justify child marriage, including ISIS.
Question 13 of the pamphlet released by ISIS asks, is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty?
The pamphlet answers
It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse however if she is not fit for intercourse then it is enough to enjoy her with out intercourse.
The brutality of war and the crimes that all women have endured at the hands of ISIS, are shocking. As we sit here, there are women and young girls, like your mother, like your daughter, like your wife, like your sister, who are being sold, tortured and raped, just because they are women of the ‘wrong’ faith.
As a global community, it is essential that we work together to speak out. All women and girls deserve to be respected and be free from threats of violence, intimidation and slavery, regardless of their cultural or religious beliefs. We must speak out, encourage our governments to take action because if we don’t, our silence makes us complicit in the incredible suffering being perpetrated against Yezidi women, and in fact all women and girls who are victims of slavery throughout the world.
When asked what she wants for her future Hazna Qary says, ‘I would just like to be safe.’