Islamic State Employs Sexual Violence Against Women to Further Their Caliphate

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing Wednesday, July 29th, on Islamic State’s targeted violence against women and girls. The hearing featured Institute for Strategic Dialogue CEO Sasha Havlicek; Virginia Tech Assistant Professor Ariel Ahram; Director and producer of Escaping ISIS, Edward Watts; and Kathleen Kuehnast for The United States Institute of Peace.

Ms. Havlicek’s opening statement focused on the increasing numbers of women voluntarily choosing to leave their homes and families to travel and join Islamic State forces. While these women are not necessarily “foreign fighters”, given that they are prohibited to enter the battlefield, they are indeed “proving to be agents of the groups as much as the men”. These women, many traveling from western countries, are “terrific online and great for propaganda”-they speak to individuals who are unable to act overseas on the battlefield about acting where they are at home.

Havlicek later elaborated on the women making the decision to leave home “on their own volition” and join IS. Many come from western countries and have converted to Islam. The women joining IS are increasingly younger, which is more appealing to IS fighters who desire “untarnished and pure women” to become their wives.

Dr. Kuehnast discussed the role on young children in the Islamic State’s ideology. Dr. Kuehnast indicated that both young boys and girls are utilized by IS, stating that, “Boys as young as 6 are recruited as cubs in the lions’ den of the caliphate” and young women are “kidnapped, enslaved, and sold as child brides”. Because sexual violence is such a key component and tactic of the Islamic State, forced marriages and rape are not uncommon. Those born as a result of these incidents are then brought up to augment Islamic State forces.

Dr. Kuehnast also broached the issue of refugee camps that are available, particularly for the victims of Islamic State crimes. She and Mr. Watt’s discussed the severe physical and emotional trauma that these individuals endure that often alters them for the rest of their lives, and consequently why it is imperative to support the refugee camps. Mr. Watts, who in his film Escaping ISIS portrays “first hand accounts of women who escaped the brutal reign of ISIS”, spoke to the immense strength and perseverance of these young women and girls to survive and have a chance at a normal life again. However, for many female victims of the Islamic State, this may never be possible.

As Dr. Ahram highlighted in his opening statement, the sexual violence that the Islamic State employs is not only “emphasized in the war it’s conducting, but also in the kind of state it is building”. The goal of IS is to establish a global caliphate in accordance with what it calls the “prophetic methodology”. Not only would sexual violence be used to establish said caliphate, but it serves as a key component of enforcing its ideology and everyday practice.

Women and young girls, both Muslim and non-Muslim, face severe danger and violence while living under the rule of the Islamic State. As Watts said in his opening statement, “Renewed action is not only necessary, but urgent”.