The Islamic State, Sexual Slavery, and the Fallacies of International Law

By Deepa Mahadevan This past summer, the Islamic State (IS) swept through northern Iraq, beginning a methodical campaign of ethnic cleansing through means of mass killings and abductions against ethnic and religious minorities, specifically targeting members of non-Arab and non-Sunni communities, even attacking Sunni Muslims who opposed their ideals[1]. The IS has gone further to single out the Yazidi Minority – a predominantly Kurdish community who have suffered through many years of oppression and faced threats of extermination. [1] This past August, IS members abducted thousands of Yazidi men, women, and children who were fleeing the IS takeover in the northwest part of the country. Hundreds of men were killed, and if they weren’t murdered, they were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of death. [2]Younger women and girls were taken from their families and sold, given as gifts, or forced to marry IS Fighters, often subjected to sexual violence and other forms of ill-treatment, and have also faced pressure to convert to Islam.

According to testimonies of those who escaped from captivity, the majority of men they encountered while held captive (those who abused them, prospective buyers, etc.), were Iraqis and Syrians. A Resident of Tal ‘Afar, an area in which many abducted Yazidi women and girls had been held, has made claims asserting that the people of the Yazidi community are not being oppressed. He also stressed that it is the duty of an unmarried woman to be married to a Muslim man according to Islam, and that the men that they are forced to marry are in fact honorable and treat them with respect. [2]

Contrary to this man’s beliefs the women who have been abducted are stripped of their right to choose their fate. A sixteen-year-old girl was abducted from her village and was given as a “gift” to a man twice her age that raped her [2]. Some girls lied to their captors, telling them that they were married and children hoping to avoid being sold or forced to marry a man against their will. Instead, the captors threatened to bring a doctor to examine the women, and those who were virgins and had lied about their marital status would be married[2]. Some girls, fearing their fate, committed suicide to avoid being sold off to someone against their will[2]          .

The Islamic State’s Department of Research and Fatwas issued a pamphlet titled “Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves.” It describes the types of people that are suitable to be taken as slaves (Christians, Jews, and Yazidi Women). The pamphlet also contains an outlandish question and answer section, including the following:

Question: Is it allowed to have intercourse with a female captive immediately after taking possession of her?

Answer: If she is a virgin, her master can have intercourse with her immediately after taking possession. But if she is not, you must make sure she is not pregnant.

Question: Is it allowed to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty?

Answer: You may have intercourse with a female slave who hasn't reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse. However, if she is not fit for intercourse, it is enough to enjoy her without. [3]

This pamphlet not only justifies IS fighters treatment of women as sexual slaves, but also extends a green-light for the violation of bodily autonomy of young girls who have not yet hit puberty.

The response of the major world powers to this travesty has been alarmingly contradictory and undermining. President Barack Obama responded to the situation, describing it as genocide and promising aid [4]. The United States government followed through with this promise, dropping food and water to the Yazidis[4]. However, days later, the Pentagon declared that the situation was “not as bad” as they had previously assessed and so decided that the Yazidi population did not require an evacuation mission [4]. The United States continues to use air strikes to challenge the IS in northern Iraq, solely to make sure that US interests are well protected in the area [4]. It is tragic that the Yazidis, who have endured seventy-two genocides and are on the brink of a facing yet another, are first used as an excuse by the United States for intervention, but then downplayed to rationalize a supposed absence of a major humanitarian operation [5].

The international community is required to intervene in Jus Cogens cases that involve genocide and crimes against humanity, including slavery [6]. Dropping food to the Yazidi minority is inadequate to fulfill commitments to international law. While some celebrate the Responsibility to Protect doctrine as a key humanitarian aspect of international law, it seems to serve as a mechanism for major world powers to justify interventions of their own accord and is often forgotten when inconvenient for their political interests [7]. These continuous violations of international law not only contribute to the increase of violence and death around the world, but also leave a visible stain on international law’s image, ultimately preventing the implementation of the principles it stands for.

Instead of turning a blind eye to these issues created by these horribly sectarian militias, and using the precedence of humanitarian principle, the major powers should cooperate with the Iraqi government and turn their attention to protecting these victims of the Islamic State’s violence. The happenings in Northern Iraq highlight these important governmental changes that need to be implemented in order to protect the women and girls of Yazidi faith, as well as others who have fallen prey to sexual slavery. The United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations need to exert pressure on the Iraqi government and other world powers so that it places the stress needed on the Yazidi women and girls. Humanitarian aid cannot be used to justify the use of force unless intervention will clearly improve the situation for the individuals and communities that are at risk. While the long term focus of the Iraqi government should be to eliminate IS presence in the region, it should alter its strategy to encompass the short term goal of rescuing these women who are in grave danger of losing their right to life.


  1. "Escape from Hell: Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State Captivity." Amnesty International. December 22, 2014. Accessed January 2, 2015.
  2. Wood, Paul. "Islamic State: Yazidi Women Tell of Sex-slavery Trauma." BBC News. December 22, 2014. Accessed January 2, 2015.
  3. "Who Are the Yazidis and Why Is Isis Hunting Them?" The Guardian. August 11, 2014. Accessed January 2, 2015.
  4. Cooper, Helene, Mark Landler, and Alissa Rubin. "Obama Allows Limited Airstrikes on ISIS." The New York Times. August 7, 2014. Accessed January 28, 2015.
  5. "What You Did Not Know about Iraq’s Yazidi Minority." Al Arabiya Institute for Studies. Accessed January 28, 2015.
  6. Cornell University Law School. Accessed January 28, 2015.
  7. "Office of The Special Adviser on The Prevention of Genocide." UN News Center. Accessed January 28, 2015.

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