The extremist Sunni militant group called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which recently declared a caliphate in parts of the Middle East, now controls an area of 13,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Testimonies coming out about daily life in the ISIS-controlled region depict an agenda of fear and intimidation being imposed, one that targets women with repression and violence.
Jetteke van der Schatte Olivier, who works with women’s rights organizations in conflict areas, maintains regular contact with people living in the vast region that ISIS has captured, an area that the United States, the Kurdish pesh merga military in northern Iraq and the Iraqi Shiite militias have been hammering at the last few weeks. Van der Schatte Olivier is a program officer for Women on the Frontline, an initiative of the international nonprofit organization Hivos, based in The Hague, to support women’s participation in the political process in Middle East and North African countries.
Speaking with PassBlue in August, van der Schatte Olivier, who was in Iraq in July, said that women’s safety and freedom have significantly deteriorated since ISIS took over, and that rape is being used has a weapon of war.
“There are talks of forced marriages, jihad marriages,” she said by phone from her office in the Netherlands. “Women are used to please the men who are fighting and to provide them with children. These stories have not been backed up with very clear data. But given the amount of stories and some of the personal stories we heard — it is clearly happening.”
In July, during van der Schatte Olivier’s last visit to Iraq, she was confined to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. Just a few weeks before her visit, on June 10, ISIS took over the city of Mosul, which is located 55 miles east of Erbil. Therefore, traveling anywhere in Iraq — even to the capital, Baghdad — was deemed too risky for van der Schatte Olivier.
In Erbil, she met with members of the organizations that are part of the Women on the Frontline program, who came from all across Iraq. Her goal was to research how the increasing violence is affecting their work and daily life. “One of the organizations that we work with — their office has been taken by IS [or ISIS]. All their documents have been taken,” she said about Wavin, a nongovernmental organization that lobbies for women’s rights in northern Iraq. “The staff had to flee to the mountains where the minorities were, and they had to wait to be rescued just like the others.”
Van der Schatte Olivier learned that women who have not escaped ISIS-controlled areas are being confined to their houses, not even allowed to go to the market. Reports in the last few months describe women facing “a terrible ordeal” that includes kidnapping and sexual slavery. Thousands have been murdered or are unaccounted for. Many others have been pushed into desperate and dangerous situations.
When ISIS took over Mosul, which is Iraq’s second-largest city, with 1.5 million people, the militants published a list of 16 guidelines for local people. The so-called “Contract of the City” includes directives that keep women at home except for emergency cases and orders them to wear the niqab, or head-to-toe robe, when they are out, The Washington Post reported. A wife and husband in the city were whipped by militants because the woman donned only a headscarf and not the niqab, said a report by EPIC, a youth-empowering peace group in Iraq.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, the UN agency devoted exclusively to women’s issues, expressed outrage at the deliberate targeting of women and girls in Iraq.
“We are deeply concerned by recent reports that four women have committed suicide after being raped or forced to marry IS militants as well as reports of men committing suicide after being forced to watch their wives and daughters being raped,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a press release. “UN Women strongly condemns sexual and gender-based violence, and calls on all parties to address such reports and protect the rights of Iraqi women and girls.”
The UN has also documented war crimes being committed by ISIS. The militant group’s conquests made June the deadliest month in Iraq since 2007. With the help of US airstrikes, Kurdish fighters have managed to recapture some ISIS-held areas in August, including the strategically important Mosul dam. But ISIS is far from being defeated, and as war rages, women throughout the country — and in Syria — are increasingly marginalized.
“Basically, the fact that there is war reduces the ability of women to be politically active,” van der Schatte Olivier explained. “Men tend to dominate the war arenas and women get pushed back.”
Van der Schatte Olivier pointed out that women whose husbands are killed often find themselves in dire social and economic situations. She said that in some war zones, however, women have taken on the major role of defusing violence. She mentioned several communities in Syria where women have taken on the role of reaching out to other groups to talk, making sure communication lines between various minority groups stay open.
“I don’t think that women are more morally advanced than men or anything like that, but I do think women have a very clear role in trying to smooth the biggest extremism and the biggest extremist that exist in groups,” she said. “Women can have a very strong role convincing the men to lay down their weapons.”
Such influence by women is not likely to happen in areas controlled by ISIS, according to van der Schatte Olivier, since the militant group sees women as subjects, without rights. She finds it hard to be optimistic about the region’s future. It is clear that in areas where ISIS prevails, organizations promoting empowerment of women have no future.
Nevertheless, van der Schatte Olivier is convinced that helping local activists weather the ISIS storm is critical for Iraq’s rebuilding process. “If the critical voices are shut down, any chance for a democracy is very slim because these are the people that try to bring out change and to advance human rights and liberal standards,” she said. “I think it’s very important that we make sure that we keep those voices alive.”
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Yermi Brenner reports on migration and other sociopolitical issues for Al Jazeera, Global Post, Deutsche Welle and other publications. He is based in Berlin and is a graduate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @yermibrenner.