By Dana Raphael.
Isis was perhaps the most revered goddess in Ancient Egyptian theology as a guardian of women. Now, ISIS is attacking women in the Middle East. Oh, the irony. ISIS, more accurately known as ISIL, is a terrorist group bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and the Levante, and their recent surge of violence is horrifying. News outlets provide constant updates of ISIL atrocities, including the beheadings of two American journalists. And yet, reports of ISIL’s brutal treatment of women have been virtually nonexistent.
Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, most simply outlines the plight of women under ISIL control: “To the men of ISIL, women are an inferior species, to be enjoyed for sex and be discarded, or to be sold off as slaves.”
Reports of ISIL fighters leaving behind raped naked women bound to trees, selling women in mass slave auctions, initiating forced marriages (many involving children), and practicing genital mutilation are slowly beginning to surface. These actions are generally excluded from mainstream coverage of ISIL terror attacks. When articles do cover ISIL atrocities against women in mainstream news media, they are rarely taken seriously. Ms. Esfandiari’s article, recently published in The Wall Street Journal, concludes with the wonderfully comforting phrase, “The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.”
Ms. Esfandiari is perhaps the only scholar to address the ISIL threat in terms of women, which presents undeniable problems for survivors of ISIL’s sexual violence. Islamic fundamentalists see unmarried, non-virgin women as “soiled goods,” even in the case of rape by ISIL fighters. These women, as Ms. Esfandiari expounds, often become targets of honor killings in their families and communities. Ms. Esfandiari charges that the Iraqi and Syrian governments, as well as Western countries, have done nothing to protect these discarded women, perhaps due to lack of international outrage and media coverage.
While Ms. Esfandiari does a stellar job of bringing ISIL’s abhorrent treatment of women to light, she fails to ask some important questions. Why is the media choosing to ignore half of the population? Why are reports of ISIL violence against women lost in reports of beheadings?
The answer is startlingly simple: we have normalized violence against women. ISIL is simply another extension of gender violence. The world human trafficking industry grosses about $32 billion a year in the trade of over 21 million women. One in three women worldwide have been sexually assaulted and/or faced relationship violence. One in three women will marry before the age of 18. One in nine will marry before the age of 15. So the plight of thousands of women ISIL leaves behind in its wake of destruction is the same plight that millions of women already face.
As consumers in the digital age where knowledge is a click away, we are no longer shocked or fazed when confronted with stories of violence against women. Though many expressed initial outrage over the Boko Haram kidnappings, or the Malala Yousafzai shooting, 200 Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing and Pakistani extremists still threaten education-seeking women. Reports of violence against women in the news are short-lived and quickly forgotten. Mass executions and beheadings are shinier topics, and easier to use as a means of invoking collective rage and hatred of ISIL.
Here is why you should care about ISIL’s treatment of women:
ISIL needs women to build their caliphate.
Though ISIL treats women with utter disregard, ISIL fighters need women as a means of growing their desired caliphate. ISIL militants force captured women into marriage partly to reproduce and grow their terrorist organization. In this sense, women represent capital we should seek to prevent ISIL from utilizing.
Women will play a critical part in rebuilding stability in Syria and Iraq.
Some reports estimate it will take Syria more than 30 years to rebuild its economy to pre-civil war levels. In the coming decades, women will play a crucial part in rebuilding Iraqi and Syrian communities plagued by ISIL, shaping future political, social, and economic systems.
We have a unique opportunity to advance women’s rights in the region.
When al-Qaeda denounces an organization as too extreme, you know you have a problem. Virtually the entire spectrum of Muslims in the Middle East, from fundamentalists to youths and their #BurnISISFlagChallange, have condemned ISIL’s actions. One of the major factors in honor killings – the community murder of a woman for sexual activity, even in cases of rape – is victim blaming: that somehow the woman encouraged the man’s advances. With such polarization, hatred, and exposure to ISIL’s treatment of women, however, more people would likely reevaluate treatment of female survivors, hopefully sparking government reform that would provide women more legal protections.
As succinctly delineated by Chile’s President, Michelle Bachelet, “One of the factors a country’s economy depends on is human capital. If you don’t provide women with adequate access to healthcare, education and employment, you lose at least half of your potential. So, gender equality and women’s empowerment bring huge economic benefits.” The more economic development, the more opportunities for American economic ventures.
Once the guardian of women in Ancient Egypt, ISIS has now become a killer of women. There is however, hope. According to myth, Set, the Ancient Egyptian god of disorder and violence, murdered Isis’s husband, Osiris, in his quest for power. Isis gathered Osiris’s body and resurrected him. Together they conceived their son Horus, who defeated Set and took back the Egyptian throne, thus returning Egypt to order. The power of women and its incarnation in Isis eventually brought order back to Ancient Egypt. In the current conflict, force and violence will not be enough to stop ISIL. Real order will not be established without the involvement of women.